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Hypermedia gets a joystick and goes gun crazy

Alex Hutchinson interacts with the text/art world in online video games

Alex Hutchinson lives in Brunswick, Melbourne. He has written for (among others) Siglo, Overland, VoiceWorks, 100 Years of AFL(1996), The Teams (1998).

And then Princess Di is barrelling towards me, head down, Uzi cocked, the veil of her coronation dress streaming back from her face like a dirty grey curtain. There is death in her pixilated eyes. And I know: She’s gonna wax my republican ass. So I panic. I’m not afraid to admit it. I slap the keyboard, switching from a pistol to something with a little more visceral kick: something involving missiles. I punch the space bar. The launcher exhales. But Di is too close, and even as she detonates (tiara spitting jewellery and giblets in equal amounts) my modem disconnects. I’m dead. (Again). I’ve been soundly thrashed by some 10 year old kid from Arizona. (Again). My only satisfaction lies in the thought that at least I took the ‘People’s Princess’ with me.

It’s about 5 a.m. I’ve been online for almost 3 hours, alternately trudging through the occasionally (read: hardly ever) interesting Australian arm of Ultima Underworld online and slaughtering foreigners with portable artillery in Quake 2. To most people, no part of those last 3 hours had anything to do with hypermedia, the arts, or (worse) self-expression. To me, electronic entertainment is as valid as any other art. To a trained psychologist, thundering about a 3D maze dressed up as a deceased member of the royal family has a lot to say about that 10 year old kid from Arizona.

The idea that hypermedia is limited to extensions of the (more) traditional arts is to limit an already excruciatingly misunderstood idea. Hypermedia as an ‘interactive’ medium which offers the reader/user pathways as opposed to linear narrative should be more than a series of static pages connected like a Choose Your Own Adventure novella. Add pictures and we still haven’t gone very far. Even a Quicktime movie and a soundtrack are nothing but bells and whistles on what is essentially still a piece of ‘straight’ fiction with pretensions.

Hypermedia should give the user a new way of interacting, not merely a new way of reading.

Note: This is not a complicated way of redefining the question so that I can shoehorn video games into a discussion of hypermedia. I can do that easily enough under current definitions. Here goes: Online capabilities in video games are fast becoming standard on the PC, even beginning to bleed over into the lower-end game systems. Sega’s upcoming 128 bit console, the Dreamcast, will have in-built online capabilities allowing users to network and play anywhere in the world.

An important thing to remember is that video games were born on, and exist only on, computers. Unlike pure text, they are the rightful heirs of the digital age, not its bastard children. The ‘links’ between text fragments become the doorways between rooms rendered in 3D. The text ceases to describe or refer to the image, and begins interacting with it, fleshing it out, giving it greater depth. Your average game player becomes blind to the fact that s/he is making choices between fragments, and their reinterpretation of the game becomes fluid. S/he ceases to be an external force acting on the text and becomes another facet of it.

Moreover, unlike hypertext, more than one user can be involved in the same piece at one time. The user passes other users. Their experience is altered by the experiences of others, the ‘text’ moves in more than one direction at one time. The screen updates—unlike new ‘scenes’ created by following links—are invisible, and choices are made on the fly.

To an extent, video games become more hyper than hypertext. As well as offering users the chance to interact with a text/art ‘world’, they allow them to redefine themselves and re-experience it. That kid from Arizona may go for a mock-up of Prince Charles next time. He not only chooses how to interact with the text, but who interacts with the text.

Note 2: Most new first-person shooters (Unreal, Syn, Dark Forces 2, Quake 2) allow the user to download or create their own ‘skins’ for online characters. Fan sites offer homebrew characters for other players to use. (I once saw a naked man streak past me, weapon at the ready. I once saw Gandhi.) These alterations come complete with changing in-game perspective, weapons and sound effects. A selling point of these games has become their flexibility and user definability.

However this choice of personal representation can become far more complex than what ‘skin’ to use. Ultima Online, although flawed, expensive and generally tedious, is a prime example. It allows players to create a character and then ‘live’ it for as long as possible, in real time. The world inside their computer progresses, unlike traditional role-playing games, at the same pace as our own. If you don’t go online for a month, you’ll miss a month of activities. Your house could be burned to the ground by brigands. Your pewter Royal Wedding souvenir mug stolen. The attractive element of the exercise is that you don’t have to follow traditional role-playing staples. You don’t have to be a ‘thief’ or a ‘brigand.’ You could play as a farmer. You would have to buy seed, plant crops, work the field, harvest them, and then find a real person to buy your food. All in real time. Hopefully someone else has chosen to run a shop.

Ultima Online has been heralded as the first of a new generation of games, but it isn’t. It’s really only a step up from the MUDs (Multi-User-Domains) of yesteryear, in much the same way that hypertext is a step away from pure text. MUDs were/are text based adventures which allowed players to move freely, with other users, through a world based around blurb-style descriptions of places and events. Like Ultima Online, there are people, ‘Avatars’, whose job it is to make sure that people a) play in character and b) don’t play like jerks unless (of course) their character class was ‘jerk’, in which case they have to make certain that they play like jerks.

To that extent, MUDs can also be seen as among the earliest and best exercises in hypertext. Their stories are alive, active, and involve hundreds of other players concurrently. I had friends who disappeared into the weird innards and politics of MUDs, never to return. Testament to their addictive qualities and, better yet, to how real a few lines of fictional text (when typed by some ‘real’ kid in Arizona) can become.

Video games in hypertext, like genre fiction in mainstream literature, will probably always be a little uncomfortable. More people may use them and they may often do a better job than their bigger brothers, but that same popular appeal means they’re unlikely to be acknowledged. Perhaps hypermedia, populated as it is by the (hopefully) techno-literate, will take the opportunity that any discussion of ‘new media’ brings, go have a look at their kids playing Nintendo in the basement, and see it as something that could be a little more than a drain on the Christmas budget.

I’m back online. I’ve been doing finger weights. I’ve had a lot of sleep. There are 3 empty coffee mugs beside the monitor. Out of the corner of my eye I see the Queen Mother. She has an anti-tank launcher taped to the crossbar of her walking frame. A bald globe swings back and forth overhead. She looks left and right down a deserted intersection, undecided. The chrome on her walking frame catches the light. She hasn’t seen me. I swing around behind.

The Ultima Online website can be visited at: [link expired]. There are a slew of online gaming sites; one of the best, Heat Net, can be salivated over at: [link expired]. Get yourself some new skins, mod files (levels) and patches for your favourite games at [link expired] (for Quake 2) and [link expired] (for Dark Forces 2).

Alex Hutchinson lives in Brunswick, Melbourne. He has written for (among others) Siglo, Overland, VoiceWorks, 100 Years of AFL(1996), The Teams (1998).

RealTime issue #29 Feb-March 1999 pg. 16

© Alex Hutchinson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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