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interactive novel, hypertext, L.A. Crackdown, Murder on the Mississipi, Portal, Robert Swigart

Deep Past, Imaginary Future, and the Interactive Novel

An Interview with Rob Swigart

Soraya Murray (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Rob Swigart, born in 1941, is an American writer and educator, as well as an archaeology scholar, satirist, and futurist. He earned his doctorate in comparative literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1972 and has been a professor of English at San José State University since then. Swigart has published sixteen books and is a founding board member of the Electronic Literature Organization (see fig. 1).

Figure 1

Rob Swigart, 2023 (Courtesy Robert Swigart)

Among his many varied achievements, Swigart authored the interactive novel Portal (1986), developed by Nexa Corporation and published by Activision for home computers including the Amiga, Commodore 64, Apple II, IBM PC, and Macintosh. In this interactive computer experience, the player takes the role of an astronaut who returns to Earth after a failed mission and a hundred-year voyage back, only to find that all the humans have disappeared. Tapping into the global network called Worldnet through a barely functioning terminal, the unnamed astronaut engages HOMER, a holographic AI, digging into its memory to unravel the mystery of what has transpired.

In the following interview, Swigart reflects on his foundational work on the interactive novel; how his interests in anthropology, futurism, and science fiction informed his embrace of the form; and Portal’s continuing relevance for a new generation of game designers.

Soraya Murray [SM]: Maybe we can begin with your background: where you were born, your education, and what sparked your interest in writing.

Rob Swigart [RS]: Good questions! Yes. I was born in Chicago. I don’t remember much about it. We moved when I was a year old to Washington, DC, so my early years were there. My father, Eugene Swigart Jr., was a lawyer at the time. He was working for the government. My mother, Ruth Robison Swigart, was an actress. Her stage name was Bailey. Then we moved to Cincinnati [around 1947], where my father was born and where his father had started a business, which he took over. I don’t think my father did much lawyering in his life actually. So, I grew up mostly in Cincinnati.

Anyway, I was sent away to boarding school at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey when I was fourteen. And I don’t know … I was a very complacent kid. They said, “You’re going to boarding school.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” I look back on it and think they wanted to get me out of the house, but it was all right. I didn’t mind it. It was actually Princeton prep. My father had also gone to Princeton.

He primed me for going to boarding school by giving me a bunch of novels by a guy named Owen Johnson (class of 1895) like The Prodigious Hickey, The Tennessee Shad, and The Varmint, novels about pranks at Lawrenceville, and I enjoyed them. The Lawrenceville stories—they were funny. From there, then, I went to Princeton. And then when I got out, I went to Europe.

I had become very interested in Greek in high school, so I went to Greece for a couple of months, and then I went to Paris for a couple of months, and then I went to London for a couple of months … and then I ran out of money. So I went home and I got a job as a reporter on the local newspaper because Hemingway had been a reporter when he was young. I worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer for some time, and then I decided I wanted to go back to Greece. So I got a job teaching English in Greece.

SM: Back when you were a reporter, what were you mostly writing?

RS: I was a general reporter for a couple of months, and then I was a police reporter, which was wonderful. I covered northern Kentucky, and it had been incredibly corrupt at one time, and the cops would all reminisce about good old days. There was a guy who kept escaping from the jail named Ray Creech, and he just would escape and then he’d go to the bar around the corner. The reason that he would break out of jail was because he didn’t like the food. So he’d go to this bar and have a hamburger and they’d go get him and bring him back.

And then there were problems with my work permit [in Greece]. So I came back and joined the army reserves in 1964. My mother had a summer stock theater, and the summer camp was near the theater, interestingly, so I worked for her writing press releases and chasing the apprentices. There were some pretty ones.

I did my six months in the army. In medic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, I was reading Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 for the third time while I was in, and I couldn’t believe how accurate it was.

This was 1964 and there was no war. So, I went to meetings for six months and then I went into the army for six months. Then I got a job working at Harper and Row because I was looking for some kind of job related to writing. But it was in college textbooks. I was a salesman.

