The year was 1997. The World Wide Web was still a (relatively) young beast with only a handful of websites, and the general public was still figuring out what to do with it. Internet speeds were – by today’s standards – archaic, and WiFi had just been released.
Then, along comes creative writing graduate Mark Amerika. He stared into the brightly coloured, low-res world of the internet. He marveled at the blue underscores of HTML and said: “This needs more sexdroids.”
Armed with nothing but dot-com buzzwords, a fetish for William Gibson and a hard-on for everything else, Amerika wrote GRAMMATRON: a twisting, cavernous story about a man lost inside the virtual, sentient world he created, slipping in and out of hallucinations, memories and servers as he rides across Prague-23 with an artificial construct of his ex-lover.
The reader navigates GRAMMATRON via hyperlinks in a similar fashion to how one would Wikipedia. There’s a hint of conspiracy, a few rock n’ roll tunes, and the grainiest gifs this side of cyberspace.
But despite being as outmoded to interactive storytelling as Zork is to RPGs, there’s something to be learnt from Amerika’s work: the bravado to dream of a world driven fantastically insane by technology.
The history of interactive fiction goes back a long way. Choose Your Own Adventure novels popularised the form in the late 1970s. But one thing that couldn’t be overcome was the fact that, for all their twists and turns, it was impossible to get “lost” in these pieces: you could always just turn the page.
HTML is ubiquitous with the internet now, and so ‘hypertext’ – much like ‘multi-media’ or ‘CD-ROM’ – has become a linguistic fossil, conjuring images of clip art and Internet Explorer. At the time, however, the term beamed with a sense of wonder and mystique. For many, it was a gateway to presenting information efficiently. For Amerika, it was a torture device.
Most contemporary interactive fiction plays out through visual novels or games. Players are given coherent worlds to explore. Logic, skill and button mashing can help push them to the end of the story. But with GRAMMATRON, the reader is flung into an abrasive world full of glaring riddles and flashing images of shadowy faces and arses. A slow, slurring voice pumps through their speakers, and just as they realise they aren’t in control, they are issued a challenge:
Abe Golam, legendary info-shaman, cracker of the sorcerer-code and creator of Grammatron and Nanoscript, sat behind his computer, every speck of creative ore long since excavated from his burnt-out brain, wondering how he was going to survive in the electrosphere he had once called home. His glazed donut eyes were spacing out into the vast electric desert looking for more words to transcribe his personal loss of meaning. “I’m Abe Golam, an old man. I drove a sign to the end of the road and then I got lost. Find me.”
The plot that follows is one that could have only been born in the chaotic days of 90s cyberculture. The “electrosphere” that Amerika’s characters traverse is an abstract place generated by the “writing-machine” GRAMMATRON, created by Abe Golem through the use of the “Nanoscript”.
Corporations vie to absorb GRAMMATRON. Individuals manifest inside the electroshpere as both fleshy and digital versions of themselves simultaneously, their existence “written” by GRAMMATRON as they experience it.
It’s a paradoxical, looping narrative that chooses confusion over coherence, but that’s kinda the point.
GRAMMATRON is the raw expression of early internet adoption, and an allegory for the tug-o-war between the artists and scientists that flocked to create, and the corporate entities that sought to turn cyberpace’s into a corpocracy. Amerika depicts the digital world as a living, breathing warzone – a land too vast to be tamed.
While Andy Warhol responded to the corporate world he saw before him, Amerika critiqued one that didn’t exist yet. Scholars such as Michael Joyce and Marjorie Perloff spent a good portion of the early 90s trying to figure out exactly how hypertext could be utilised. There’s something eerie about the early days of any human invention, where its utility lurks in-between its gears.
Amerika’s work reminds us of a time when we weren’t so sure of our place in the digital world. It brims with abstract thought, descriptions of the indescribable. It pulsates with a fear of the internet and an urgent desire to harness it.
GRAMMATRON tells us to experiment. The irreverent predictions of anthropomorphic cybersex and brothel beds made of code aren’t interesting because of their likeness to Second Life, but because Amerika wrote them with pure abandon.
As we’ve become more technologically advanced, our science fiction has shifted from the otherworldly predictions of the 80s and 90s and towards a grittier more down-to-earth view.
Maybe we need our next “internet” to kick us into gear. Maybe our focus on personal issues is telling of a more introspective society. Or maybe we need to dream of a future governed by madness, rather than worrying about one destroyed by it.