Elements of Digital Literature

While exploring examples of interactive fiction, I was reminded of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that we looked at earlier in the semester. One way to compare both types of digital literature is to look at the Five Elements of Digital Literature described by Noah Wardrip-Fruin in Reading Moving Letters. The five elements: data, processes, interaction, surface and context, come together to make varying types of digital literature. I will compare and contrast the five digital literature elements of Zork, one of the first interactive fiction computer games to be developed with the Choose Your Own Adventure books.


Text in both Zork and CYOA books make up the data utilized by both pieces. In Zork, text is prewritten by the programmer and recalled as the user navigates through the experience. The CYOA books contain text segments of the narrative that are accessed as the reader chooses which action to take at the end of every page. In both instances, the text has been prewritten and will come together to form the adventure experienced by the user or reader.


The Zork program links text descriptions of places and objects to the next possible story elements. The pre-written code outlines which text to go to next depending on the user’s input. The program must recognize the user’s command by searching through the command for key words such as “TAKE”, “EAT”, “GO”, or “North”. Then it will retrieve the next text associated with that command. The code has already mapped out the possible storylines, but must keep track of the next possible steps for each text. CYOA books allow for the user to take part in much of the process. After choosing the action, readers must flip to the corresponding page of the next possibility. The author lays out the links between pages and actions, but it is up to the reader to manually follow the link to the next page of their story.


In both cases, the user interacts with text describing the story or scene. They will make choices to advance the storylines. Zork’s free-form command prompts give the user a greater sense of power over the character, when compared to CYOA’s simple instructions to move to the page of one’s choosing.


Text presented on a computer screen differs from text in a book. In the CYOA books, the data (text) is physical words on the page. All possible storylines can be read by flipping through the pages all at once, while the Zork possibilities are hidden within the code. Not sensing the scale of the possibilities may add to the intrigue of digital interactive fiction when compared to CYOA books.


When Zork describes locations and prompts the user to choose directions, it gives the program spatial qualities.   The spatial aspects of and experience with Zork is what distinguishes it from the CYOA books. It is as if you are navigating through a multidimensional space with the ability to re-trace steps in a way that does not break the storyline. The CYOA books have a strict linear story structure that can only logically makes sense by flipping the pages of the book. There are multiple branches to the story, but all branches lead in one direction, towards the end of the narrative. Zork allows for exploration of the narrative; movement forward and back through the storyline, but still coming together forming something logical.

CYOA books move the narrative in a branched, linear direction.
CYOA books move the narrative in a branched, linear direction.
Zork allows for navigation through the narrative. Movement in multiple directions.
Zork allows for navigation through the narrative. Movement in multiple directions.

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