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PUZZLES AND POSSIBILITIES:
NEW FORMS OF COMMUNICATION IN THE ELECTORATE AGE
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I owe thanks to Dr. Harpold, whose teachings first interested me in the happy
madness of New Media studies, and to Dr. Ulmer, whose creativity, understanding,
wisdom, and sheer force of personality are a privilege to experience as a student. I would
also like to thank my siblings, who served as a wonderful and responsive sounding board
for my ideas; my father, whose enthusiasm for my studies gave me courage; and most
especially my mother, who defies description, and who was and always will be the best
person I have ever known.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ......... ................................................................................... iv
LIST OF FIGURES ......... ....... .................... .......... ....... ............ vi
ABSTRACT .............. ............................................. vii
IN TR O D U C TIO N ............................................... .. ..................... .............. ..
IMAGETEXT POSSIBILITIES: MYST................................................ ............... 9
The Lingo Puzzle................................... ............ .... ........ .. .............. 10
T he L ogic Puzzle .................................. ......... .... .... ... .. .... ...... 13
T h e M o o d P u zzle ................ ........ ...... ...... .......... ............. ...... ............ .. .. 15
IMAGETEXT POSSIBILITIES: THE THREE GOLDEN KEYS .............................21
IMAGETEXT POSSIBILITIES: QUIMBY THE MOUSE ............... .................... 25
C O N C L U SIO N ......... ...................................................................... .......... .. ... .. 3 1
LIST OF REFEREN CE S ...................................................................... ............... 32
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ...................................................................... ..................33
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1. M yst linking book ......................... ...... ................................... ............... 19
Figure 2. M yst gam e play start................. ............................ ................... ............... 19
Figure 3. Myst Red Book pre-first page ............................. ..................20
Figure 4. M yst Red Book post-first page ........................................ ........ ............... 20
Figure 5. Myst Sirrus's room, Mechanical Age ........................................... 20
Figure 6. Myst Achenar's room, Mechanical Age ......................................................20
Figure 7. The Three Golden Keys page 8....................................... ........................ 23
Figure 8. The Three Golden Keys page 8 detail...................................... ...... ............... 24
Figure 9. Quimby the Mouse front cover....................... ................. 29
Figure 10. Quim by the M house back cover .............................................. ............... 29
Figure 11. Quimby the M house back cover detail..................................... ............... 29
Figure 12. Quimby the Mouse "I'm a very generous person...".......... ... ...............30
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
PUZZLES AND POSSIBILITIES: NEW FORMS OF COMMUNICATION IN THE
Chair: Gregory Ulmer
Cochair: Terry Harpold
Major Department: English
Imagetexts offer new possibilities for language, for pairing text with images in
increasingly complex ways. In a close examination ofMyst, a seminal computer game
and an almost completely image-based text, I identify patterns of communication unique
to the genre. These patterns are necessary to the pleasure of playing Myst. The "lingo"
pattern is a visual language unique to a game, and the player enjoys learning the language
and therefore the logic of the game's world. The "mood" pattern is based on a myriad of
tiny details, that added together create an atmosphere designed to draw the player into the
game. In Myst, the player is asked to judge characters' morality based on the sum total of
these usually insignificant details. This mood puzzle is unique to the imagetext because
it relies on the visceral and emotional effect of an image to communicate information to
The new structures of communication clearly seen in Myst can be abstracted and
used to understand other texts like Quimby the Mouse and The Three Golden Keys.
These texts seamlessly integrate these devices: Chris Ware's Quimby the Mouse
reconfigures comic book conventions in order to explore the genre's lingo possibilities,
and Peter Sis's The Three Golden Keys creates meaning through an intricate mood
pattern. Much like Myst, both books explore the possibilities of imagetext, using
imagery and texture to create an atmosphere of play and discovery.
Much has been made of the white noise of media, the many bars of text and
tickertape on news channels, the omnipresence of advertising. The consequences of these
facts of modern living are yet to be fully understood, but it is certain that in the glut of
information surging against a finite attention span, the audience must make a choice. On
CNN, the viewer must focus on the talking head and its voice or she or he must ignore
the voice in order to read the headlines scrolling along the bottom. There is a tension
between the possibility of a sustained barrage of information and the need for coherence:
between an audience that is increasingly accustomed to the factors of choice and chance
in entertainment, and the need for a controlled narrative. These issues are increasingly
seen in other traditionally linear forms of media as audiences become more electorate 1
New Media and electracy offer new possibilities for language, new possibilities for
pairing text with images in increasingly complex ways. Video games depict intricate and
pixel-perfect worlds, designed to draw the player into an atmosphere. The first time I
played Myst, a computer game very much concerned with atmospheres, I felt so involved
in the mood of the game that I shivered, shrieked, and gasped during the eeriest parts,
completely in the game's thrall. The unique effect the game had on me never left my
mind. In writing this paper, I set out to understand how these atmospheres, or moods, are
'Ulmer, Internet Invention : From Literacy to Electracy
created in imagetexts.2 I wanted to better understand what makes certain texts capable of
engaging a player's viscera as surely as every written text engages the mind. Theorizing
answers to these questions was more difficult than I first imagined.
An ontological approach to video games is somewhat hard to find, but Roger
Caillois' Man, Play, and Games and Espen Aarseth's Cybertext are both helpful in this
regard. Caillois published a sociological theory of gaming in 1958. Man, Play, and
Games sets out different categories of gaming: ag6n, or competitive gaming, alea, or
games of chance, illinx, or 'dizzying' games, and mimicry, acting out roles as in a play.