I took the opportunity to request the Southwest for my territory. They sent me to Oklahoma, which wouldn’t count as the Southwest, but it was sociologically fascinating. And in the army, I had started to learn how to fly, so I would rent planes and fly to Dallas for weekends.

And then they changed my territory. Now, I was covering Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. So I would fly around New Mexico. And I met my future wife who was teaching at the University of Wyoming. And after two years in Denver, I began to really hate the job.

I got moved to Buffalo where my future wife was going to graduate school [at State University of New York, Buffalo]. So I applied to graduate school; I looked into going into classics but ended up in English for my PhD. My advisor was a guy named William Sylvester, who was amazing. My first class with him was in satire, and I was a big Vonnegut fan in those days, and he’d never heard of Vonnegut. He was teaching Swift, of course, and at first he [Sylvester] was incomprehensible. And I just puzzled over him ʼcause he’d say things I didn’t understand. We ended up very close friends.

And then I got a job at San José State and I moved here. Been here ever since. So we were in Silicon Valley, and that was 1972.

I was a science-fiction fan as a teenager. I read—I devoured—hundreds of science-fiction novels. And in graduate school, I applied to John [Simmons] Barth’s fiction-writing class, as did my future wife.

She got in and I didn’t. So I signed up for a poetry class, and I think in 1970, I met a poet in Greece. We were there for a couple of months in the summer, and I started imitating him. They were really short lines, one or two word lines. And I started writing them.

And anyway, I signed up for this class with the poet John Logan, and he was an awesome teacher. He was a seriously bad alcoholic, but an amazing teacher. And I lucked out. So I became a poet, and I started publishing and getting some confidence, which was important. And when I came to San José State, I was still a poet, and I had poetry groups. Then they assigned me a beginning creative writing class, and so I had to teach fiction writing as well. I’d done a little bit in college; actually, I’d written quite a bit of fiction in college. I was an editor of The Princeton Tiger.

So I said if I’m going to teach fiction writing, I better do some. So I started writing three pages a day, and each page was a chapter in single-space typewriter type, very advanced technology. And I wrote three pages a day, and I said, “Okay, I’m going to do this for thirty days.” After about ten days, I thought, oh, I’m going to do a hundred chapters, and that’ll be a book.

SM: That’s interesting, because you were already thinking in a really modular way.

RS: Yeah, it was constrained by the page size. A few of them ran over a little bit, but most of them were constrained by the eight-and-a-half by eleven. I was definitely thinking that way. Part of it was because I had been thinking about the impact of movies on literature, and it’s around the time of John Dos Passos and a lot of experiments with the nonlinear.

And I thought of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, it’s also impressionistic, and inventing quick cuts. And I thought of the nineteenth-century novel. I started thinking that if you match literature to transportation, the nineteenth-century novel was for the train. And I think about the train in the beginning of Middlemarch approaching the town, and the long leisurely description of coming into the town, and I thought that’s what it is. You sit on the train, and you read a chunk of a novel. But today we fly, so it has to fit on a much shorter timeline, so it is chopped up into short chapters.

SM: And also we’re interrupted all the time, right?

RS: Each chapter is an interruption.

And think of 45 RPM records: you get three minutes and then you’ve got to turn it over or change it. And it was a story about the beginning of LP records when the studios said, why would we do this? We have 45s and people are happy with them. They said, all right, imagine you’re making love and somebody comes in and interrupts you every five, every three minutes … If you want to listen to a symphony, you want to listen to the whole thing, you don’t want to get it chopped up.

I wrote this novel and I knew some writers because I was a poet. I got three agents’ names and I wrote them. One of them, the post office returned the letter, although it was correctly addressed. Another one, that was an older woman who said that there’s no market for a book like this. And the third one, I got a postcard from her assistant and we lived on Cerrito Avenue and the postcard said, Dear Mr. Cerrito. So I went, oh boy but she has to see it. So I sent in the single, Xerox copy of the single-spaced first draft typed out to the margins. She took it and said, “I want it double spaced,” and I said, “I’m already rewriting it.” So I got it done in a couple of months, sent it to her, and she sold it in two weeks.

