Of course I wasn’t first. The idea of hypertext has been around since Vannevar Bush imagined the Memex, a sort of primitive microfilm-based web browser the size of a large desk, in 1945. The word hypertext was coined by Ted Nelson some time between 1963 and 1965. The first working hypertext system was demonstrated by Douglas Englebart in San Francisco in 1968.
Hypertextual fiction—stories that send you along forked reading paths—has been around at least since Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963), a book in many sections which can be read in one of several orders. So far as I remember (I don’t have it handy), it has to do with a guy in Argentina (or Paris?) who wants to sleep with somebody, or maybe he has slept with somebody, I forget. It’s possible that someone gets killed? My memories of the novel are all a jumble.
To my mind, the most significant non-linear but still book-bound fiction is Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations (1989). It tells two stories: one is about Roubaud’s failure to write a novel, also called The Great Fire of London, and the other is about the death of his young wife Alix and its awful aftermath. The story makes excursions into Provençal prosody and mathematics and jelly-making, and if the World Wide Web had existed when Roubaud was writing it, hypertext fiction would already have its masterpiece. As it is, The Great Fire of London poses a problem for the historian of hypertext which isn’t entirely unlike the problem Homer posed for Dante: theologically inadmissible into Heaven, but morally un-consignable to Hell, he gets a castle on Hell’s periphery, from which, with enormous majesty, he overlooks (or something) the damned.
Then you have the whole raft of Choose Your Own Adventure books, about which I have already said everything I have to say.
The first computer-based hypertext fictions appeared in the late 1980s and early 90s: Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, all of which share the disadvantage of having been written with a software tool called StorySpace, which had almost no visual-design capability, and encouraged writers to break their fictions into index-card-sized chunks, as if hypertext were incompatible with sustained narrative, which it’s not, as Cortázar and Roubaud had already shown.
Of more interest (to me, anyway) is Geoff Ryman’s 253 (1996), a novel set in the London Tube, and written in 253 sections: one for each of the 252 passengers on a Bakerloo Line train, and one for the driver. Each section is 253 words long, “so that the illusion of an orderly universe can be maintained,” Ryman writes, but one lovely thing about his novel is how disorderly everything is: the characters are all drunk, hung over, horny, mad, unwashed, dying. The plot is literally a train wreck. The stories cross-connect with humor and sadness. (And here mourning enters the picture again: Ryman was apparently moved to write 253 by the death of a friend, of AIDS. Could it be that the forking paths of hypertext are also somehow the ramifications of grief?)
There is another strand to this history, which developed in parallel to hypertext fiction, but mostly apart from it: the text-based games which are now called interactive fiction. The first of them was Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure (1974-77), a version of which plays no small part in my own story, and which I will have more about to say about elsewhere. Then you get Dave Lebling and Marc Blank’s Zork (1977-1979), which upgraded Crowther’s Colossal Cave to a Great Underground Empire. Zork begat many great games (Enchanter, Spellbound, Planetfall, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “you can’t drop the no tea!”) in the early and mid-1980s, then the commercial market for text-based games dried up, because graphics-based games had become so much more compelling. Interactive fiction returned in the late 1990s as a non-commercial form, and you got some really interesting games: Michael Gentry’s Cthulhuoid Anchorhead and Adam Cadre’s Photopia (both 1998), Emily Short’s Galatea (2000). The tools required to write an interactive fiction are free and fairly easy to learn, so it seems likely that people will keep writing text-based adventures for at least a while, even if, like poets, they are now mainly writing them for other text-adventure-game authors.
All of which is to say that I am not the first person to try something like this. I am following in all kinds of footsteps; in some places my shoes are so small and the other footprints are so big, historians probably won’t be able to tell I was here at all. I’m like Charlie Brown, who in one Peanuts cartoon admits to Lucy that he wants to be the seventeenth man on the moon. So why is it that I feel, not even like an astronaut, but like Laika the Russian space dog, howling at the earth from a great height?