His methodology is helpful here, in that he is interested in the characteristics that set one
species of gaming apart from another. Though his study does not address much of
modern gaming, most notably solitaire and almost every adventure game, his approach is
helpful for thinking about games within an organizational system.
Aarseth's Cybertext characterizes texts as "ergodic" that is, he understands them as
systems of pathways that a reader must engage with nontriviall effort" (1). This approach
helps to free adventure gaming from what Aarseth considers academia's failure to "grasp
the intrinsic qualities of the genre" (106). This approach does goes very far in defining
and categorizing the mechanisms of games that fall outside the scope of Caillois' work.
But Aarseth focuses on textual adventure games, 2D platform games, and hypertext.
Cybertext does not address games whose presentation is three dimensional and almost
purely visual, and therefore is not concerned with how images affect the moods and
atmospheres of an imagetext.
2 Ault, ImageTexT
The larger context of Neo-Baroque criticism is helpful in understanding the ways
imagetexts can create mood. In recent scholarship, a historical connection has been
drawn between seventeenth-century Baroque aesthetics and our current information-
driven mode of aesthetics. Angela Ndalianis' innovative book Neo-Baroque Aet'i1eic \
explores this connection in the context of interrelated genres. Ndalianis defines Neo-
Baroque entertainment forms as concerned with "engulfing and engaging the spectator
actively in sensorial and formal games that are concerned with their own media-specific
sensory and playful experiences" (3). She explores what she calls "the aesthetics of
wonder," the interconnectedness of varied forms of modern media and the pervasiveness
of media spectacle (245). Her analysis of video games highlights the ways they intersect
with their parents, movies, or their siblings, theme parks, and the ways in which these
intersections create possibility for a more active reader/player. Ndalianis sees Neo-
Baroque as a pervasive net of media, in which a narrative can take many forms and
surround an audience with information. This understanding of New Media as
"engulfing" a player underscores the new possibilities for audiences to interact with a
text: to walk through, to touch, and to choose.
Mieke Bal's Quoting Cail ',.-i, offers a detailed look at the relationship between
imagetext in modern art and its roots in Baroque-era art. Her close readings of Neo-
Baroque art are helpful in understanding the mechanisms imagetext uses to work on an
audience, and her example of Christiensen's Ostentatio Vulnerum provides an example of
Neo-Baroque art and its ability to affect its audience. In the piece, Christensen takes a
detail from Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas and magnifies it. Then, beneath in a
contiguous frame, she displays a sheet of red Jell-O. Either part of the piece would not
function alone. Together, however, they create a powerful mood in the viewer. The
viewer feels "wound" when she looks at the piece. The feeling created in the viewer is
not logical, nor is it sympathetic. "If that wound is what the critics need to get away
from," she notes, "it is because it attracts the eye; it is literally fascinating, holding you
riveted while frightening you away." For Bal, the Neo-Baroque is defined by this ability
to affect its audience viscerally. While the wound is Baroque, the Neo-Baroque is
created in its juxtaposition with red Jell-O. The mood of "wound" is magnified by its
neighboring Jell-O, displayed at room temperature on a museum wall, passively
undergoing an inevitable decay.
While many of my concerns are framed by recent scholarship, some questions have
yet to be dealt with directly. What, specifically, does greater interactivity and choice
mean for an image-based text? How do New Media organize and communicate
information? Are there new patterns that characterize imagetexts; patterns akin to classic
text devices like metaphors, enjambment, and interrogative sentences? Perhaps the tools
for addressing the ontology of imagetext/reader interaction do not exist yet. I aim to
address these questions or at least to offer possible tools for their further exploration.
My method here is theoretical; I am less concerned with scholarship concerning the
application of semiotics to videogames, or the small body of critical literature on Myst,
and more concerned with imagining new possibilities and approaches for analyzing an
imagetext. I intend to examine the implications of reader3 agency and choice by using
Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text to examine some of this phenomenon's New
3 There is some awkwardness of terms here, "reader" connotes a classic text, "player" seems to evoke a
person playing a game (and implies a lack of serious engagement with the text), and "audience" seems to
mean more than one person. All three are true for the issues I am addressing, so I will use the three terms
interchangeably, to mean a person who is engaging with an imagetext.
Media roots in one of the earliest (and most popular) examples of three-dimensional
In discussing the effects and management of gameplay and narrative choice in
Myst, I will try to answer what may be the most pressing video game question to my
mind: what makes successful imagetexts work? Myst performs the striking feat of
making the written word all but unnecessary to the completion of its narrative.4
Encountering few words, spoken or written, Myst's players are able to navigate a world
whose diegesis frequently does not follow the player's extradiagetic knowledge and
experience.5 While Myst's diegesis remains somewhat similar to our own, its logic and
functioning remains a complex system for the reader to navigate.
