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Hypertext Patterns in Rockett's New School

Rockett's New School
Brenda Laurel, Pamela Dell
Purple Moon, Mountain View, CA
CD for Macintosh and Windows

Because many studies of hypertext narrative focus on literary hypertexts, one might conclude that the concepts and patterns they uncover are useful only for esoteric, experimental fiction. The aspirations of such literary fictions as John McDaid's Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse or Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, or the theoretical controversies of Aarseth's Cybertext and Landow's Hypertext 2.0, might seem remote from the workaday concerns of technical writing, commercial Web design, or mass entertainment. But just as hypertext reading and writing have moved from a handful of laboratories to the center of popular culture, the theoretical concepts that arise from literary hypertext are proving valuable for understanding a very wide range of hypertexts.

Rockett's New School is the first of a series of "Friendship Adventures for Girls" from Brenda Laurel's high-profile new media venture, Purple Moon. A first-person interactive adventure, Rockett's New School describes the trials faced by an eighth-grade girl during her first day in a new school. The audience for Rockett's New School is not the audience for literary fiction, but the youth of the audience does not make them less demanding:

  • To facilitate identification (and, perhaps, to convince parents that Rockett's New School is fun, not work), the creators avoid text. The action is carried entirely in pictures and sound; in consequence, tight writing is essential. A handful of sentences and an image or two must define character and incident.
  • The artistic tastes of early adolescents place a high value on realism and detail. No age group is less comfortable with abstraction, or less tolerant of lapses in observation.
  • Educated by hours of television and movies, Rockett's readers possess a strong grounding in contemporary cinematic practice. They have a keen eye for production value and are accustomed to a rich vocabulary of cinematic technique.
  • Although the literary world is (and has ever been) rife with politics, it cannot hold a candle to the brutality of junior high cliques, or to the political complexities that haunt children's literature. Constrained by its readers' demands for realism, Rockett must also satisfy various adult constraints. Rocket meets black friends, white friends, Asian friends, Hispanic friends, Native American friends, and a handicapped teacher. Crafting a story that would prove acceptable to kids, teachers, parents, and critics of all persuasions must have been arduous indeed.

The hypertext structure of Rockett's New School deploys a variety of patterns familiar from literary hypertext. At its core, Rockett is divided in two: the episodic world in which Rockett encounters kids and teachers, and an artifactual mirrorworld in which the reader is invited to examine the contents of the protagonist's backpack, her locker, her friends' lockers, and even the mailboxes in the faculty lounge. The lockers give us a peek into the backstories of each friend, motivating their behavior and making their superficial actions take on deeper and more nuanced meaning. (Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse pioneered artifactual hypertext, and introduced the first elaborate mirrorworld)

The episodic world is structured as a fairly conventional tree fiction. Expository scenes establish a crisis that confronts Rockett Movado; at a crucial moment, the action pauses while the reader chooses among three alternatives. Interestingly, the alternatives are presented not as actions but as moods: when walking into her new homeroom for the first time, for example, Rockett may adopt a show of exuberant confidence, an expression of mild trepidation, or a grumpy, angry fatalism. (The careful avoidance of dichotomy -- there are always three choices -- and the appearance of emotional tone in a role normally performed by "What do you do next?" -- reflect Rockett's gender politics as much as its girlish color scheme does. It's a clever trick: the hypertext structure embodies this homage to Carol Gilligan without dropping the work out of character.)

The artifactual mirrorworld is itself composed of an array of desktops: clusters of hypertext lexia that the reader is free to examine in any sequence. Some insights help Rockett understand the difficulties she has encountered in school. Nicole, her stunningly unpleasant, high-status rival, is terrified at what she sees in her mirror each morning. Miko, acerbic and jealous of any one else's success, is plagued by the expectations and restrictions of her parents. Whitney can't stand her new stepsister. But the rivalries, assignations, and events that arise from the artifactual mirrorworld often go unresolved in the narrative; they are missing links that the audience must resolve imaginatively. (To encourage the audience in this enterprise, Purple Moon supplies a Rocket Movado action figure, t shirt, and a backpack with t-shirt, trading cards, and toy cosmetics)

Rockett's New School avoids cycles -- the staple pattern of much literary hypertext -- with the exception of the grand cycle implicit in rereading the text. Each time we make a choice for Rockett, after all, we wonder what might have happened had we chosen otherwise. The simple cinematic structure of the episodic narrative, composed of a single chronological strand, prevents more elaborate local structure, and adolescent distaste for abstraction discourages stylistic approaches (montage? magic realism? Rashomon cycles?) that might prove useful in a different context. Even the limited recurrence that does occur sometimes gives rise to trouble; characters we encounter late in the day seem sometimes to forget that we've already met them -- common enough in reality, but this audience is likely to perceive an implementation oversight instead of a nod to cinema verite.

The creators of Rockett's New School have not set out to create a bold literary experiment or to embody contemporary critical theory. Purple Moon set out to make games for girls -- and to sell a lot of them. Their audience of choice is the mass market: the rich graphics, the extensive cast of voice talent, technical credits that run to two pages of fine print -- all demand high sales volume. So, too, do Purple Moon's distribution and channel strategy: custom dolls demand plenty of retail muscle. Nevertheless, the patterns of hypertext structure are no less prominent, no less central, to Rockett Movado's tales than to Jackson's Patchwork Girl or to Joyce's man who may have seen his son die.

Mark Bernstein

  • Purple Moon's Web site
  • Brenda Laurel's 1991 book, Computers As Theatre, is an important text for understanding user interface design in a wide range of software, from spreadsheets to games. Oddly, Laurel's appreciation of the importance of drama is not always applied to Rockett's New School; its episodic structure often conceals climax and resolution. Indeed, I wasn't sure I'd reached the end of Rockett's day at school until I called Tech. Support to find out. Perhaps, though, that Rockett ought to be viewed as a series pilot; if so, it may serve to establish characters and dramatic issues from which new episodes can spring.

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