Cyborg Stories: A Brief History and some Definitions

This post was originally published at my other blog, Cyborg Stories. It was written as part of a university assignment in 2020. Here’s the link.


Man in half darkness with a wired eyepiece and a USB port on his neck. Used under Creative Commons, some rights reserved. Linus Bohman. Link to source.

Humans have been writing stories for a long time, and we’ve gotten very good at innovating.

Approximately 2,300 years ago, Aristotle wrote his ‘Poetics’. Aristotle outlined two genres for theatre: tragedy and comedy. Nowadays, the idea of categorising all stories into two genres is laughable.

A little over 1,000 years ago, Murasaki Shikibu wrote what was to be known as the first novel, ‘The Tale of Genji’. She wrote in a very specific style, and was clearly writing specifically for the women at the court, who apparently waited with bated breath for every new chapter. At the time, that style was looked down on, but nowadays, she’s credited with pioneering a whole medium.

I’m not sure I need to list or describe the ways that TV and movies have changed storytelling over the last sixty-odd years.

But that’s nothing compared to the home (or personal) computer.

The most obvious innovation to storytelling that computers brought is the video game. A lot of words have been spent on the internet about how video games’ great strength is their interactivity, and the ways that changes how we need to think about storytelling (for example, this video, which discusses the ‘language’ of game design as separate from other art forms). It’s true that games that play like a movie – gameplay segments taking the player from cutscene to cutscene in a linear storyline – still exist, but they’re increasingly considered ‘old hat’. Now, video games are being used to create stories like ‘Journey’, where part of the experience is playing alongside an anonymous player from the Internet, only barely able to communicate but encouraged to work together.

But the real game-changer that the computer brought was the Internet.

Nowadays, in Sydney, you can go on a guided puzzle tour of local landmarks. It’s a relatively simple premise: You start at a predetermined location, at a predetermined time, and you receive a text message. The text contains a puzzle, something that you can find the answer to by exploring the local area. When you find the answer, you text it back to the same number to receive a new location and a new puzzle. It’s a self-directed guided tour that relies on most people being able to receive and send texts at all times.

But it’s not precisely a story. Nor is the Dan Olsen Discord experiment, a temporary Discord server with seemingly nonsensical rules, but one where the community assigned sense to the environment. For example, rather than avoiding the channel #post-here-get-banned, the community designated it a meaning, and members voluntarily chose to post there, sending poignant final messages that were either screenshotted quickly or lost forever. It wasn’t a narrative, but I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that the experience didn’t tell a story.

‘Perplex City’ by Andrea Phillips is a story, though in a very non-traditional format. It is an ARG or a transmedia story, and thus bears more resemblance to a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) or a live-action role play (LARP). ‘Perplex City’ was played online, with hundreds of people participating. The story was told through fake news websites, videos, social media and forums, and required the players to follow a number of sites to collect all the clues. There were web pages where the players gathered to share knowledge or clues, and to archive the solutions to problems so far. ‘Perplex City’ ran for two “seasons” before being placed on indefinite hold. It was also a transitory experience. It ran only once, and cannot be re-played.

For the other half of the blog title, the Cyborg is, in science fiction, a human or other organic life form that is augmented with technology. Mechanical limbs, implanted eyes with in-built zoom functions, Matrix-style data ports into the human brain. Indeed, some say there are already cyborgs in real life. Does a pacemaker, for example, count as an augment for the human body?

This blog, then, is not intended to discuss stories about cyborgs (though I will neither confirm nor deny whether cyborgs will feature in it eventually). It is about stories that are themselves cyborgs. About stories like ‘Homestuck’, a webcomic that, at least at the start, was heavily driven by fan input. It is about ARGs like Perplex City, discussed above. And it is about fan works – traditional media reinterpreted as other traditional media via social media and online communities.

The Internet has the power to make almost anything interactive, and humans have the ability to make stories fit into any space available. Cyborg stories are fascinating because they are new molds for old stories, new venues for old concepts, and new ways for audiences to connect and interact with stories in ways that haven’t been possible before.

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