I posit that, from an authorial standpoint, the challenge of creating a
comprehensible narrative in a purely visual environment is enormous. On any given
screen in Myst there are multiple places a player might click, but only four or five will
yield a response. Beyond this, if every click is a furthering of the narrative, then a
random reading of Myst is potentially maddening, with threads that loop, diverge, and
back track enough to frustrate a player who does not become comfortable with the
game's diegesis. From this vantage point, the need for an authorial control over the text
4 It is important to note that there are quite a few pages of text to read in Myst (there is a shelf that contains
several books with information about the Myst worlds), but few of the details they relate are absolutely
necessary to beat the game. Interestingly, the books seem like a perfect opportunity to spell out hints to the
puzzles, but the diagrams, maps, and patterns found in the books are the only useful information in a
5 Objects inMyst often have different functions than objects in the player's extradiegesis. A tree works as a
hydraulic elevator, and a dentist's chair is used to view stars, as through a telescope. Though the physical
laws of Myst's worlds (gravity and inertia, for example) usually do match up with the player's 'real world,'
sometimes even these rules are bent or changed. A player can use a 'linking' book as a physical gateway
into another world, actually dematerializing into its pages and materializing in the world it depicts.
is obvious. Because Myst is almost purely image-based, the solutions6 the creators of
Myst, brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, developed to solve these issues in Myst can be
generalized to address the question of how imagetext works and communicates in
After an examination of Myst and its modes of player interaction, I will abstract the
patterns it uses in order to apply them to two more recent examples of imagetext media.
Chris Ware's Quimby the Mouse and Peter Sis's The Three Golden Keys are ideal texts to
use for a trial of this theory. Much like Myst, these texts seamlessly integrate imagetext
possibilities, demonstrating an obsessive attention to detail and marginalia, systems of
mapping and guidance, and multiple narrative threads.
Since I am mainly concerned with the interaction, audience agency, and play that
imagetext yields, Barthes' The Pleasures of the Text is an appropriate starting point. In
this text, Barthes is concerned with a reading experience that allows for choice, with
readers that meander and authors whose style encourages them. In theorizing these more
interactive aspects of classic text, Barthes grapples with questions that are situated at the
heart of the modern media spectacle. That is, what are the implications and problems
with choice in narrative?
In addressing this question, Barthes frequently asserts his own experience of a
connection between a reader's choice and the pleasure inherent in reading:
Our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or skip
certain passages (anticipated as "boring") in order to get
more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote...we
boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations,
analyses, conversations.. it is the very rhythm of what is
6 i.e. the possibilities for meaning through imagetext
read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of great
This exploration of the conditions necessary for play and pleasure in classic text
suggests a similar question in the study of New Media: what does the image add to the
pleasure of text? The Pleasure of the Text is such a cryptically written and amorphous
text that it allows for flexibility in application, and is a useful tool in exploring the
ontology of the Neo-Baroque.
As an avid reader of these new forms of media, I have noticed that the imagetexts I
find the most "engulfing" and pleasurable are often the texts that allow for choice,
whether in the freedom my eye is allowed as it explores the details in an illustration, or
the ability to choose among the varied paths of a complex video game narrative. This
subjective experience of pleasure in choice echoes Barthes. In his understanding, bliss
can only occur when the author gives over some control of the narrative.
[The author] must seek out this reader (must "cruise" him)
1 iiihiit knowing where he is. A site of bliss is then created.
It is not the reader's "person" that is necessary... it is this
site: the possibility of a dialectics of desire, of an
unpredictability of bliss: the bets are not placed, there can
still be a game. (4)
That is, the crucial element in gaming is one of the reader's choices, or an element
of "unpredictability" to the narrative. The author must allow for this freedom, this ability
of the reader to interact with the text in ways the author might not foresee.
In a narrative that is too tightly controlled (Barthes refers to this as a "prattling"
text) the reader is offered no freedom. Imagetexts offer points of escape from this
prattling. There are certainly frustrations and breakdowns of communication in gaming,
but in a functioning imagetext, the reader has choice: where to look on a page, where to
click on a screen, and sometimes which narrative thread to pursue. Because the
author/text/reader relationship is central to a critical evaluation of New Media, I enlist
Barthes as an almost-oracle, keeping in mind his theories on the pleasures and
possibilities of reader agency to help reconsider interaction between the reader and the
IMAGETEXT POSSIBILITIES: MYST
The first action taken by the player in Myst is a gesture of opening a book and
entering into the world it depicts. (Figures. 1 and 2) The world of Myst turns from a two
dimensional animation into a three dimensional world.' At this point, the narrative
switches from a traditional linear narrative into a webbing sprawl of possibilities. The
player suddenly gains agency to choose, within certain parameters, where to go and what
to do. In a post CD-ROM world, the goal in designing a three dimensional8 game world
is ostensibly to afford an experience as immersive as everyday life. There is a tension
here between the infinite possibilities of a three-dimensional space and the necessity of a
narrative drive, between the freedom and 'realism' that players increasingly demand and
an absolute need for an authorial guiding hand.
This tension is resolved in the course of three types of puzzle patterns in Myst.9
The first type is a puzzle in the most traditional sense of the word, an obstacle that
requires calculation and planning, assessment of if/then relationships, or formulation or
reading of a spatial map. The second type is so seamlessly blended into the game itself
7 There are many examples of multilinear narratives in a purely textual format (Michael Joyce's afternoon
comes to mind), but here I am specifically concerned with the narrative possibilities of a rendered three-
dimensional space as they differ from the space afforded by a page.
8 Myst is not, of course, literally three-dimensional. In fact, the halting screen-by-screen gameplay of the
original and "Masterpiece" versions of the game is arguably less 3D than a later remake called RealMyst,
which allows a player to move smoothly through the game environment. However, for the purposes of this
paper, I use this term "three-dimensional" to refer to a demand the game makes on a player's spatial
mapping. That is, unless the player perceives the topography of Myst as corresponding to a three-
dimensional space, it is difficult for her to navigate the space and discover all the parts of the puzzles.
