Single Path

Some would argue that linearity has no place in digital narrative, that it is an inappropriate use of the medium. In the early days of Web and Mosaic, around 1993, I received a number of e-mail messages to that effect concerning some short stories that I had made available on my Web site. Very few fictional works were available online at the time, but of what was available a significant proportion were devoted to experimenting with multi and omni-directional pathing. A popular use of the new technology was to put new and out-of-copyright novels onto the Web such as Travels with Samantha [Gre93] and The Marvelous Land of Oz [Bau04], hyperlinking the separate chapters, and including illustrations. Yet, these remain essentially sequential works.

In the case of Philip Greenspun, author of Travels with Samantha, he has been unable to garner a paper publisher interested in publishing this work regardless of the significant awards it has won online. His work also includes a large number of full colour photographs, so self-publishing would be prohibitive in cost. Therefore, the Internet is the most appropriate medium for the publication of his and many others' work.

Librarians are finding it vital that more single path works be digitised such as encyclopedias, dictionaries and collected works in order to have more physical archival space due to the overwhelming amounts of written work that are now being produced. This same volume of written work puts a strain on our forest resources, therefore it is important that ephemeral media such as newspapers and magazines cease having a wasteful paper existence and appear increasingly online.

Digital linearity may seem at first no different than linearity as it is found in a book or movie. However, a single path does not preclude a digital work from being multi-media. Text can be blended with images, moving images, and sound in ways that are not possible in any other delivery system. A distinction also needs to be made between linearity meaning a chronological order of events, or something that merely has a strict sequential order. I am speaking of the sequential order. And in order to circumvent any confusion with the current use of the term linearity, I choose to use the term "pathing" to indicate a sort of physical direction.

I have also discovered that at the current state of computer equipment, an audience often finds reading a lengthy document in one piece is a difficult chore. Breaking a document into linked pieces that are only three screens deep, at most, works much better. First of all, the audience is less likely to lose their place moving through a page; second, they do not need to focus on the screen for a lengthy period of time and strain their eyes. However, once creators start thinking in terms of this three screen size, the storytelling rhythm changes, encouraging the telling of the sorts of stories that best suit that rhythm. This screen by screen approach bears some similarity to the page by page design of a comic book, and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics [McC93] contains information equally useful for developing computer based stories.

So, single path storytelling, as it is expressed through the computer, can be a unique experience in its own right.