“I don’t know how” : Constraints and Affordances of Ergodic Literature

In the Introduction to Ergodic Literature, Aarseth defines Ergodic literature as literature requiring nontrivial effort. The type of nontrivial effort he refers to is the nontrivial effort of the physical sense rather than of the mental sense. Ergodic literature requires readers to do more than simply turn a page. Readers must actively type commands into a terminal or even physically rearrange chunks of story plots as we saw in the novel in a box. The very term evolves from the Greek words ergon which means work and hodos which means path. This implies that this type of literature necessitates that readers work to follow the story line, the path if you will, of the literature.

Aarseth argues that in ergodic literature, the reader is not merely a reader, but a player. And the narrative is not simply a text but instead also a game. The reader of a regular novel is simply a spectator, powerless to influence the impending plot in any way. They are safe from the final outcome of the story. The reader of the cybertext however, is a character in the story. They are absorbed into the story and can get lost, die or succeed. Essentially, players do the steering of the narrative. They directly influence the plot, making decisions that send the plot down winding roads. Aarseth compares this choosing directions to travel in when trying to escape a labyrinth. Each decision made sends the reader into a unique version of the plot.

In text-based adventure games such as the Colossal Cave Adventure, both the affordances and constraints of cybertext are explored. Starting the game, the options for plot development are vast and branch out in many different directions. As the player makes choices however, the possibilities of an alternate ending continually diminish until the player finally gets to the end. In the Colossal Cave Adventure, I found that being able to influence my own story was exciting and engaging. I initially wanted to choose the most daring options. Once I read that there was a stream, I decided to follow it. Then when I got to another part of the stream, I wanted to cross it so I typed “swim”. Unfortunately, this command was not recognized by the program and it replied “I don’t know how”. I consider this to be a constraint of this type of literature, which I understand is a realistic constraint. The program of the narrative must have some limitations because of its finite capacity. But when the program doesn’t understand certain phrases like “step on rock”, the reader may get frustrated, as I did when I wanted to try to cross the river at the shallow part by walking on the river bed. Another constraint I found was that the plot of the story is limited to the imagination of the player. If the player can’t figure out what to do next and gives up, the story abruptly ends without closure.

Regardless, ‘Choose Your Own Adventure” games are unique as they offer an engaging alternatives to traditional narrative reading. It allows readers to experience the story more than once as they replay the game to find alternate endings and recover missed details. While some people re-read books, they read to experience the same story while readers of cybertext read to experience new plots of the same familiar story.

-Tiffany Ramcharan


One thought on ““I don’t know how” : Constraints and Affordances of Ergodic Literature

  1. You might also think of Montfort’s discussion of IF as “potential” narrative, particularly to your point of wanting as the reader to do things that the system won’t allow you to do.


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