9 I do not mean to explore every gaming pattern. There are other mechanisms for gamer/game interaction
that lie outside the scope of this paper. Most notably, games that demand reflex reactions from their
players (as in Mario games, where a well-timed jump is crucial to success), and games that demand
accuracy and gauging of the effects of gravity, weather, etc. (as with the Tiger Woods golf series). I choose
these three patterns to detail because of their immediate relevance to imagetext structures in other media.
that it is easy to miss, but it is more important to the text of Myst in many ways. This
puzzle requires a mastery of the language of Myst. The player has to become
comfortable with Myst's systems of representation and meaning, learning to separate the
logic puzzles from the atmosphere that surrounds them. The third type of puzzle is one
of practical wisdom. The player is asked to solve the final problem of the game using her
understanding of the atmospheres of Myst, the general feeling she has about the
characters, based only on the evidence of their abandoned environments.10 The two men
revealed to be trapped in the red and blue linking books say they are brothers, and beg the
player to free them from their book, to bring their book more pages and not the other. In
three out of the four worlds that Myst Island links to, the player discovers rooms the
brothers inhabited before they were trapped inside the blue and red books. The rooms are
abandoned, and the contents and differences between the rooms, often side by side, offer
clues to the final puzzle of the game: which brother, if any, should go free? This type of
question demands an entirely different level of interaction with the game.
The Lingo Puzzle
In thinking about Myst's various puzzles, is helpful to outline the relationship
between its various islands and the books that link them together. In order to travel from
the main island to the various other island worlds, the player must solve puzzles in order
to find that world's linking book. These logic-based puzzles of Myst are conspicuous
within the environment of each age. They are almost always associated with in
mechanical devices, things obviously made for interaction: gears, levers, pulls, matches,
10 The terms "puzzle" and "problem" are not exactly equal, the former connotes a game scenario and the
latter connotes an interpersonal interaction, which allows for a more ambiguous solution.
and buttons. These puzzles require logic, in part, but they also require a Rube-Goldberg
type understanding of a logic specific to the world itself.
In Myst, interaction with a map or model of an object often influences the larger
topography it depicts. Clicking on a painting of a bookshelf causes a bookshelf in the
same room to sink into the ground, revealing a passageway. Raising a submerged model
ship raises a much larger counterpart across the island. These puzzles, while they are not
patterned after real-world interactions, are exemplary and internally consistent. There are
usually two parts to the puzzle: one, recognizing the elements to the puzzle itself, and
two, using logic and spatial mapping to solve it. Often the pieces to the problem are
scattered throughout the island. In order to open the large gears that lead to the
Mechanical Age, the player has to perform a complex series of tasks without any written
or verbal instruction. A shorthand description of the steps a player has to take should
look something like this:
Flip the marker switch by the gears, marking the gears on the tower map in the
library. Click on the picture of the bookshelf, making the bookshelf disappear and reveal
a passageway to the tower. Recognize that the map in the library is a representation of
Myst Island. Click the circle that represents the tower. Pair the sound made as the
overlay on the map turns with the actual tower's movement. Realize the sightline of the
tower window changes red whenever it hovers over certain places (and leave the sightline
over the line drawing that represents the gears). Climb up the tower and look at the
plaque that says 2:40, 221. Leave the tower and go across the island to the clock tower.
Figure out that one wheel controls the minutes and the other controls the time, and put in
2:40. Cross the bridge of gears that arises with solving the clock puzzle. Enter the clock
tower and pull the levers until the numbers read 221. Watch the miniature gears open and
realize the large gears may be open too. Return to the large gears to find the linking
This narrative description reinforces the importance of "realizing" and
"recognizing." There are many leaps in understanding in the puzzle's chain of events,
many instances that require links and insights that logic alone cannot account for. The
question of how these leaps are made is the crux of the first type of puzzle. The miniature
gears do represent the larger ones, but they are on opposite sides of the island. The
picture of the secret bookshelf passage does open the actual bookshelf, but this
relationship has no anchor in a player's "real world" experience. This type of visual
recognition is not an analytical process. Rather, a player intuits these connections
because Myst teaches her to do so.
In the example of the picture, there are a few clues that set up the puzzle of the
bookshelf. First, if the player clicks on the picture, the point of view shifts so the picture
is close up and centered in the frame of her monitor. She now can see that the painting
depicts the bookshelf in the room, but that in the painting it is opened to reveal a
passageway. She clicks, the passageway opens, and a step of the larger puzzle is solved.
From the experience the player learns two guiding principles in the world of Myst: one,
in this world, a model or a map is causally connected to the actual object it depicts, and
two, objects centered in the frame of the monitor are worth clicking on.
In this regard, every interactive object on Myst's worlds functions as a map's
legend, or a visual phrasebook. The game frequently uses very simple codes, like a one-
to-one correspondence between models and 'real' counterparts, or the subtler device of
frame composition, to set up the "Aha!" moments that become a pleasure of the puzzle-
solver. I call this a lingo pattern or puzzle, after the flexible form of this pattern and the
shift in its characteristics from game to game.1
The pleasure of the lingo puzzle experience closely mirrors the developmental
pattern of language acquisition. At the moment a player enters through the linking book
into the three dimensional world of Myst there are no rules.12 She inhabits an unmapped,
unlearned, undefined space. While every carefully placed object in Myst offers a
possibility for interaction, and theoretically a player could stumble around the world
clicking on every leaf, every panel on every wall, the game still functions. The world of
Myst is a language the player must learn, a dream-logic where the question of which
objects are parts of a puzzle and which are not is a crucial part of the game.
