Print used to be literature’s default medium: if you wanted to read something, you went to a bookstore or library and bought a printed book. Now, with mobile apps like Device 6 – part fiction, part puzzle game – literature is suddenly opening up new frontiers.
Here are five ways in which Device 6, a digital novella, challenges long-held assumptions about reading, writing, and the literary form:
1. Digital literature offers different kinds of interactivity
Device 6 is both a work of fiction and a puzzle game. In order to advance through the story, readers/players must solve a variety of challenges. In other words, this is a story that fights back; advancement must be earned.
Something like this would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish in a printed book. Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, with its strange page layouts and long footnotes (and footnotes within footnotes), comes close by making the text and the narrative so twisted. Even so, the reader’s interaction with the book just involves turning pages and reading text: its puzzles are contained within the narrative but do not directly preclude access to it.
Device 6 is a different story; if you can’t figure out the puzzles, the only way you’ll advance is by reading a walkthrough (or asking one of your really smart friends for help).2. Digital text can take many branching paths
In Device 6, text is not simply used to tell a story, but also to create space. The space of the text becomes apparent when narrative paths literally branch off from each other. By choosing one path over another, the reader alters the course of the narrative.
This has been approximated in print, such as in “choose-your-own-adventure” books, but these books lack the sense of space that the narrative trails of Device 6 allow for.
3. Digital text can be obscured or hidden
Text is written for the purpose of being read at some point, right? Well, in the case of Device 6, it depends.
In Device 6, there is a point during the third chapter in which you’re given a mask to see hidden clues within the text (along with a branching path that wouldn’t otherwise be visible).
Unless the point of the text is to draw attention to redaction and censorship, the words on the page should, ideally, be legible (and even then, the redacted text can’t be revealed at a later date). As Device 6 shows, though, it is possible to create levels of legibility that allows text to be hidden or revealed at different times. This certainly adds a little intrigue to the reading experience.
4. Digital text allows for multimedia experiences
At the beginning of Device 6, the the user is told to make sure that sound is enabled on their phone. This is important, you can’t solve the first chapter’s main puzzle unless you can hear an audio clue that plays in one of the passageways. Other chapters follow suit, blending text with sound and video to create puzzles that require the reader/player to not only read the text, but listen to and watch it as well.
5. Digital text has different constraints
Most of these aspects of digital literature are positive: after all, who wouldn’t like a more interactive, narratively rich experience? There is a downside to the digitization of literature, though.
Printed books can be bought, sold, gifted, and traded as physical objects; once a book has been printed, the author or publisher has no control over its ultimate destiny. Books can be modified by the reader: marginal notes can be written, pages could be cut out and framed as art. You can even cut a hole in the book for storing contraband.
Generally, though, you can’t cut a hole in your electronic text. Digital platforms tend to be much more closed off. Someone playing Device 6 can’t scribble notes about how to solve the puzzles without getting a pen and paper, and certainly cannot hide contraband inside of it (not without breaking the iPhone, that is).
Digital literature, as a medium, is still in its infancy. Works such as Device 6 represent its baby steps towards acceptance as a platform for “serious” works of art. As it grows up, it will certainly find even more new and exciting ways to differentiate itself from print.