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Electronic Lit: "Ethan Has Nowhere to Go" (Or Does He?)


     My thesis project for my MFA in the writing program at Cal Arts years ago was a “painting” that from across the room in the main gallery seemed finished. It was of a boy, a tractor, a farm house and some puffy cumulus clouds. It also was a still from a video back painted in semi transparent white paint to appear to be a painting and had a hinged frame tied to a motor I got at Radio Shack. The text in the white spaces in the clouds was actually triggered by the person lifting the frame like a window opening and wherever it stopped would also appear to the next person as “finished.” It was the death of the author concept and it was playing with form. I spent a year working on a short story and last summer had completed 20 drafts and submitted it for publication. It was about to be published when it hit me that I had never moved that thesis idea as far as it could go. I had the magazine cancel publication, and I put out a small call for works on Facebook explaining that the story was never to be seen but by those who responded and whatever they made would forever be the story. The story was/is called “Ethan has nowhere to go” and went from 12 pages to a kind of patch of code, something back end, to exist in iterations featured at Unlikely Stories.

     Unlikely Stories is a literary magazine that also publishes criticism, art, moving image work and things in between. Ethan has been housed at the site as its own entity and an extension of the magazine’s exhibition of works. It is a short story as absence as presence, it is the death of the author, it is curation as crowd publishing and it is is simply story told in different ways.There are currently 12 Ethans. The works range from e lit to games to glitch and deconstructed poetry. The work is what I like to call a “living document” as the show is open and more iterations (and iterations born from iterations ) are being made and will be shown over the next few years. Ethan is “published” by its very erasure as it is available for those who wish to take it and make something completely new from whatever it triggers/inspires or questions the works raise that someone wants to explore.


PRUSBigelow  Alan Bigelow has taken the story and compressed it to the word “this” and created a fascinating interactive hybrid work of e lit that comments on narrative and form. He describes it on his site as:

“This Is” provides a digital commentary on fiction and the nature and history of narrative. There are multiple elements at play in this work: text, audio, animation, and still image. How the viewer experiences this piece is dependent on their mouse or touch interactions with its central, animated “characters.” This work is open-source and created with HTML5/CSS/JavaScript.

The work is an Ethan. It is one of the Ethans. It is also a work that looks at character and how real life elements and people can be brought into a narrative and its world almost in a sense against their will. The work brilliantly also plays with image and text and references to writing as process as well as of the active elements that move within a “finished “ work in a different way than a work in progress or draft.

Jason Nelson has taken the story and both exploded it and linked its internal dynamics in terms of text and text constructions.

PRJNEthanHis Ethan has interactive wire forms of phrases in the story and moving backgrounds of open natural spaces and words underscoring both the space in a story and the exploded view of a hybrid interactive textual work and its space. The most interesting part is the search option. The viewer/reader can put in words and see the strands that contain them from the text floating in open green fields. The really exciting option is to put in a letter at a time in the search box and watch swarms of text squirm and move across the screen before the word is finished and the space opens up.

     Johansen Quijano is one of 4 people that took the short story and made it into a fully functional video game that is also an artwork that plays on elements of the characters, story spaces, narrative, deeper and symbolism and concepts. His work is a remarkably deeply layered old school nintendo game play that has composed music and levels that move along all the main spaces of the original 12 page short story and into a work all its own. Quijano explains his project below:


For the creation of this game, I used the RMK XP game engine. I edited community assets, including Shokaizer’s character templates and  Zanyzora’s world tiles, using Paint.Net to create a world reminiscent of the 16-bit era of gaming. I used the engine’s collision detection system to make sure that sprites would not overlap, then I scripted the events while following Jeremy Hight’s original story as source. The purpose of the game in the early stages of Ethan’s life attempts to re-create a sense of repetitive drudgery where everything comes down to similar boring tasks being carried out day after day. The game then attempts to convey the sense of struggle and hopelessness that the Ethan of the story must have felt as he wondered America from job to job, homeless, with no hope of success, and running away from himself. Towards the end of the game, it tries to convey a sense of regret by making the player think “what if Ethan had made other choices?” That being said, the game (which can be completed in 30 minutes to 1 hour) is highly linear, as in its core what it is trying to do is convey in videogame form what was originally a short story by giving it a 16 bit JRPG aesthetic.


The end result is a clever play on layers of aesthetics, of story and of space and movement. His current Ph.D research is in making games of classic literature, so here he has moved out from that sphere to work with narrative gaming of this current story “ Ethan has nowhere to go.”


PR is agog with these iterations and their siblings at Unlikely Story.  So many possibilities for text to move meaning on the screen.  SO much code to learn, so little time.  A BIG thank you to Jeremy Hight for sharing Ethan(s), and for demonstrating the notion of the “living document.”  

The Carrizo-Parkfield Diaries at the WhitneyArtport and 34 North 118 West Project are two of his better known projects.

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