All of a sudden—I have to make a funny story about that— it was my fourth year of teaching. And I was up for tenure and it sailed through all the committees. And then the last day of the last hour of the semester, the president of the university denied my tenure. On what grounds? I graded too high.

This was a period when grade inflation, of course, had decimated everything. But that was the time when Paulo Freire was a big influence on teaching. The banking model of education didn’t seem like the right one to me, so I probably did grade too high. But that wasn’t a good excuse.

I was pretty pissed off. But then I sold the book and I became briefly locally notorious. And in the fall semester, he [the university president] sent his flack around to invite me to lunch. And I told him that he could go interfere with himself. I said, “Tell him that. No way.” Anyway, so that’s how that happened.

The book was a satire about cars and fast food.

SM: What was it called?

RS: What was the name? Little America. That was the name of a gas station in Wyoming that I stopped at on my way out. And it was pretty funny and kind of raunchy. There were a lot of writers, particularly in the Bay Area, that were in that genre, but, as to me, it was a little Vonnegut-y and, I did three novels like that.

SM: You mentioned that you were involved in something called the Institute for the Future. IFTF is the world’s oldest continuously running futures research and educational organization. How did you become involved and what was your focus there?

RS: I had started practicing aikido, a martial art. I met a couple of people there who worked at a place called the Institute for the Future. And being a science-fiction fan, I thought that sounds interesting. The second two books I wrote were science-fiction satires, not a big field.

They invited me to come there and showed me around and introduced me. One, Kathi Vian, is still a good friend. I ended up writing some scenarios about what was called groupware in those days. Then in the eighties, I got invited to give a reading at a place in Palo Alto by Dirk Van Nouhuys, head of Lisa publications at Apple. That led to writing an article for the Apple magazine on the Apple IIe, then several years of technical writing during the 1980s.

A producer at Activision called my department at SJSU to ask if they knew anyone who could write a manual for a music program. And that’s how I got to Activision. My last job at Apple was for the music, for the sound chip, for the Apple IIGS. I suggested they just put the sound chip in the computer, and so I talked myself out of a job. The work at Activision led to Portal, as well as scripting or contributing to a few other games. I also worked at Spectrum-Holobyte, one of Gilman Louie’s successors to Nexa. Another story.

SM: But I wanted to ask how you took to the writing of an interactive text, which is a very different way of thinking about writing for the time. A novel has a fixed trajectory. You had mentioned earlier that you were attempting to embody Tim Nelson’s idea of hypertext, and could you talk about what was compelling about that form for you at that time?

RS: Yeah I think that’s because I used the word hypertext in that little essay, which I had totally forgotten about.

SM: Yes. I just read it.

RS: And I was thinking about it this morning. In terms of what you and my daughter Saramanda are investigating, Portal was very primitive. Computer graphics were very low resolution; there was no sound or motion or gesture control. And I wasn’t really thinking about the sort of social and psychological and performative aspects of computer games. Portal was essentially a set of databases the player could interact with (see fig. 2).

Figure 2

Map that accompanies Portal (1986), developed by Nexa Corporation and published by Activision (Courtesy Robert Swigart)

Now I’m in a group called the Future of Text run by Frode Hegland in England. He created a writing app for Apple called Author. He’s a really interesting guy I met at the Rome hypertext conference this year, 2023. He’s carrying forward Doug Engelbart’s ideas about augmenting human intellect and creating a better world. Doug’s group at SRI [Stanford Research Institute] is credited with inventing the mouse, graphical interfaces, and many other features for how we use computers today. Frode’s ideas about the future of text intrigue me greatly. Since my interest in Greek language and culture as well as the Institute for the Future, I’ve become interested in writing as a technology, beginning with Sumerian in the late fourth millennium BCE and on to the forthcoming Apple Vision Pro, which may indicate what text’s future may look like.

Frode talks very much in the language of that essay about text and sound and motion and image and so on. So it’s almost like that side of things, the hypertext community, is still active. Literary hypertext, solo operations mostly, still exists, whereas games have just galloped off into the Hollywood model. Yeah. And I’ve stayed with the hypertext model.

