Reading/ Playing in Reagan Library: Path is Pattern

I find myself continually impressed with the narrative, shape, and form of Stuart Moulthrop’s Reagan Library. Its self-reflexivity awes me. Primarily though, I’m enamored by the Library‘s gamic qualities. I’m chiefly concerned with the “red zone” that Moulthrop specifically draws attention to in the introduction, the pseudo-tutorial/ direction-giving form that makes up the red zone, and the various graphical/ storytelling connections to Myst. I’ll start with and briefly touch on the last item on my list.

Myst is a 1993 computer game developed mainly by two brothers at Cyan, Inc. It’s a strangely innovative gem that disposed of a lot of gaming conventions; for instance, it’s the first example of a first-person shooter without the “shooter” aspect. In Myst, the player character, known as the Stranger, opens the “Myst” book and gets transported into the world called Myst. Then the player must seek out four additional books that lead to various “Ages”–Selenitic, Stoneship, Mechanical, and Channelwood—and solve puzzles to retrieve the missing pages in order to escape Myst.

Here’s what Myst generally looks like. This image is taken directly on Myst island. The similarities to Reagan Library’s graphics are pretty obvious. Additionally, the building with the columns in the background is actually a library that houses the two trapped brothers, Sirrus and Achenar. Myst is inherently concerned with storytelling/ books/ libraries/ documentation/ and so on which is partly why I needed to describe it in this blog post…

So why bring up Myst?

Moulthrop, in the Introduction to Reagan Library, writes, “Now a word from our Idiot Questioner. Is this fiction or is it a game? Exactly. As one of the inmates says: ‘The world is what you see and where that takes you.’ And where would that be? You’ll find out” (n.p.).

I make the effort to detail Myst because I think (although I can’t prove) that it deeply and fundamentally informs part of the work Moulthrop exhibits in Reagan Library. Just on a graphical level the influence seems apparent, but I see parallels on thematic and formal levels as well. There are four Ages in Myst and four “states” in RL; there is a complicated librarian type figure; books, writing, film, media, etc.; recursivity/ frequent revisitation; negotiating small or subtle changes in text; but most of all the clicking and acting on the objects. The aesthetic (and affect) shared by these two texts is something I’m very curious about. So, on to the body of my post.

Comparative shot from Reagan Library with supplemental text.

Comparative shot from Reagan Library with supplemental text. Interesting digression: I discovered while trying to screencap this that you can zoom in and out of the pano. I’m not sure if it’s intentional (it’s not in the instructions) and I don’t think you can really “do” anything with the zoom, but on my Mac it worked with Shift and Command. Also, in some frames you can move the camera up and down slightly, but I don’t think it significantly changes anything, either.

In RL, there are four different “states” or zones, indicated by the color of the sky. In each zone, the narrative follows a particular character: the librarian, Emily, or the patient/ prisoner (? I’m still unclear on this one). Except in the red zone (which is specifically hyperlinked in the instructions). Rather than offer a fragment of narrative, the special red zone collects some cryptic italic phrases, the meaning of which I’m not entirely certain (recall Moulthrop also writes in the Introduction: “Lines entirely in italics represent important messages from the Library” and “More information is available in the red zone“). Therefore, by small extrapolation, the character in the red zone is the reader and/ or player of Reagan Library and it’s your job to make sense of it.

This is not the same red zone you find in football.

This is not the same red zone you find in football.

The clues/ phrases/ vignettes captured in the red zone might be one line, a stanza, or a paragraph, but they are always followed by numbered NOTES. Some of these notes refer to the physical act of navigating RL’s world. Some of them provide insight about the characters. I spent so much time in the red zone that I barely pieced together any of the others. I was so intrigued by the notes, the various instructions, interactions, philosophies, and semi-random generation of text that I believe I exhausted everything that zone had to say—I even began compiling its NOTES. The following list is far from comprehensive, but feel free to steal from it if you need to for your paper:

