Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Critical Essay on Thomas M. Disch's "AMNESIA"

Remembering the 1980s with Thomas M. Disch's AMNESIA

“You wake up feeling wonderful. But also, in some indefinable way, strange. . . . You have . . . Thomas M. Disch’s AMNESIA.”

This statement welcomes you to the text adventure game AMNESIA. The title refers to the situation players find themselves in: alone in a hotel room with no idea who they are or how they got there. Released in 1986 by the game company, Electronic Arts (EA), AMNESIA was created by Disch who had long been recognized as a well-respected science fiction writer, a winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, among several others. This is not a work of science fiction, though; rather, it is a detective game where players solve the mystery of who they are.

Those playing AMNESIA in 1986 may not have known it at the time, but they were indeed waking up to very strange and new world. The period of the mid to late 1980s was a watershed time for works like AMNESIA evolving from experiments with computer mediated writing.

AMNESIA was originally under contract with the book publisher, Harper & Row, which had just published Disch's 1984 novel, The Businessman, and were “intrigued by the potential for interactive literature and terrified lest they be left out of a whole new field of literary endeavor” (Mahrer). Later that same year, concerns about the economic viability of interactive media in the marketplace caused Harper & Row to “abruptly pull out." AMNESIA moved for a short time to CBS before landing with Electronic Arts, a game company known at the time for crediting its developers and emphasizing games as art. Before the move, though, Harper & Row had already hired Cognetics to handle the game’s programming (Mahrer). Cognetics was owned by Charlie Kreizberg and had on staff programmer James Terry who had developed a game authoring system he called “King Edward” written in the programming language FORTH in a version, according to Terry, called “Atila,” originally produced for the Apple II. James later “ported” the system to the Commodore 64 and the IBM PC. He also reports that FORTH was written in 6502 on the Apple II and 8086 assembler on the IBM PC (Terry) [1] Kevin Bentley, “a local kid” that Kreitzberg’s wife knew through Bentley's family’s grocery business, was brought in to do actual programming of Disch’s manuscript (Mahrer) into Terry’s King Edward game authoring system and, so, is credited for the work. It is important to note that FORTH was created in 1970 by Chuck Moore and, as a program called MacForth, used in 1984 on the first Macintosh. FORTH formed the basis for another game EA released in 1986, Starflight, and the software program, Hypergate, created by Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, Inc. for The Election of 1912 produced by Bernstein and Erin Sweeney (1988), Sucker in Spades by Robert DiChiara in 1988, and Sarah Smith’s King of Space in 1991.

The concept of an established print author producing a video game was not new. In 1984 Robert Pinsky published Mindwheel. That same year Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky released The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. In 1988 Smith, another well-established writer, began work on her hypertext novel King of Space that includes numerous games and puzzles (Grigar, “Contextualizing”). Science fiction writer John McDaid was introduced to hypertext author Michael Joyce and publisher Mark Bernstein in 1987 and a few years later produced the hypermedia novel, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse.  This was published, like Smith’s work, by Bernstein’s company. Also like Smith’s, McDaid's involved numerous games and puzzles that require solving in order to move through the narrative. It was created with HyperCard 2.0 and incorporated HyperTalk “as both a generator of randomness and as an embedded text” (McDaid).

The interest in experimenting with computer mediated writing was not limited to industry but also explored in academia. On the East Coast in 1983 Andries van Dam, William S. Shipp, and Norman Meyrowitz at Brown University established the Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship (IRIS) to provide a scholars with access to computer technology. Out of that support came Intermedia, a hypertext authoring system co-developed by scholar and media theorist George Landow and used for his early hypertext-based work. Production of his The Dickens Web  was begun in Intermedia in the late 1980s before migrating to Storypace for publication in 1992 (Landow). Speaking of Storyspace, the influential hypertext authoring system of electronic literature was first demonstrated in 1987 at Hypertext ‘87 by Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce who co-developed it with John Smith. From there they founded a startup company in 1988, Riverrun, Ltd. to license the software for the publication of narrative environments, eventually licensing it to Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems, Inc in 1990 (Barnet 131). Under Bernstein’s guidance the software went on to form the basis for many of the field’s pioneering works of born digital literature, including Joyce’s afternoon: a story (1990), Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden (1991), and Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) (Barnet 130-131). Upon getting the rights to Storyspace, Bernstein abandoned his own authoring system Hypergate, mentioned earlier, that he developed in 1988. Smith’s King of Space remains one of three published hypertext narratives that used this software program. [2]