Back in the late eighties, I started talking to Bob Johansen at the institute about doing a book, and we did some proposals which didn’t go anywhere. But in the early nineties, he asked me to go on retainer. So I started doing projects at the institute.

I became an affiliate working on reports. I did a report on GPS before it became a thing, which was pretty accurate in terms of what it was going to become. I remember working on ubiquitous cameras, digital cameras, and the idea that they might end up in the phone!

One of the other people was doing a study of household use of technology—but of course the technologies of the time were answering machines, CD players, really fairly primitive stuff that’s mostly gone now.

But we started discussing what the report would look like. There was a log line, the headline. One of the ones I can remember was “Technology Is Plumage.” And my favorite story about that was, and we did an international [report] and I was running the Chile program. In Chile, it was illegal to speak on a cell phone while you were driving. But a lot of people were getting arrested for driving with a cell phone, and I think something like 30 percent of them were using a fake cell phone. Using a cell phone in those days imparted social status. We called it plumage.

So the idea was you’d have the headline, and then you’d have a little executive summary of what the project was about. And then I would write a little vignette, a little dramatic vignette that would illustrate how this interacted with people’s lives. And then there would be a page of data, charts, and graphs. And by the way, Bob and I did write Upsizing the Individual in the Downsized Organization, which came out in 1994 from Addison Wesley.

SM: Futurism again.

RS: Yes. There was a two-page spread with my little vignette, and there were eighteen of these headlines. And that turned into kind of a project. I invented this vignette: the point of it was that it was short. And it was self-contained. So the idea of creating these self-contained “nits” which I had taken, of course, first from Little America and then from doing Portal.

But the truth is, when I wrote Portal, I knew it was going to be interactive; we were working on the programming part of it at the same time, and the design, at the same time. So I knew it was going to get chopped up. I just wrote it straight and then broke it up. Then when it was published, it was the broken-up part. I don’t even think I still have the original. If I do, it’s probably not even readable (see fig. 3).

Figure 3

Screenshot of Portal (1986), developed by Nexa Corporation and published by Activision (Screenshot by Soraya Murray)

SM: Can we go back to the personal computer a little bit? Because one of the things that we talked about earlier was that I’m just old enough to remember these interactive novels, choose-your-own-adventure stories, and also the coming of the home computer.

For people today who are younger, the kind of excitement and anticipation and wonder associated with the gray box on the table is something that they might not readily understand. That even though computers were so rudimentary by today’s standards, we are all curious about what we could make them do.

RS: There was a guy at the camera store that I would go to who I called Tech Man, and he started talking about personal computers in 1976. And I bought one from him called an Electronic Tool Company 1000, a big blue box with a motherboard and some slots in it, and started playing with it. And the second book I wrote, A.K.A. / A Cosmic Fable, was published in 1978. I was writing it in 1977 when the Apple II came out, and I bought the Apple II and yeah, and John Draper—Captain Crunch— had written a little word-processing program for the Apple II, and he gave it to me and I used it. It created another constraint: the file size on a floppy disk. So every chapter was I don’t know, 4k or something ridiculous, incredibly small, right? Yeah, similar to Little America. I think the chapter links were similar. But that was a constraint. I just thought that was interesting because information’s going to come in these units. And so I wrote the book that way.

I think that my big aha moment was after we finished Portal, and we were doing user groups. They took me to Philadelphia, and there was a huge meeting with all these different user groups, the C64 [Commodore 64] people and the Apple people and the PC people and the Amiga people.

I remember going to the C64 meeting and demonstrating Portal and the load time was, well, today it would be excruciatingly painful—but it was pretty painful even then. And I’m looking at all these people, and it absolutely didn’t bother them. That was part of the rhythm of interacting with these machines. I think if the Amiga people—the Amiga loaded much faster—had to do it on a C64, they’d go crazy. And if the C64 people got an Amiga, they’d probably go, “Oh my God, it’s a supercomputer!”

So I thought, there’s this sort of subculture around these devices that has a whole set of expectations and beliefs and feelings around how they operate and what they do for you. It’s like genre.

