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  • Neurocracy: Using Wikipedia As A Narrative Device

    [08.27.20]
    - Joannes Truyens
  • Hypertext fiction is characterised by networked nodes of text making up a fictional story. There are often several options in each node that direct where the reader can go next. Unlike traditional fiction, the reader is not constrained by reading the fiction from start to end, depending on the choices they make. In this sense, it is similar to an encyclopedia, with the reader reading a node and then choosing a link to follow.

    The above quote is pulled from the Wikipedia entry on hypertext fiction, a subset of interactive fiction (or IF) where players have a measure of control over the story by arranging the order in which they read the constituent parts of the text. The only interaction available to players is which node to pursue next, affording a degree of non-linearity in how the story is assembled. This approach can make setups and payoffs more dynamic; what is foreshadowing to one player may be read as revelation by another.

    Wikipedia compares hypertext fiction to browsing an encyclopedia, so what happens when you just go for it and use Wikipedia as the medium for a story? How do players discover a fictional world by diving into that world's Wikipedia? What kind of story justifies the use of Wikipedia as its medium to ensure that content and form back each other up? These are questions I'm trying to answer with the development of Neurocracy, a game that presents a sci-fi story through Omnipedia, the fictionalised Wikipedia of the year 2049.

    Pinning down Neurocracy as a game is a generous notion; the use of a diegetic, in-universe document as a narrative device sort of makes it an epistolary novel as well. The document in question being Wikipedia simply calls for more interactivity than a series of letters or diary entries would, even if that interactivity is limited to reading and clicking links. So is Neurocracy a game or a novel? The answer is yes, it is.

    It's certainly not a stretch to argue that Wikipedia is a narrative medium in its own right. There's the so-called wiki rabbit hole, which provides a learning pathway that readers can take to navigate from topic to topic. With Omnipedia specifically designed to match Wikipedia in style and layout, Neurocracy's grammar of interaction is already known to anyone who has ever navigated Wikipedia, eliminating the need for a manual or lengthy tutorial.

    That being said, one of the articles available on Omnipedia is one on itself, explaining how the website works within its 2049 context. In addition to informing players on what to expect from the format, this also introduces an aspect of unreliable narration, as the article on Omnipedia specifically mentions how the website is subject to manipulation and spin.

    On Omnipedia, players have access to various hyperlinked articles that detail the characters, organisations, technologies, and events relevant to the story and themes of Neurocracy. When browsing these articles, players never learn outright what transpires between the characters, what their true actions or motivations are, or who did what with/to whom. With only the "public" information on Omnipedia available, players essentially deduce a story from the worldbuilding rather than the other way around. There is no greater narrative force than imagination.

    That's where Neurocracy's interactivity lies: players tell themselves (and others) the story by filling in the blanks between the lines and drawing connections between various clues peppered throughout the articles. In that respect, Neurocracy also introduces elements from alternate reality games (or ARGs), which depend on players working together to share discoveries and solutions, and create resources for others to follow.

    The premise of browsing a futuristic Wikipedia is easy to grasp, but what narrative mechanics does the medium of Wikipedia afford in the context of interactive fiction? Here's how Neurocracy translates two specific functions of Wikipedia: the revision history and the article previews.

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