The Logic Puzzle
In Myst, often a lingo puzzle segues into a logic puzzle. While lingo demands the
ability to recognize a pattern that dictates the functioning elements of a puzzle against the
atmosphere and background, the puzzle itself often requires planning and strategy. In the
case of Myst, these puzzles are usually about as simple as the classic Fox, Chicken and
1 That is, while logic puzzles can be transported from game to game and the elements used to solve them
will not change, the elements of a lingo puzzle will... even between games in a series. In the earlier game
by the Miller brothers, The Manhole, clicking on a framed picture often transports the player to a
completely other world. In Myst, a very similar linking effect takes place through books. Books and
framed pictures are both elements of the language of these games (and are even created by the same
authors) but learning their function and therefore solving the lingo puzzle is completely different from
game to game.
12 This effect was likely greater when Myst was first released, because the player would have no
opportunity to hear the game described by someone else who played it. Also, in essence this moment and
the process that so mirrors language acquisition happens with every imagetext, because one of the great
pleasures of gaming even (or perhaps especially), in a series like Mario or Zelda or Final Fantasy) is in
discovering how the game works differently from its predecessors.
Farmer river-crossing puzzle. These puzzles are the most traditional of the three types,
and often can be rewritten as mathematical equations or logic statements.
These "logic" puzzles of Myst sustain the game's teleological character. The player
is faced with situations that require planning and reason. In the Channelwood Age, she
must guide water through a pipe system, using energy from the water pressure to power
elevators and bridges and progress in her exploration. Abstracted, the reasoning that
logic puzzles demand follows a very linear process. The player sees an end goal (i.e.
powering an elevator) and, if she has solved the language puzzle of this world, she knows
what tools can be used to solve it (she recognizes the pipes and the levers on their valves
as tools; they do not recede into the environment). Using trial and error, the player either
works through permutations or plans out the solution.
The plot of the game itself follows a logical progression as well. The more pages
the player puts in Sirrus and Achenar's red and blue books, the more clearly the
characters are able to communicate with the player and bring her closer to the
information she needs to solve the final puzzle of the game. In this example, the puzzle
requires lingo recognition: first, the fact that the red and blue sheets are something to
interact with, second, that they are pages, and third that the red pages belong in the red
book; the blue pages belong in the blue book. But at the same time, the player must
realize that there are a finite number of pages and that the more she finds and place in the
books, the clearer the videos of Sirrus and Achenar become. (Figures. 3 and 4) The
puzzle (one of the simplest in the game, perhaps because it is crucial to progression in the
game) also follows a simple if/then relationship. IfI add another page, then there will be
less static and more information.
The Mood Puzzle
Interestingly, though, the end game itself fits into neither logic nor lingo categories.
Myst's end puzzle is hardly a puzzle at all. The skills required of the player are not
logical, but instead intuitive. At the end of the game the player must make an entirely
different decision than she has faced over the course of the game. All of the
"unnecessary" elements of the game come into play suddenly as the player is asked to
evaluate a situation rather than a puzzle. Should the player trust Sirrus or Achenar? Or
neither? Instead of using if-then logic, the player must evaluate using intuition and
ethics. Three characters beg to be released from their book-prisons. The player must
infer their worth from the atmospheres and environments that seemed incidental before.
This final decision the player must make exemplifies a type of text/reader
interaction that is perhaps the most difficult to define of the three types explored in this
paper. How is it that a player can evaluate the trapped brothers by merely seeing
fragments of video of their faces, hearing their voices, and by exploring the rooms they
inhabited? (Figures. 5 and 6) The circumstantial evidence ranges from a secret room that
contains Achenar's bloody chopping block and electrified cage, to Sirrus's moldy cheese
plate, his wine collection, and his hidden coffers stocked with gold. The type of
understanding demanded of the player is not logical, nor is it creative. Achenar simply
seems off.13 In the rooms that contain the blue pages, the wallpaper is stained. His
dresser has a holographic skull sculpture that slowly morphs into a rose with the pull of a
lever. As he giggles nervously from the inside of his book-prison, his eyes shift. By
13 In the analysis to follow, I will explore the subtle (and quite complex) mechanisms that lead to these
contrast, Sirrus seems detached and cool. His rooms are refined, with a telescope and an
elegant oil painting. He pauses when he speaks and tilts his head up in a haughty way.
In order to correctly solve the puzzle14 the player has to intuit the moods of the
brothers' rooms in the various worlds ofMyst. She has to read the tone of the brothers'
voices, their demeanor. In short, she has to make a decision based on evaluations people
make unconsciously every day. Myst is never more involving than at this point in the
narrative. The game asks the player to treat these characters as if they were real, and to
regard the atmosphere felt in their homes as inseparable from their ethics. It is possible
to solve the final mystery correctly, to read these characters through their worlds and
determine their worth. Again, the task the game asks of the player is outside the scope of
any other puzzle the player has tackled so far. Progress in the game is predicated on the
gathering of these pages to free the brothers, and now Myst asks another question
entirely: while you were gathering the pages and solving the puzzles, were you paying
This third pattern, a "mood" puzzle, relies on a player's growing understanding of
the atmosphere created by the accumulation of indirect evidence in the brothers' rooms of
their actual motives. Until the final choice is put before her, a player may understand the
moldy cheese, the bloodied chopping block, or the eerie ambient music as simply
atmospheric elements, traces of a meaningless spooky ambiance. The game's eerie
feeling, even though it might be successfully created, might be dismissed as a sort of very
effective haunted house. Good for chills, but no deeper understanding is needed. So in
14 The answer: free neither brother, but instead, a kindly looking third character who the player learns at the
end of the game is their father.
order to solve this final puzzle, the player has to rethink details that seemed like
embellishment before, and understand the atmosphere they create as meaningful.