SM: How do you most like people to refer to your interactive work? I read that you are not fond of calling your work games …

RS: I called it an “interactive novel”—which didn’t exist then. There was no such thing. Choose-your-own adventure was the model.

SM: Sure. In a lot of ways, you’re feeling around in the dark and making something new. You’re making up what it is and what to call it.

RS: That was what was so exciting. That was just awesome. And Gilman Louie of Nexa and his team of teenage geniuses writing an assembler were really excited to do something totally new. And to me, it was like, this is what I want. Yeah.

SM: Maybe we can get into Portal a little bit more. It was designed by Nexa Corporation, published by Activision, and produced by Brad Fregger.

RS: Yeah. Brad read Little America and said, “You should write for the computer.” And I said, “I’ve been thinking about that since I got one.”

SM: So it’s interesting, the scenario of Portal, because I feel like it brings together a lot of different interests from all of your background: writing, your love of science fiction— and we haven’t talked much about your interest in anthropology. But there’s a kind of digging through information, an anthropological component of that narrative, a space traveler who returns to earth after a hundred years to learn the human race has vanished and the world has changed, and then you dig through information to figure out what’s happened.

Portal plunges you into this world that you don’t understand and that you procedurally have to figure out, right? Can you talk about how you created the scenario and what interests it brought together for you?

RS: Two things pop into my head. One, I was very interested in archaeology when I was looking into going to graduate school. I may have gotten an offer from the University of Texas, because I was at that time translating a modern Greek poet into English, and the then head of the department was excited about the idea of somebody doing modern Greek in the Classics Department. And that would have been interesting. I wish I could have done it, but I can’t do everything. And then I, when I went to graduate school before I even applied, I went to the Classics Department and they had a dig in the Agora in Athens. And I was pretty familiar with Athens by then. So I’m intrigued in doing classical archaeology. So I had that interest all along. In the late seventies, my parents went to the Yucatan and my father waxed eloquent about that. And I got really interested in Mayan archaeology. And in the nineties, I spent a lot of time in Central America visiting Mayan sites.

So the archaeology was in there, so it occurs to me that I already had that idea of, the kind of investigative digging that you do. Archaeology is not unlike detective fiction, and I was also a member by then of the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the science-fiction writers. In fact I moved from IFTF and the future to archaeology and a series of books. At the time I realized that writing about the deep past and the imaginary future were quite similar. A little more data for the past, of course, but still a highly imaginative process.

So I don’t color inside the lines … which is more fun (see fig. 4).

Figure 4

Screenshot of Portal (1986), developed by Nexa Corporation and published by Activision (Screenshot by Soraya Murray)

SM: So much of Portal feels so relevant despite the fact that it is almost forty years old: the processing of data, a certain sense of negotiating the archive. Then you have the ecology issues. And I think there’s a very timely, urgent sense of grappling with how we encounter a world degrading on account of our treatment of it.

RS: Also the whole idea of identity. There’s a little bit about gender stuff, which was surprising because I was ahead of my time then. But yeah, I am surprised how relevant that stuff still is. And even in the little essay on interactive writing I shared with you, it seemed to me I was on to some things that I didn’t expect about computers and phones.

The other thing that occurs to me is that I was a big fan of the Dune books and I had, when I did it, I did a book read and signing with Frank Herbert in San Francisco in 1977 when Little America came out. I had a conversation with him about the film version of Dune, which kept almost getting made. It must have been not too long before he died (he died in 1986, so nine years). But the Dune series was really stuck in my head. I read it several times and I thought of it when I was trying to think of what the story would be. I thought first of all, who uses these computers? Teenage boys, mostly. Fortunately, this has changed a lot, and there were middle-aged men, too, because they were in the user groups, but mostly teenage boys, especially the games, and the games were [Donkey] Kong and Pong and whatever. And so it needed to be a teenage boy as the central character ….

I didn’t think of it as spiritual, but something transcendent that should happen in the book. And then I thought: how do you put the teenage boy in the story? You say, what is the user in this story? Because I thought it was really important that it not be a separate world [and] that the user has to have a part in it. And so I came up with the idea of being an astronaut and coming back and finding everybody gone. Everybody gone is like Planet of the Apes; it’s not a totally new idea.

