Analysis Essay
Greg Lord | ENGL 467 | Prof. Kirschenbaum


Reading the Map

As this particular story follows four main paths, the four quarters of the map are divided into these paths' structures, with the beginning placed in the center. Normal “event nodes” are outlined in grey, representing decisions the reader must make, of linear paths the reader is instructed to follow. The branching arrows represent these possible movements within the text.

Conclusions are outlined more boldly in black, featuring icons to represent the particular type of outcome. Green checkmarks represent the Solutions, or “happy endings” to the story, wherein the reader not only survives, but accomplishes something relevant to their character's mission. Ellipses mark the indeterminate “cliffhanger” endings, which, though not always unfavorable, will end the story before the mission is accomplished with some degree of uncertainty as to the future well-being of the reader's character. Finally, grimly, the reader's death (or impending death) is marked with the icons of gravestones. Too bad for them.

Lastly, while normal arrows indicate normal travel within the story's branching tree structure, the grey, dotted arrows represent a travel between the four main branches. These “Cross-Branch Junctures” indicate their destination with the destination page number near the Cross-Branch nodes.

The map also features the rather editorial observations I've made about the cybertext, including the descriptor popups (featuring the page summaries and node type) and the route/feature markings. The descriptor popup terminology is defined in the glossary section.

Analyzing Altair

With the continual danger and rather bleak ratio of favorable to unfavorable outcomes present in Edward Packard's The Third Planet from Altair, Espen Aarseth's comparison of the conventional fiction reader to the cybertext reader becomes all-too-quickly evident. In Cybertext , Aarseth illustrates this key difference clearly, stating, “The reader's pleasure is the pleasure of the voyeur. Safe, but impotent. The cybertext reader, on the other hand, is not safe….” In a text with only six favorable outcomes amid some thirty-eight possible conclusions, indeed the reader seems intensely vulnerable – even doomed perhaps – if he were to travel only a single path. The odds, quite simply, are against him. It requires luck and a certain clever anticipation to properly guide one's character to a successful completion when faced with the seemingly infinite paths of the book.

As it is, however, the majority of the text operates within the boundaries of four main paths originating from the second (or in Path 4's case, the first) decision he makes. The construction of the novel therefore conforms to Marie-Laure Ryan's model of “the Tree”, wherein the choices are largely branching binaries constructed “to guarantee that choices will always result in a well-formed story” (Ryan, 52). Though Ryan notes the subtle convergence with the “directed flow chart” model, due to the text's merging paths (Cross-Branch Junctures, in the plot map), the primarily branching structure (featuring only four such merges) simplifies its definition somewhat.

This creates a kind of subtext for the story, wherein one is more easily able to explore the smaller decisions he might make as they pertain to the general direction in which their story has headed. There are additionally even a few cases where a potentially conclusive decision positions both outcomes on adjacent pages.

The unique scenario created by these juxtaposed outcomes creates from the text a kind of meta-narrative, wherein one is engaging the process of the cybertext more than the plot itself. Upon deciding whether to betray or follow the mind-controlled captain on page 12, for instance, one is rewarded with both outcomes on the adjacent pages 24 and 25. Their blithe obedience may have cost them their death in the story, but at the same time they need look no further than the other open page to have made the “correct” decision. This scenario openly reveals the manner of causality that fuels a cybertext, giving the reader at least the occasional “safe” vantage point. In effect, both decisions -- including the "correct" one -- are available to the reader, and the voyeuristic vantage point of the standard literary reader is temporarily restored. Though this may not have been the intention of the author, the effect, as an element of interactive fiction, seems notable.

Beyond these things, the layout and content of the text are fairly straightforward. A few noteworthy features, as described further in the routes/features section, are the Conclusion Paths, and Terminating Branches. Though Main Paths 1 and 2 are the longer sections of the text, each feature interesting features for concluding the story, the form of near-inescapable sequences of would-be conclusion decisions. In these, the reader is led through a series of 50/50 chance decisions that result in either a conclusion (always a cliffhanger or death) or another 50/50 chance decision. If navigated through guesswork alone, this would mean a 1-in-8 chance of “survival,” and in Main Branch 2's case, the reader's reward would come in the form of an inescapable dilemma between cliffhanger and death. Once more, Aarseth's observations about the perils of the cybertext seem particularly well-founded.

Though a very simplistic construction of the cybertext genre, The Third Planet from Altair , and Choose Your Own Adventure novels in general provide the basic framework for analysis of Aarseth's “Textual Machine.” In this model, Aarseth details the interactive relationship between text, medium, and reader, to attain the working “machine” of cybertext. Despite its simplicity, Choose Your Own Adventure illustrates this interrelation perfectly, as the active cybertext requires the verbal sign (the text of the story), the medium of the book (constructed mechanically, to link within its pages), and the active participation of the reader to attain a coherent story. Though printed upon pages, this same interrelation occurs in the more technically advanced instances of cybertext, such as Andrew Plotkins's Shade , wherein a reader must actively guide the character through textual input. Though bearing no similarity in terms of Ryan's cybertext models, each bear the requisite elements of the formal system , insofar as a cybertext requires a set of tokens (in this case the Altair pages, or the commands and resulting lexia within Shade ), an established starting position for these tokens (the linear first few pages of Altair and the initial prompts of Shade ), and a well-defined set of rules for manipulating these tokens (the page transitions / text commands). In this way, the similarity of style can be applied to generally all cybertext, as each require the active input of the reader to assemble a coherent product from the textual machine.

Essentially Altair is a very simplistic model for cybertext, wherein its similarity to the conventional novel (words upon printed pages, page-turning for progress, illustrations for the young readers) proves a favorable aspect in terms of accessibility. If only for its exemplification of Marie-Laure Ryan's “tree” model and its formal system construction, it makes for a worthwhile reference in terms of demonstrating the cybertext genre. Once expanded into a plot map, however, the elements of its construction give rise to certain emergent features that prove more complex, and actually quite compelling. More on such details can be found upon the map itself, and the glossary/features section.