This use of mood as a puzzle element is one of the most significant aspects of Myst.
The final puzzle achieves something very important: it is an example of the concrete
communication by non-verbal cues. Myst's worlds are bizarre and beautifully detailed,
and all their filigree is crucial for keeping gamers entertained. In this puzzle the Rand
brothers put every possibility of this then-nascent medium to the test, and developed a
fascinating example of not only entertainment, but of a full immersion of the player into a
digital world. When a player makes that final decision, she has to truly inhabit the world
of Myst to answer correctly.
This question of the mood puzzle/pattern is possibly the most difficult to
understand aspect of text/reader relationship. As Barthes noted, in the case of pleasure
and bliss, the reader is in the most danger of being "lost;" the author may not know
"where [the reader] is" (4). In effect, there is a greater possibility of coming up with the
wrong answer.15 The switch between logic and lingo puzzles to a mood puzzle is a leap
from logic and language play to a question of ethics, in which no answer is wrong or
right, but each answer can be described as wise or foolish. This sudden emphasis on an
ethical problem, almost completely disconnected from empirical evidence, allows for
misinterpretation and confusion. It is exactly this calculated risk that forms the
"cruising" that Barthes says an author must perform-an act of risk as well as pleasure-
in order to allow for play (4). In this type of puzzle, the lack of certainty and the
inscrutability of the rules are exactly what allow for the possibility of choice and play.
15 Personally, when I first played Myst I chose incorrectly (I set Sirrus free and ended up in the book prison
I freed him from), and I imagine I am not alone.
For me, one of the core problems in the interpretation of any imagetext is this
question of freedom and choice. The incorporation of an image into a text is an invitation
to a reader to let her eyes wander, to explore. And so every imagetext author, in her
deviation from conventional text, faces the same issues of authorial control and reader
In an enigmatic sentence regarding authorial desire, Barthes claims every writer's
motto is: "Mad I cannot be, sane I do not deign to be, neurotic I am" (6). If this assertion
is read in the context of the types of author Barthes discusses in The Pleasure of the Text,
the sentence neatly aligns with the three types of interaction I have discussed. "Madness"
aligns with mood puzzles and texture. "Sane" refers to the classic text, and its adherence
to structure.16 "Neurotic" connotes the lingo puzzle, in many ways a link between the
two, an oscillation between the play inherent in visual and intuitive understanding and the
rigor of logical, author-guided communication. This equation Barthes sets up is helpful
for understanding the relationship between the three possibilities for creation of
imagetext meaning. Pure visual communication is often nonsensical. Adherence to
classic text logic does not allow for play and pleasure. And it seems that when a text
relies on images to create much of its meaning, a lingo pattern is necessary: a system of
rules for understanding and navigating the text.
These designations can be applied to any imagetext, though some rely more heavily
on these patterns than others. Chris Ware's Quimby the Mouse reconfigures comic book
conventions in order to explore the genre's lingo possibilities. Peter Sis's The Three
16 I use "classic text" in the way Roland Barthes defined it in S/Z. That is, a "readerly" text, a text where
"nothing is ever lost: meaning recuperates everything." (201) This parallels with the idea of a "prattling"
text that he outlines in The Pleasure of the Text.
Golden Keys creates meaning through an intricate mood pattern. Both books use
multiple visual and textual structures to create order while allowing for the reader's
freedom. I aim to demonstrate how these designations of mood and lingo might be
useful for understanding these texts, whose ability to foster play and discovery are
remarkably similar to Myst's.
Figure 1. Myst linking book
Figure 2. Myst game play start
Figure 3. Myst Red Book pre-first page
Figure 4. Myst Red Book post-first page
Figure 5. Myst Sirrus's room, Mechanical Age
Figure 6. Myst Achenar's room, Mechanical Age
IMAGETEXT POSSIBILITIES: THE THREE GOLDEN KEYS
Sis's The Three Golden Keys is a nuanced account of a man's fantastical trip home
through his memories of the Czech Republic. The three keys stand for each story the
man must remember in his quest to unlock his childhood home. He wanders through the
empty streets of Prague, and at each of the city's three main landmarks he receives
another key, and another tale. When he finds all three keys and the city memories they
conjure, he is able to return to his childhood home and those memories as well.
The possibility of mood and the feeling of discovery that mood affords fits well
with this tale of half-forgotten memories. The book relies heavily on mood to create a
feeling of discovery and wonder. The Sis's visual style is decentralized; his pages have a
weakened focal point, which allows a reader to let her eye wander over them. The
invitation to wander is reinforced by the texture of his images, which are rendered in
muted color and etched with intricate lines. The images do operate within a logic
structure, because they are anchored by the focal point of the text's narrator and his cat
within most of the pictures, as well as within the greater physical space of Prague. The
text is also anchored by the presence of classic text. There is a guiding bit of writing at
the bottom of every page, which imparts a logical progression to the narrative.
Because The Three Golden Keys is an intricate book it is easy to feel on the brink
of being lost in its attention to detail. But it is precisely this feeling that confirms the
book as having a strong mood motif throughout. Sis manages to communicate more
information about the narrator's journey through these ostensibly paratextual details than
he does through the text that lines the bottom tenth of nearly every page.