SM: And you discover as a player, at the same time the main character discovers.

RS: And then the idea of the AI. I met Marvin Minsky once at the [Microsoft] CD-ROM conference in 1989, I think, but he had been the AI guy I’d been reading for a long time. So I had read a lot of books about AI by 1984, and I thought, if there’s no people, how do I help the user? Create an AI. I need to have a character that can be the gateway. And since I’d studied Greek in Greek literature, Homer was an obvious choice for the AI’s name.

SM: Yeah. And then I hope we can talk about Murder on the Mississippi and L.A. Crackdown a little bit too.

One of the things I think about is that these kinds of interactive works helped make people more comfortable with the computer. They created familiarity. It’s interesting to me that in the case of all three of the games we were going to talk about, they are solidly genre works, right? Science fiction, murder mystery, crime story. And then also you’re dealing in a form that’s recognizable, but then translated into something likely strange for most people, like a hypertext, a novel. So it interestingly can become a bridge between the familiar and the strange.

I read a lot of texts from the early 1980s dealing with the computer, and various attempts to make people more comfortable with the computer and more conversant with how a computer works. So I was thinking about your interactive novels in terms of the work they do to make people comfortable by mobilizing the familiar to engage with something strange.

RS: Yeah, that certainly wasn’t the primary intent but it has that effect. I think in some of the early computers you had a joystick. Otherwise, you had to use the keyboard. And that just was training people using the interface that was already there. It wasn’t inventing a new interface. With game controllers now, there’s all manner of muscle memory that you have to develop in order to use them, which is performative. To me, it’s like painting on the wall of a cave—it’s an interactive thing, and it’s narrative, generating something like a story.

SM: Do you want to talk about Murder on the Mississippi? It is also from 1986, so you were busy that year!

RS: Yeah, they set me up with a terminal in my home office at home. And I wrote it on that.

SM: And did you write that as a solid, singular novel, as well, then break it up?

RS: As I remember, they presented me with a boat going down the river, with cabins and decks and a cast of characters. I suspect I may have invented the characters but it’s possible they already had them, I just don’t remember.

I know that I had a lot of fun with the preacher character, because I had access somehow, maybe even online, it was before being online though, to Bible quotes. So I just had a huge database of Bible quotes, and I thought I’m going to work all these in. And that was tremendous fun.

SM: And I’m assuming it was very connected to Death on the Nile, right? Inspired by Agatha Christie.

RS: They gave me the frame.

SM: That’s interesting. So what was your assignment”?

RS: They had developed the side-scroller riverboat animation. It was my job to populate it with characters (see fig. 5).

Figure 5

Packaging for Murder on the Mississippi: The Adventures of Sir Charles Foxworth (1986), developed and published by Activision (Courtesy Robert Swigart)

SM: Interesting. So they started with an image. Basically, the scenario.

RS: It was the same with Hacker, which was this tunneling program. But for that, I just wrote a couple of pages, a scenario. They developed a game for Hacker. I don’t think I even got paid.

SM: So the scenario of Murder on the Mississippi: We’re on the SS Delta Princess. New Orleans-bound from St. Louis, and Sir Charles Foxworth, the internationally known sleuth, and his manservant, Regis, travel and solve a murder mystery.

RS: Nexa was growing. They were becoming a force. Later they became Spectrum Holobyte, which was most famous for doing an F-16 simulator [Falcon series of combat flight simulators], and then I was doing all kinds of work, and they got bought by Robert Maxwell who had this media empire. And Gilman Louie asked me to work on a program with Berlitz on teaching Spanish. So I was doing Berlitz Spanish in Palo Alto and driving up to Alameda and working up there and that was a lot of fun. The person from Berlitz I was working with was terrific, was from Trinidad, I think. And she was awesome, Maureen (I can’t find her last name).

