The electronic literature project that I chose to explore is Deep Surface. The project promptly caught my eye while I was skimming through the online Electronic Literature Collection, as it has a delicate and evoking cover picture— a young woman and a young man standing naked in deep water, both staring thoughtfully into the distance. We only get to see their backs and thus cannot tell the expression on their faces, the mysterious sense of which further rouses my curiosity for discovering the story.
After conducting some research using Google, I found that the project was written by a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Stuart Moulthrop, who is specifically interested in the way hypertext works. Consequently, Deep Surface manages to exploit the functions of hypertext as well as exploring the differences between hypertext and traditional plain text. As Moulthrop claims in the “About the Work” section related to the project, the story is supposed to be about “a strange romance between a reading machine and a free-diving simulator”, where “literature at crush depth” and “hypertext gets wet”. While the introduction might sound weird and confusing, the project itself turns out to be fun and easy to manipulate after a careful read-through of instructions and several tryouts.
From a technical perspective, the project is designed as an interactive game that reproduces the process of diving. When you first get on the project page, you will see a square of greenish blue hear the sound of sea, indicating it being a simulation of water. On the right side top of the square is your “life indicator”, a blue circle that will change color if you drag it to the lower level for a period time. The level of the indicator decides the text that is displayed in the square, so the deeper you “dive” into, the more things you get to read. Nevertheless, if you spend too much time at the lower level and “run out of air”, the indicator will gradually turn into red, suggesting that you need to stop reading and go back up to the “surface”. The project/game will automatically pull you “up to the surface” the first few times you try, but after a while you will have to keep an eye on your indicator yourself—you will “die” if you stay too long in the bottom part and will have to start all over again. Meanwhile, a female robot voice will serve as your guide, where it will constantly warn you at the beginning stage that you are running out of air, as well as declare your “death” after failing an attempt. The project/game also calculates score for your each “dive”, where the score will go up as you “dive” deeper and read more different texts. You also get a picture after each “death”, which is also the cover picture that caught my eye, but the picture can be somehow different depending on your score. Below are four different illustrations I got after trying a couple of times, where it is clear that a higher score gives you more details in the picture:
(Scored around 30, only blurred shadows of the two figures)
(Scored around 80, a little below the shoulder)
(Scored around 120, entire upper body in a dark hue)
(Scored around 400, entire upper body with bright color)
Regarding the content of the texts, it was somehow hard for me to figure out the relationship between the texts from different levels. The contents at the first level, namely, the shallowest part of “water”, seem to consist of random excerpts from the news. For instance, there is news on announcements from NASA scientists, some kidney transplantation surgery, and discovery of a newly found creature. Those in the lower levels, namely, “deeper water”, look more like fragments from some mystery and love fictions. Unfortunately, because of the limited time you get to stay in the lower level, I hardly got to finish any complete paragraphs or even sentences, and thus could not tell what those stories are about or whether their contents are important. The lowest level, also the “deepest of water”, contains a creepy picture of a man wearing glasses, with a male robot voice talking about topics related to American politics. In general, the “deeper” you “dive” into, the more confusing and disturbing the texts get to be.
Multhrop claimed that the project was inspired by a 2004 report called “Reading at Risk”, where he intended to use it as a way to test whether people really understand the risks of reading. As far as my experience went, I think Multhrop did a decent job, as the possibility of “drowning” really urges you to keep keen caution on the time while reading through the texts, where the sense of intensity would otherwise be impossible to achieve during traditional print reading. Nevertheless, the ideas that the project is trying to convey appear somehow as contradictory to me. On one hand, the texts are fluid like water, which makes it tough for readers to grasp their meanings. Such effect seems to suggest that more information does not necessarily empower the readers with more knowledge; yet on the other hand, the picture in the end (which will display more details as you read more text) seems to be implying that further exploration will allow you access to a “final truth”. Regardless of the ambiguity, I believe the project/game is worth readers’ time and still has a lot for readers to explore.