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Time Travel via electronic literature at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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Literary hypertext is experiencing a renaissance. As part of a year-long series on this renaissance, I would like to offer several posts about recent works in the form. Part of the renaissance comes from time travel. Note: This post builds on the ideas introduced in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan’s new collection Second Person.

Time travel is a favorite topic for science fiction lovers and lovable losers, the Marty McFly in all of us. (see this U Michigan course on time travel lit.) The topic seems particularly popular in time-based and time-fixed media such as film (see this film list, for example. However, time travel becomes more than just a plotline of regret in the world of hypertext because through this narrative device moving from time period to time period becomes a metaphor for moving from page to page on the web. Or perhaps, another way to say it, drawing from N. Katherine Hayles’ terminology, the internet becomes a material metaphor for time travel.

Perhaps these literary hypertexts have their closest forerunners in the CYOA Cave of Time by Edward Packard and other tales. Remember, this was the first of the Choose Your Own Adventures. (Time travel would reappear in this genre many times.) [Note: New CYOA’s are currently available for download on iPod for free only until January 25! Perhaps inspired by pick-your-own-podventure?.] As in CYOA, if readers follow the path of a time-traveler, then their narrative leaps can easily be chronological leaps. Orientation to new settings is part of the narrative structure, so the author has a built in means for offering exposition to new moments in the story. As authors have worked to reconceptualize literary hypertext, a few have chosen time travel as a plot that transforms the hyperlink into a narrative device of chronological movement.


12 Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel (see for PC and MAC) by Mark C. Marino
12 Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel is a distance-learning course (distance chronologically and spatially) for those who wish to improve their time travel in any direction. This hypertext fiction offers several learning tools including the 12 lessons, a helpbot, and a case study, the tale of the hapless Barry Munz. When reading his tale, hyperlinks become gateways to the next temporal and spatial location, which helps provide a narratological suture between the disparate scenes.

Unlike CYOA, the piece does not employ second person narration in the tale of Barry Munz and instead relies on identification and the fact that the reader is still choosing, in essence, where Barry goes. However, the frame of the story, the 12 simple and affordable lessons, address the reader at the place of the online course.

Extreme Conditions (Condiciones Extremas) by Juan B. Gutierrez
Extreme Conditions, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is a time travel hypertext written using the adaptive hypertext system Literatronic. This vision of an ecological dystopia allows users to pursue the path of the author.

If 12 Easy Lessons offers a time-space through which the reader can navigate, Extreme Conditions presents a trip through time, whereby the reader is shaping the flow of narrative time by the choices he or she makes. In other words, unlike CYOA and 12 Easy Lessons, which always offer the reader the ability to move back and forth across time periods, the reader will eventually use up their time in Extreme Conditions, since the system keeps track of the scenes already presented and will not present them again unless the reader resets the system via “Map.”

As in 12 Easy Lessons, the narrative form of time travel is a means of offering a kind of coherence that is very different from link as association, common to so many traditional hypertext. If one part of the hypertext renaissance is about readablity, both of these works contribute with a sense of the reader as temporal navigator, something the reader has no doubt been since the beginning.
Interactive Fiction:

Of course, time travel suits many forms of electronic narrative. Baf’s Guide offers a section of interactive fictions in the “time travel” subgenre of Science Fiction. A selected list of award winners and highly-rated IF time travel fictions include:

  • All Roads, Jon Ingold (Xyzzy 2001, rec.arts.int-fiction competition 2001)
  • All Things Devours, half sick of shadows (Xyzzy 2004)
  • First Things First, J. Robinson Wheeler (Xyzzy 2001)
  • Jigsaw, Graham Nelson (5 stars, 1995)
  • Lost New York, Neil de Mause (Xyzzy 1996)
  • Moments out of Time, L. Ross Raszwski (rec.arts.int-fiction competition 2001)
  • The Mulldoon Legacy, Jon Ingold (Xyzzy 1999)
  • Once and Future, G. Kevin Wilson (Xyzzy 1998)
  • shrapnel, Adam Cadre (Xyzzy 2000)
  • Tapestry, Daniel Ravipinto (Xyzzy 1996)
  • Time: All Things Come, Andy Philips (Xyzzy 1996)
  • Vicious Cycles, Simon Mark (Xyzzy 2001)
  • Winchester’s Nightmare, Nick Montfort (Xyzzy 1999)