SM: L.A. Crackdown, that one really intrigued me when I watched some of the playthroughs because it’s a stakeout scenario set in Los Angeles involving drug trafficking, and the user/player is cast as a lieutenant who’s remotely commanding a rookie policeman to do things, like plant bugs and gather evidence, interview, photograph, that kind of thing. But I was really interested in how much of that has remained in conventional video games now, the idea of remote communication, a surveillance society, like a carceral scenario of space comes up again and again.

So I was wondering about how you thought about it in terms of form and content together, because it seemed very natural to see the computer screen as a window into a story about remote surveillance.

RS: Yeah, I have a feeling that Gilman brought me onto that. I wrote the background story of L.A. Crackdown and some of the dialog for storyboarding the game (see figs. 6 and 7).

Figure 6

Packaging for L.A. Crackdown (1988), developed by Nexa Corporation and published by Epyx Inc. (Courtesy Robert Swigart)

Figure 7

L.A. Crackdown (1988), developed by Nexa Corporation and published by Epyx Inc. (Screenshot by Soraya Murray)

SM: Interestingly, with Portal there’s a renewed interest in it. So I was wondering if you could tell me about that, and what the new project is.

RS: In the nineties, the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was one of the people who founded the Electronic Literature Organization [ELO]. And I was on the board for several years. And I had a lot of friends in that area. Eastgate was the publisher for Hypertext Projects, and what I did was in the Eastgate quarterly, I did a little thing in HyperCard. I met Bill Atkinson at a party in Palo Alto, and I was, I remember asking him if he could do a calendar in HyperCard for me. I must have been working on that book.

And that was something that you could do yourself. You didn’t need, a big budget and a lot of help. That was a lot of fun. And then I did a CD-ROM project for Eastgate called Down Time, based on a bunch of short stories I wrote in the eighties in my writing group, which were titled by terms from the computer dictionary.

They all were computer terms, and they were, as I call them, fables of the computer age. So that was my hypertext development period. But then let’s see, I was, yeah, I was still at the institute. So I was doing that stuff. And then, but in the early 2000s, I was just doing projects they didn’t; it turned out that business executives don’t like to read fiction, even if it’s five paragraphs.

So I was working on reports and the last one I did was climate change. And then I got interested in climate change and weirdly the institute was not interested in climate change. So I drifted away because by then I was doing archaeology, and I was getting known as an archaeology writer.

And that was a whole new domain for me. So the early hypertext kind of congealing into a thing was really interesting. And I was demonstrating my projects at a lot of conferences. I did one in Bergen, one in Melbourne. It gave me a chance to go places.

But then the ELO was becoming increasingly academic, which I was grateful for, but it wasn’t my main driver. I was more interested in just doing it. But by then, I started getting really busy with archaeology ʼcause I was going to Turkey a lot. The Central American Maya book came out.

Dene Grigar was president of the ELO for some time [2013–19]. She’s an academic. But she also got into the preservation and archiving of the old hypertext stuff, which I had basically forgotten about because when you do things for the computer, they quickly become obsolete.

And I remember getting interviewed for an Atlantic article on obsolescence, and talking about how Portal came out the day the Macintosh SE came out—but Portal didn’t work on it. Your lifespan is short in this area, but Dene has brought them all back.

They’re preserved and archived and protected. So I knew about that. And then during the pandemic, I reconnected with a couple of old friends in the hypertext community and we started having biweekly Zoom meetings.

One of them lives in Mexico, one of them lives over on the coast, and then later Rob Kendall, who used to be a neighbor here and lives in Boston, has joined us, and Dina Larson, who’s now the artist in residence in Vancouver, Washington. She wasn’t there this week, but she comes sometimes too. And she and I are doing a hypertext project together, which she’s doing in Twine, I think.

Yeah. So then, and the hypertext community wasn’t interested in the game and I never talked about it because that was commercial. It’s a different mindset. And then Dene got a hold of me and said, she wanted to do “traversals,” videotaped narrated playthroughs of the projects, available at the Electronic Literature Lab, like what she’d done for Bill Bly, Rich Holeton, Dina Larsen, and a number of other pioneers.

I guess that was a year ago, probably sometime in the fall. She said, “I want to do those,” but then she never scheduled them. So they didn’t get done for a while. And then suddenly she said, I want to do the senior seminar with Portal, which sort of surprised me because now we’re crossing domains.

