Imagining a Hypertextual Metaverse

This month saw the release of a new game, Colossal Cave . It’s a remake of the classic text adventure game by the same title. So now I’m thinking about those old text adventure games again.

We’ve had interactive, digital texts since the 1970s, with text adventures and interactive fiction. Even now, most electronic books aren’t at all as interactive. They are just facsimiles of un-interactive print. Why didn’t it catch on to write more this way?

The new game can be played in virtual reality, which raises another question. Can there be a convergence of hypertext and virtual reality? Is VR a better platform for hypertext, than text?

VR as a Platform for Hypertext

Hypertext lets you link up documents so you can easily jump from one to another. Virtual reality (VR) presents a simulated world you can interact with. The web is made of hypertext. The metaverse is made of virtual reality.

I’m not the first to imagine that these two technologies could intersect. Even in the 90s when the web was an infant and the metaverse was a fiction, several writers posed the question.

Can the two be combined? In particular, can the space of virtual reality be hypertextualized? One way to introduce text into virtual reality would be to write upon the surfaces in the virtual space.

Jay David Bolter

"Virtual Reality and the Future of Hypertext"

The joining of VR and Hypertext into some Gibsonian cyberspace does not seem to be happening. But the convergence of technologies that is forming is very important and will change our lives in unimaginable ways.

John G. Cramer

"News from CyberSpace: VR and Hypertext" 1994

The Convergence of Hypertext and Virtual Reality

Hypertext and VR together could let you interact with vast collections of information in new and exciting ways. Imagine a virtual environment with holographic texts that you can interact with, navigate, and link. You could control navigation with gestures or voice commands, eliminating the need for text-based menus.

The current web is limited in its ability to navigate very large collections of text, as users often have search and search again, or scroll though many pages to see everything. None of the major search engines will take an instruction like: “refine these results” for example. This can be time-consuming and can lead to information overload.

A conversational interface could help here.

With a conversational interface, information retrieval could be like talking to a librarian, or a docent. You could ask follow-up questions, like “show me this data as a graph” or “group these items.” The virtual reality environment would respond by presenting the information spatially or through voice output.

This type of interface could revolutionize information access. It could reduce cognitive load, eliminating the need to learn commands or menus, freeing up time and effort spent on pointing and clicking. Science fiction has already imagined examples like The Curator in Ready Player One, and the holographic augmented-reality medical AI in_Star Trek_. Imagine if Alexa were this good!

New and Unique Forms of Storytelling

The immersive nature of VR and the interactive qualities of hypertext allow for entirely new and unique forms of storytelling that were previously impossible. We could think of this as “experiential Storytelling.” (see also: poetry in VR .)

VR technology can be used to create completely immersive environments: the setting. Hypertext can be used to connect different parts: the story structure. Natural language, with a conversational interface, could be the connection between the two.

A virtual setting invites the opportunity to write in new ways. What if the reader wants to “go” somewhere away from the typical path? What if the author of that space didn’t provide specific details? Todays games and interactive texts simply give a response like “you can’t go there” or “i don’t understand” in response to these. Could the space itself begin to improvise instead? Perhaps the author could give instructions, less like a script, more like suggestions, for how to generate content for any unforseen situations?

Colossal Cave and its new version show an example of this kind of progression. It began as a text-only conversational interface. The original version needed a limited vocabulary, so it was full of those “I don’t understand” responses. By adding a virtual environment, the adventure can unfold in a more natural and spatial way. Now there are fewer obstacles imposed by the interface. The new version keeps the narrator too, which is a delight to see in a video game for a change. It loses the conversational aspect, though.

Both versions are full of “ twisty little passages ” – a perfect setting for questions like these.