When a reader interacts with this text, the almost composition-less picture planes
create a wandering feel to the narrative's progression. There is little direction for the eye
to follow, and instead of supporting a traditional Western left to right flow and structure,
the etched lines in the woodblock prints invite the reader to deviate from a linear
narrative and examine these details (Figures. 7 and 8). A picture that the eye first
understands as a simple block building on an empty city street is etched with line
engravings of ghostly animal and human bodies. (8) The streets are nicked with small,
textured, repeating white lines. These details create sustain a resistance to an easy
comprehension of the images they adorn. Their very roughness creates a possibility for
play. The engravings allow a reader to linger and explore, to touch the pages with her
In some ways the use of mood in The Three Golden Keys is very similar to its use
in Myst. Sis's illustrations do reflect the narrative, but the lines that decorate them are
non-representational and unanchored in the text. Sis's use of both necessary and
unnecessary detail is similar to the Rand brothers' carefully structured relationship
between Myst's narrative and the detailed atmospheres of its various worlds. The mood
does not seem immediately necessary for comprehension of the narrative of the text in
either instance. Especially so in The Three Golden Keys, because there is a solid
presence of classic text, and there is no puzzle at the end of the book, forcing the reader
to make sense of the feeling of wandering and discovery the details allow. But the details
are as important in The Three Golden Keys, because just as the reader can feel eerie and
unsettled in Sirrus and Achenar's rooms (and therefore are involved in the game to the
point that the worlds seem real), the mood here allows the reader to experience the
uncanny, unsettling atmosphere of the narrator's wandering through a labyrinth of his
The textured, atmosphere-laden images of Sis's Prague would border on Barthes'
definition of an author's "madness," were it not for his consistent visual anchoring of
each page. In every image, save for the first person depictions of the receiving of the
three keys, Sis includes both the narrator and his cat. In a structural sense, this is a visual
representation of the text's need for a narrative drive within the mood space. The cat
leads the narrator through the ghost-ridden streets of Prague, to the three keys and then
home again. On every page the cat is physically farther along the path the narrator (and
the reader) must travel. So in this otherwise visually wandering structure there is a visual
representation that effectively helps the narrative drive. If the cat leads, the narrator
follows. This is a logic-based motif, a way to visually reinforce the telic structure of the
Figure 7. The Three Golden Keys page 8
Figure 8. The Three Golden Keys page 8 detail
IMAGETEXT POSSIBILITIES: QUIMBY THE MOUSE
While Sis's work blends mood with classic structures, Chris Ware's Quimby the
Mouse plays with the existing comic lingo to create new and varied possibilities for a
visual language. The book stands somewhere between a comic book collection and a
graphic novel, and partly because of this, its devices are experimental and varied. Ware
uses a system of unconventional symbols and information organization in his panels, and
this approach relies on his readers' ability to learn his language in order to follow his
meaning. Ware's broader visual style, and therefore the mood of the text, also shifts. He
graphically cites Baroque art, thirties and forties newspaper style, schematic drawings
and strips of film in his comics. These visual stylistic citations serve several purposes,
both to change the mood of each page, and to explore questions of language and memory.
Quimby's devices are so varied and complex that a comprehensive analysis of them is
outside the scope of this paper. Here, I will limit my analysis to just two of his images,
the collection's cover and an interesting panel that depicts Quimby's broken relationship.
The collection is very well worth analysis for the book's cover alone (see Figure 9),
which is unique in its beauty and its scope. The front of the book, and some objects on
the back, are embossed with golden lines, with rays shooting out from the center of the
letter "Q" and the word "the" of "Quimby the Mouse." The title is surrounded by four
identical plates that almost seem like white painted onto Wedgwood blue porcelain. In
the center there are four figures of Quimby: one of him kissing a young mouse, the next
of him slapping the mouse, the third of him running in fear, and the fourth of him
weeping. The sum effect is incredibly like something one could expect on the ceiling of
a cathedral: an intricate, gold-embossed account of the possibilities of humanity.
It is difficult to tell whether Ware takes the refinement of his cover illustration
seriously, but the fineness of his artistry makes his statement difficult to ignore. His
invocation of Baroque styling is, in the least, a reference to the reverential air reserved for
illuminated texts. At the most, Ware is positioning himself as a scribe for the very
important subject of humankind. Whatever his intentions, the unusually Baroque front
cover certainly makes a point of Ware's interest in marginalia and detail.
The back of the cover is, if possible, more distinctive and interesting. (Figure. 10
and 11) It is covered with a complex system of panels, all interconnected with dotted and
solid lines and arrows, and even sometimes punctuated with parentheses and a question
mark. The panels depict a man at every stage of human history. Horizontally across the
page a series of panels depicts an amoeba evolving into a man and then his further
evolution. At each stage of the history, the panels are enclosed in a dotted line that leads
to a detail of that era. So the back cover illustration is an interconnected diagram of the
history of humanity. This system is complex and interrelated, but it is surprisingly
readable. Ware appropriates the visual language conventions of instruction manuals in
order to organize his system. A dotted line connecting two boxes suggests that the larger
box depicts the same events as the smaller box, but in greater detail. Arrows suggest
cause and effect or an enlargement of an object.
The use of a diagram for something as complex as a metahistory of human
existence is at once completely absurd and brilliant. Ware makes a study of the
pathos that every life encounters. In the diagram there are many scenes of desire and
need, and of pain and discovery. But Ware is also playing with the language of the
diagram itself. If a reader follows the flowchart carefully, the last panel breaks off
into an arrow, pointing at a question mark. As an author, Ware is keenly self aware of
his place. He means to draw his audience into an insight, but even as he does so, he
lays bare the absurdity of the process. In this sense, he is using a traditional logic
structure either to call attention to the futility of a human life, or to the futility in
forcing a life into comic panels.