I was delighted, of course. So I went up to [Washington State University] Vancouver three times during the semester. I’ve been up twice this year so far. And the last one is in December. And she’s had the idea of doing it for VR [virtual reality].

I was trying to envision what that experience would be like. How are they going to interact with all this text? And my visions are of big Hollywood games with cut scenes and motion capture—although of course, they can’t do that …

It’s a fantasy story in a way and I’m liking the art they’re doing. So yeah, it’s interesting. Then meanwhile, last semester, she did the traversals for Directions and Down Time.1 And then I have another one online called About Time. It was a little thing I did with two parallel stories and lots of links back and forth, which may or may not be available, because I did it in Flash, and that’s dead.

SM: It sounds like they’re pretty deeply involved with you in this new VR development of Portal.

RS: Yeah, there was a very short little VR experience at the exhibit. She did it in Rome at the Hypertext 23 conference. And I talked about the game a little bit.

SM: So the students who are involved, you said it was a team?

RS: Yeah, last semester, there were like thirty-six of them. And they’re in teams. So there’s a web team, an art team, animation team, game-design team, and social-media team.

SM: And what is striking them about Portal now?

RS: I think the story is resonating, and Dene is comparing it to Homer because she also did classics. So she said it’s an epic; it’s a huge novel covering eleven dimensions.

I think I mentioned that once in there, but that was, those were the days of string theory. I had forgotten that I had done this, but it’s a utopia. It’s a benign utopian society, but it’s suffocating and people are rebelling and they’re having duels with these neurophage weapons that just supposedly knock you out, but then somebody makes them fatal. So there’s dueling. And the main character is on the run with his little team, and he’s being pursued, and there’s battles, and utopia isn’t [so utopian after all], and he’s basically seeking to liberate humanity.

He’s the hero. Anyway, it’s Joseph Campbell. I borrow a lot. All the best do. All the best. It’s true. Everything we do is borrowed. Everything.

SM: Yes, I just suppose it matters that you borrow from the best, right?

RS: Yeah, try to borrow from the good ones. You read The Wasteland, how much of that is borrowed? That’s great art, whereas, to somebody else, it might be plagiarism.

That’s how it got started. And this semester they’re doing a lot more VR, and I’m excited about seeing that.

SM: It will be interesting to see a version of Portal that you can move around in.

RS: Yeah, I don’t know how much [VR] handling we’re going to be able to do. It’s going to be very small snippets of the story. I suppose that in an ideal world some game company, some indie game company, would say this could be cool.

SM: What do you think the next generation of students is most excited about in the story of Portal? Out of the story, what seems to captivate them the most?

RS: Boy, that’s a good question. I worried last semester because they weren’t talking about the story enough. It was mostly mechanics, and I think last semester it was about building the foundation. So there wasn’t much to show for it. And at first I thought it was a little amateurish—but then you go back and look at the original and you can’t get any more amateur than that! Portal really looks primitive. The story of a future that has become a benign but suffocating utopia controlled by a powerful corporation with life and death control over the population of the Earth, and of the rebel teenager who struggles and finally leads everyone to explore a multidimensional universe, an undefined Promised Land, resonates with some people, including me. I’m ready to go.

SM: One last question: What do you think is most important as we look forward to the future of hypertext and the interactive novel? What do you forecast?

RS: Text of course has a future, but it is already intermingled with other media, sound, vision, and other modalities. There will be tactile interaction with fictive worlds, synesthetic experiences like tasting the sound of trumpets or listening to the taste of Bechemel. In the Future of Text group we talk about various forms of virtual reality in which text hovers in space, and we gesture text around, bubbles of association effervescing. But games already give us most of these senses. Reading is declining, TikTok is ascending, but soon enough hypertext will be completely somatic, interacting with our projected selves, and we will spend more and more time in dream space. This may distract us from war and hate and save mankind.

Or it will be the E. M. Forster short story, “The Machine Stops,” when our exoskeletal supports lose coherence, and we can no longer breathe the air.


1. ^ Robert Swigart, Directions (Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1994).