One of the particularly notable time travel IF’s on this list of notables is All Things Devours. Before winning his Xyzzy award, half sick of shadows made the following comments on the complexities of writing time travel narratives for IF:

The model of time travel is indeed in the flavour of real quantum mechanics, but the details are of course fictitious. I really did want a consistent model of time travel that worked as interactive fiction. In particular, it wouldn’t do to be able to influence your past self as it would be hard to get a response in line with what you (the player) would have done. This is much more of a problem for interactive fiction than linear fiction. My model does preserve consistency of experience (which is good!) but doesn’t prevent all paradoxes (which is bad). In particular, inanimate objects could cause paradoxes without causing inconsistent experiences. It is not trivial to find examples, but a timed explosive device sent back in time (without any person going with it) is a good starting place. A full response to time-travel would have to deal with such cases, but they cannot be set up within All Things Devours. Perhaps a future game might address this. I don’t think it is too hard to deal with elegantly.

This meditation helps fill out our spectrum of time travel media (and here I do not propose a former taxonomy, but some short hand to illustrate):

traditional cinema: unidirectional, sequential, fixed content
hypertext: multidirectional, multisequential, fixed content
IF: multidirectional, multisequential, causal, changing content

That last distinction proves the most relevant point here.  If game-state in interactive fiction changes what the player encounters and if their actions have consequences, the relationship between IF and time-travel narratives has a different dynamic than that of print, film, or even hypertext. The task becomes differently complex, but perhaps this is why the theme is so appealing to the riddlers and puzzlers of IF.

Film and textual narrative have deleloped a kind of static time-travel puzzle that involves crafting a sequence of episodes whose meaning and implication plays off the surrounding scenes in ways that are constrained.  As a result, the butterflies can be pinned in place, so that the author does not have to deal with the tide of effects of any of choice on behalf of the actor or interactor.  One might say that the print, film, and hypertext narratives constitute a category of time-travel narratives that does not necessarily suit IF.

What hypertext offers the print-film time travel narrative is the opportunity to keep the tightly-woven static narrative while allowing movement throughout it offering a narrative experience that allows the reader to “travel” through it, while contemplating its moments.

half sick of shadows continues in comments after the competition, relating some of the feedback on the piece…

In particular, there was a review of it by Ian Merrick which featured the following:

I don’t think something along the lines of Back to the Future
> would be possible in IF, though, where certain scenes are
> viewed several times without distortion, and where the plot
> depends on every tiny event meshing together perfectly.
> How on earth could you do all that and give the player
> reasonable freedom of action?

Thus, the appeal of cinematic time travel stories, which rely on the interplay of scenes and times strung together, is very different than one time-travel IF has to offer. However, hypertextual time-travel stories may be much more in concert, while still offering some choice, since to a greater extent than movies, the reader may not encounter the same content, hence leading to a change in plot< .

Whether through identification with a time-traveler in a novel or a film, flipping through time in a CYOA, moving through time via links, or navigating time in an IF, the trope seems to engage a fantasy of movement while unlocking a variety of narrative possibilities within media that no doubt reflect upon the movement of time throughout all narratives within those media.

Writer’s Respond Thus: What other hypertext time-travel stories exist?




2 Responses to “Time Travel via electronic literature”

  1. 1 Payday Loans

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    I thought this article was very interesting. I have seen a lot of time travel movies and read time travel books, and i LOVE them. I have read some books where the author didn’t seem quite sure how to make the time travel phenomenon come about. The author struggled with the how and when and seemed to just slip the word “time travel” in and just leave it at that. The best books have been those that actually explain how it was done and how it was possible. I like getting even more information on how time travel COULD work (in the fictional world of course…if that makes sense).

  1. 1 Mindsigh » Blog Archive » Time travel and hypertext

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