This idea is explored further in the comic "I am a very generous person..." (56)
The comic depicts one side of a conversation between Quimby and an ex-lover. The
words seem innocuous enough if read straight through, but the words cannot be read in
only one way, because they interrupt themselves. Ware curves the words around arches,
slants them, reverses them, and doubles them back on themselves (Figure. 12). The first
two lines can be read several ways: "I'm a very generous person but I just can't stand
being around you anymore." Or, "...I can't stand being around. You make me happy."
Or, "...I can't stand uh...being alone." The words are sometimes blue, sometimes red,
sometimes in block print over the panels (which read in a much more straightforward
The changes in font size, type, color, and direction break down classic comic codes,
making the experience of reading the comic disorienting. The different strands of
thought and the difficulty the reader has in deciphering them evoke the mood of the
conversation. The reader feels that Quimby simultaneously feels defensive, nostalgic,
lonely, and sad. Ware does not give the reader any guiding arrows or dotted lines to help
her navigate the space of this text. She is left to understand its meaning through her own
experience of reading the panel, of having to choose which lines to follow and
experiencing the panel's resistance to a classic, linear meaning.
In this sense, the panel is breaking down the traditional lingo structure of comics,
but not offering any new structures to replace them. Its play with comic conventions is
purely mood-based, that is, it is neither a code the audience is assumed to know (classic),
nor a code they can learn (lingo). The atmosphere created by this lack of structure is
almost the opposite of both Peter Sis's work in The Three Golden Keys. Sis's work
creates the possibility for exploration, wonder and mystery through the streets of Prague.
In this panel, Ware uses mood to reflect the jumble of human emotions that necessarily
follow a communication breakdown. Both Ware and Sis are concerned with the emotions
involved in a narrative space. It simply seems that the space of Quimby's mind is a far
grimmer place than the (certainly mysterious, but far less anxious) streets of Prague.
In writing this paper, I noticed the distinctions I make between types of
communication in imagetexts start to blur. When Chris Ware gilds the edges of his
panels, is he playing with the conventional lingo of comics? Or is he using the gild to
create a reverential, baroque, rich mood? With any image, the meaning and nuance can
be endless, and each detail can be interpreted in many ways. The point is not to
definitively label a certain pattern, but to instead to understand many ways that the one
image communicates. Perhaps in naming these functions, we can gain a vocabulary to
help us discuss what the image itself is. And with this ability, then we will approach the
goal of understanding what an imagetext does.
Figure 9. Quimby the Mouse front cover
Figure 10. Quimby the Mouse back cover
Figure 11. Quimby the Mouse back cover detail
Figure 12. Quimby the Mouse "I'm a very generous person..."
In the process of writing this paper, I have tried to work out an understanding of
three imagetexts that I chose to study because of their effect on me as a reader. Each of
them never fails to sting me, to upset or delight me in ways that most other texts simply
do not. The study of this sting, of the Neo-Baroque, the imagetext and its trappings, is
increasingly important because of its presence in all aspects of media, in children's books
and comic books, in video games and even the news.
The Neo-Baroque does not seek to replace classic forms of narrative. Each of the
texts I studied here relies heavily on logical, classic structures, and it is clear through
reading Barthes that a text without logic can only lead to "madness" (6). Instead of
viewing the Neo-Baroque as conflicting with traditional forms of media, it is more
productive to understand these new possibilities and structures as a complement to more
linear forms of narrative. It is crucial that scholars explore the possibilities these changes
offer to the genres they affect; that we name the patterns and structures we see in order to
organize our experience. As every form of media employs images, choices and moods,
proficiency in understanding and analyzing these new patterns of communication will
become the basis for electracy; an absolute necessity for a citizen of an electorate world.
LIST OF REFERENCES
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins UP, 1997.
Ault, Donald. ImageTexT. University of Florida. 26 July 2005.
Bal, Mieke. Quoting Caravaggio : Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago, 2001.
Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. New York City, NY: Hill and Wang, 1975.
-. S/Z. New York City, NY: Hill and Wang, 1974.
Miller, Rand and Robyn Miller. Myst: Masterpiece Edition. Cyan/Mattel Interactive,
2000. Software for Windows and Macintosh.
Ndalianis, Angela. Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment.
Cambridge, MA: The MIT P, 2004.
Ulmer, Gregory. Internet Invention : From Literacy to Electracy. New York, NY:
Sis, Peter. The Three Golden Keys. New York City, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Ware, Chris. Quimby the Mouse. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2003.
When Erin Fernandez was young, her parents would buy her as many books as she
could read. This was a very expensive proposal, because if she liked the book she would
finish it in a day and ask for another. Her parents, Kyle and Enrique Fernandez, created a
household in which television was restricted and video games were forbidden (save for
unforgettable spring break Blockbuster console rentals), but computer games were
allowed-for "educational" purposes. She first experienced the thrall of adventure
gaming when she played Myst, and she played the game day and night until she finished.
She enjoyed her English courses at Saint Stephens Episcopal School in Bradenton,
Florida. But it was not until she attended classes at the University of Florida that she
realized that computer games were a fascinating field of academic study. She graduated
with a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in English in 2003.
Her areas of interest include new media and ludology. After finishing her M.A. in
English she plans to take some time off, knit and embroider and generally relax while
applying for Masters programs in digital arts for Fall 2006.