Gimcrack'd - Cold Dead Fish

Gimcrack’d is an innovative hypertext writing anthology website whose authors make use of TiddlyWiki - a personal wiki editing environment that works like stretchtext, dynamically revealing and hiding reshuffled chunks of text as you read. The site, subtitled “an exhibition of narrative and machinery,” hosts a small collection of experimental hypertexts ranging from tales of a dot-com hospitalization to ghostly encounters with the fish from a sushi dinner. WRT interviewed project developer and author Chris Klimas.

WRT: You describe the contents of Gimcrack’d as “stories that react to your touch.” What inspired this experiment?

Chris Klimas: The immediate inspiration for it was TiddlyWiki itself. I think I ran across it six months ago or so, and I had one of those I-didn’t-think-you-could-do-that kind of moments. It had been a long time since I’d had one. But I also thought: hmm, there are some really interesting things I could try with this — I don’t really know what they are yet, but probably the only way to find out is to try.

In general, though, a lot of the thinking that went into what I wrote for Gimcrack’d has been floating around in my head for a long time. I’ve always wondered about how you can mix interactivity and storytelling together and get something that works — I have this feeling that if you could do it right, you could create something really amazing.

WRT: Despite the “wiki” name, TiddlyWikis are published as read-only hypertexts. What features of TiddlyWikis do you find most interesting?

CK: What TiddlyWiki really succeeds at is providing a WYSIWYG kind of way to create hypertext documents. You can walk around inside a story as you build it instead of typing out code and thinking about how to arrange files. That kind of quick feedback is really valuable — you can get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

WRT: Before “Gimcrack’d” you had a history writing interactive fiction - in fact, your “Blue Chairs” won the 2004 Xyzzy for Best Game. How would you compare the two forms?

CK: Interactive fiction is really obsessed with simulating a world — you can walk around places, pick things up, and fool around with buttons. Obviously there’s an amount of authorial fudging you can do, so you don’t have to model every little boring detail. You have to make sure a kitchen has a dishwasher, but you don’t have to let people open it up, add dishes, and turn it on. Nevertheless, there’s still a lot of difficulty in overlaying a meaningful storyline on top of this simulation. And some kinds of interactions — social ones, especially, where there’s a lot of nuance involved — are hard to handle. Asking someone about their dead father is pretty straightforward, but what about comforting them over their loss?

So hypertext lets you glide over all these sorts of details in favor of a smoother narrative experience. At the same time, there isn’t the same feeling of immersion, at least immediately. The world model of interactive fiction gives you a sense of being-there right from the beginning. With hypertext, readers are just readers — it’s a larger task to involve them with what’s going on. But then that’s the kind of problem that writers have been tackling for a long time.

WRT: Your “Cold Dead Fish” is an unusual hypertext fiction in several ways. It is narrated in the first person, but it contains some plot-branching like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. In fact, it contains exclusive plot-branching - once you make certain choices, you cannot view any of the other outcomes without restarting the story. This isn’t something that TiddlyWiki comes with as a built-in feature. What prompted you to develop it?

CK: I started off wanting to write a branching story, and the rest sort of flowed from there. It was the most complicated of the initial batch of stories we put up on Gimcrack’d — it had the most scripting, and it took the most thought to keep straight as I wrote. It was probably the wrong way to go about it from a writing point of view — to think of form first and not content. But at that point I was still thinking in terms of how I could take things one step further in terms of interactivity.

Still — I feel there are a lot of ways that the narrative meshes with the way it’s structured. I wanted the branching parts to feel strange. You’re making choices for someone who clearly isn’t an extension of yourself, which is the way most choose-your-own-adventures are set up. The story’s also told in the past tense, which I wanted to make things feel as though you’re selecting what had to have happened, instead of what could have, much less what you want. And the permanence of these choices plays into it, too. If you look at the source view of the story, you don’t have to play by the rules. You can trace through all the choices and decide which you like best. But that, too, is a choice.

WRT: Your story “Syncope” also contains a branching dream - tunnels of text lead into a scripted “waking up.” Did one experiment inform the other?

CK: A little bit. “Syncope” was a tentative step forward both in terms of interactivity as well as storytelling — the dream sequence was a simple trick, but hopefully an effective one. I wanted to replicate the experience of having a vivid dream and then being startled awake. That weird moment where you’re not sure what’s real and anything may happen next.

But once you get past that dream, it’s more or less a straightforward narrative. So it was a safer move than “Cold Dead Fish” was. And Caleb had a really interesting take on the dream concept with his story. There’s no waking up — and yet it all coheres.

WRT: There’s an emphasis on dreams and altered states of consciousness in many of these stories - not to mention your past works of interactive fiction like “Blue Chairs” and “Mercy.” This might surprise readers whose first choice on Gimcrack’d is between “stories that are true,” such as “Syncope,” and “stories that aren’t, such as “Cold Dead Fish.”

CK: I think I’m fascinated by in-between things — maybe because I am one myself. I majored in English in college and minored in computer science. When told people about this, they didn’t really get it. And a lot of the time, I didn’t either. All I knew is that both these things really interested me. I’ve been trying to find a way to put these two things together for a long time.

Dreams are the same way. They’re sort of equal parts fantasy and reality — or maybe you could describe it as fiction and nonfiction. I still haven’t decided which of those I’m better at writing, or even which I enjoy more. So that’s where the delineation on the home page came from, though it’s a little tongue-in-cheek.

WRT: Another interesting delineation you make in both “Syncope” and “Ode to Pants” is the use of a printer’s end mark.

CK: I think it’s really easy to get lost in hypertexts, especially wikis which tend to have a very fast-and-loose structure. With traditional texts it’s obvious when you’re halfway through or almost done — but with hypertext, even figuring out whether you’re done or not is hard. Interactive fiction at least lets you write *** You have died *** or *** You have won ***.

Of course, there are advantages in not having a definite ending, or at least letting the reader decide where the end comes. The problem I see is that finding an ending simply by exhausting all the text you could possibly read is deflating — there’s a point at which there’s nothing left to read but you probably click around aimlessly for a while, just to be sure. I look at the QED symbols as a way to say to the reader: “You can keep going if you’d like, but this is a stopping-point if you need one.”

WRT: That’s probably a good stopping point for this interview as well. But since you sometimes add links that go beyond the stopping point, here is one additional question: Your story “Syncope” reminds us that the title “Gimcrack’d” is a syncope - the shortening of a word by omission of a sound, letter, or syllable. But what does “gimcrack’d” mean?

CK: Depending on how you define it, a gimcrack is either a gaudy trinket or a useless invention — visitors are invited to choose whichever of
these meanings they think is most appropriate.

Gimcrack’d features works by of Chris Klimas, Caleb Wilson, and Sean Woznicki, with the support of editor Jill Coste. The site is accepting submissions of stories that you haven’t written yet, but will.

2 Responses to “Gimcrack'd: an interview with writer Chris Klimas”

  1. 1 WRT: Writer Response Theory » Blog Archive » WRT interview with Chris Crawford
  2. 2 We Revise Together: Blogging on Writer Response Theory at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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