Artists on the West Coast interested in hybrid art forms were also experimenting with computers for producing literary works of art. In 1986 Judy Malloy published the first part, “A Party in Woodside,” of her serial novel Uncle Roger on The WELL. This was an internet community founded in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in the Bay Area that in the early days that used BBS technology to connect users across the country to discuss art, culture, and a host of other topics (Rheingold 17-37). Malloy quickly followed with an interactive version of "A Party in Woodside" in 1987 along with the second part, “A Blue Notebook,” both programmed with UNIX Shell Scripts. Versions 3.0 and 4.0, which included the third part, “Terminals,” were produced with her own authoring system, Narrabase. Version 3.0 is the boxed version sold as a stand-alone artists software in Narrabase programmed in AppleSoft BASIC, published in 1987-1988, and sold through Art Com Catalog; Version 4.0, the boxed version programmed in GW-BASIC and published in 1988 for gallery exhibitions (Grigar, Pathfinders).

Jim Rosenberg, another writer and denizen of THE WELL (“A Conversation”), had long established himself as a pioneer of literary experimentation. Known for his non-linear poetry produced in the late 1960s, he went on to develop interactive poetry with a Macintosh computer and HyperCard. His works, Intergrams (1988-1992), Diffractions Through (1996) and Barrier Frames (1996) were published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. (Rosenberg).

Disch’s own foray into “bookware,” as mentioned earlier, came in 1984 when he was approached by his publisher, Harper & Row. This new project was to create an interactive novel for them that resulted in AMNESIA. The project was eventually cancelled by the publisher, moved briefly to CBS, but finally picked up by EA (Mahrer). When it went on the market, it sold for $44.95 for the Apple II, IBM PC and compatible versions; $39.95 for the Commodore 64 version (Trunzo). The project got far enough, though, with Harper & Row that the company had already produced the packaging for the game (GUE, “Packaging Variations”).

Criticized at the time for being too much of a novel not enough of a game (Scorpia 64; Ardai 24) and as only moderately successful as a work of interactive fiction (Montfort 182-5), AMNESIA remains an early example of a literary game––that is, what theorist Astrid Ensslin describes as a “hybrid subgroup of creative media that has both readerly and playerly characteristics” (author’s emphasis 1). What makes the work stand out today is its level of complexity and detail. The two 5.25-inch floppy disks comprising the work are packaged with an 18-page “Manual,” a 10-page “Visitors Guide to New York City,” and a four-page “Address Book” that contains 17 entries. There is also a booklet called the “Command Summary” that details the short cuts for “Getting Started,” “Talking to Characters,” and “Printing a Travelogue.” It also includes a “Street and Subway Map of Manhattan,” a six-page foldout that include a detailed map of the borough, an accompanying street index, and subway map––all “Compliments of The Sunderland Hotel.” Finally, there is “The X-Street Indexer,” a paper wheel that players can use to locate “the nearest cross street.” What one needs to do with the map and locater is not exactly clear at the outset, but they suggest that getting out of the hotel and into the streets of NYC figures as a main course of action. In total, the work includes 1700 words, 4000 locations, 650 streets, and the entire NYC subway system (Trunzo). Its "Indexer" holds 30 blocks and 15 avenues for a total of 450 location combinations (Scorpia 64).

Though criticized for “offer[ing] several major events, organized like cut-up scenes with few options for variation, in a work that  is otherwise open to many unimportant possibilities" (Montfort 184), AMNESIA with its dark humor remains engaging as a narrative. For example, we realize that we are  in room 1502 in a hotel called The Sunderland. In the room with us is a piece of stationary, a Gideon Bible, a ballpoint pen near a phone, and an Apple IIe computer owned by a local computer store setting on a metal cart. When players pick up and read the Bible, they find one of the pages dog-earred and marked up. The familiar verse from John I is scribbled in the Bible: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This is a not-so-subtle connection between the power of the electronic word to God's. As James Mahrer points out:

[Disch] painstakingly worked through how the protagonist should be described in the many possible states of dress he might assume. He even went so far as to author error messages to display if the player, say, tries to take off his pants without first removing his shoes. He also thought about ways to believably keep the story on track in the face of many possible player choices. One section of the story, for example, requires that the player be wearing a certain white tuxedo. Disch ensures this is the case by making sure the pair of jeans the player might otherwise choose to wear have a broken zipper which makes them untenable (this also offers an opportunity for some sly humor, an underrated part of Disch’s arsenal of writing talents). (Mahrer)

AMNESIA offers different endings. One sees players living out their days on a sheep station in Australia with a wife and a house full of children. In another, players are found guilty of a crime they do not remember committing and are given the choice of committing suicide or facing a firing squad. In some cases, they are allowed to meet St. Peter and provide the correct information about their identity to enter heaven. Depending on players’ ability to solve the puzzle, they may never leave the Sunderland Hotel. But if they are lucky, they get to explore the streets and places of NYC in search of who they really are.

It’s interesting to note that Disch did not write the manuscript for AMNESIA on a computer, for the original manuscript shows it to be typed. Nor did he have a good understanding about how to conceptualize a work of interactive fiction. The sprawling 450+ page manuscript proved challenging to develop as a game environment (Mahrer). Nonetheless, this work by a noted novelist represents the zeitgeist of the period, an experiment with computer mediated writing like many emerging during the mid to late 1980s. Even more poignant, AMNESIA reflects the way in which computer-mediated literature did not maintain traction in the book publishing industry and why interactive fiction lost support in the video game industry, for after only moderate sales of AMNESIA EA never published another text adventure game again and the only large game company that remained loyal to the genre was Infocom. As far as computer-mediated writing goes, other notable works that followed, like Myst, were published as video games despite their strong literary leanings. While the rise of the web has been blamed for the lack of support from publishers for electronic literature, the truth of the matter is that economic challenges related to development, hardware and software, and continued migration into different formats long affected formal avenues of publishing for computer mediated writing, not to mention 500 years of inculcation that a literary experience is found only on the printed page.

[1] As Terry reports, "The authoring tool was written in Forth with a few performance critical assembly language routines." When asked about other games programmed with King Edward, he responded that, "The only other games using this authoring system is the unpublished game, Henson's Fraggle Rock. Terry says that the game was completed but the original publisher, Harper and Row, dropped out of the software business and Henson could never come to a satisfactory agreement with another publisher” (Terry, Email, 14 May 2018).

[2] Two other works that used Hypergate was The Election of 1912, created by Bernstein and Erin Sweeney and published by Eastgate in 1988 and Sucker in Spades by Robert DiChiara in 1988.

Andrews, Jim. “Introduction. First Screening: Computer Poems.” Vispo

Amnesia Game Packaging” Gallery of Undiscovered Entities (GUE).

Ardai, Charles. "Year in Review.”  1986. Computer Gaming World. No. 33. p. 21.

Barnet, Belinda. Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext. London, UK: Anthem Press, 2014.

Carroll, Tobias. "The Only Thing Worse Than Bad Memories: Playing and Reading Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia." Hazlitt.

Ensslin, Astrid. Literary Gaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014.

Grigar, Dene. “Contextualizing the King of Space.” Rebooting Electronic Literature. 2018.

---. “Judy Malloy.” Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital  Literature. Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop. 2015.

---. “The Many Faces of Uncle RogerTraversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing. Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.

Landow, George. “Traversal of The Dickens Web.” Personal Email. 9 Apr. 2018.

Mahrer, James. “Amnesia.” The Digital Antiquarian. 29 Sept.

Malloy, Judy. “A Conversation with Jim Rosenberg.” Interactive Art Conference. The WELL. January 1996.

McDaid, John. “Artist’s Statement.” Pathfinders: Documenting the Experience of Early Digital Literature. Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop. 2015.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1993.

Rosenberg, Jim. “Bio.”

Scorpia. "Amnesia.” 1987. Computer Gaming World. No. 34. pp. 44–45, 64–65.

Terry, James. "Research into the King Edward Authoring System for AMNESIA." Personal Email. 14 May 2018.

---. James Terry: Software Developer.

Trunzo, James V. (May 1987). "Amnesia"Compute!. No. 84. p. 46.

Walker Rettberg, Jill. “Electronic Literature Seen from a Distance: The Beginnings of a Field.” Dichtung Digital. 2012.

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