  1. The world is round; you may repeat yourself.
  2. Not that any of this makes sense.
  3. Consider the color of the sky.
  4. Major objects in the panoramas are linked.
  5. Repetition in hypertext is not necessarily a vice.
  6. There are four states of this world.
  7. Virtual reality has been used as an effective therapy for burn patients.
  8. Some of the language is randomly generated.
  9. You’ll know when you’re done.
  10. Let’s move the camera.
  11. If you can read this, you too are close.
  12. Some of the language is not randomly generated.
  13. Every word was chosen.
  14. The die is cast… repeatedly.
  15. Please keep reading.
  16. Path is pattern.
  17. Emily is a film director
  18. You can’t flow this thing; there’s no flow chart.
  19. The man in the library has been condemned.
  20. Emily St. Cloud is dead.
  21. Count the dots.
  22. The man in the library can’t remember.
  23. Solve the mystery, save the princess.
  24. Do you have a problem with noise?
  25. Links may cross state lines.
  26. Do we have to make you a list?
  27. You can end this.
  28. Things will become clearer as you go.
  29. Some objects occur in more than one world-state.
  30. To move is to choose.

I bolded some of the notes I found most compelling. As you click on an object in the red zone pano, you’ll get 1-7 notes, and they often repeat themselves. But as Moulthrop reminds us, “repetition in hypertext is not necessarily a vice” (Reagan Library).

To substantiate my claim that the “character” of the red zone is you, the viewer/ player/ reader, it’s a pretty simple matter of address: nearly every single sentence/ fragment utilizes a second-person subject, whether written out or implied. Only a couple of the listed notes deviate from this, namely “Emily St. Cloud is dead,” “Emily is a film director,” and a couple of others referring exclusively to other people.

Secondly, the majority of them are instructions or hints on how to maximize engagement with RL. They directly refer to the act of reading this text, enticing you to “please keep reading” even though “you can end this” and that “[none]…of this makes any sense” (Moulthrop). Some disembodied narrator reaches out of RL to engage the reader. Jumping around from object to object in the red zone made me realize the intensity of RL’s affect.

The two notes I find most prominent, and the two on which I will end on, are “to move is to choose” and “path is pattern.” Although the first seems very obvious—that moving around the world of RL is inherently choice after choice—I’m not entirely convinced it’s that simple. As someone else wrote about, RL doesn’t actually end. It continues to propagate until the reader realizes his text keeps circulating without any changes. The “choice,” perhaps, is at what moment the reader decides to close his browser. The “choice” might be my refusal to click on the hyperlinks because I was too fascinated with the objects in the red zone to leave it. The “choice,” like the narrator, seems to extend outside of RL’s scope, because, hell, I chose to write on RL for this blog post.

But what does “path is pattern” mean? I looked at it pretty literally first, as the formal property of RL; you click on things and they take you down certain nonlinear paths. That’s the text’s pattern. I also asked my friend in CS what a “path” is, and he said to me, “C:/user/steph roman/desktop is a path that takes me to your desktop on a windows machine.” The premise is kind of similar. As I understand it, in computing the path is the systematic organization that leads the user to where he wants to go.

While many of the texts we’ve looked at so far have oscillating content or seemingly endless links, they are still finite. RL still evidences this, but I’m a little less certain of its permanence or its end. Its hyperlinks are constantly in flux. And its indiscernible, semi-randomly generated pattern leaves almost too many paths to experience. By the time you view them all, its aesthetic and affect are so ingrained that it’s formally difficult to tell that you have.

Though eventually, you’ll know when you’re done.

Sorry that this ended up so long, but I’m very interested in using some of this material for my final paper. Any commentary would be welcome.


About Steph Roman

2015 University of Pittsburgh grad with majors in nonfiction writing and English literature. Formerly of the Pitt News and PublicSource. I like games and nerd culture in general.
This entry was posted in Electronic Literature, Interactive Literature, Required Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reading/ Playing in Reagan Library: Path is Pattern

  1. argyle8 says:

    Your connection to Myst is fascinating; I’m convinced that Stuart Moulthrop was heavily influenced by that video game because Reagan Library resembles it so much in appearance and content. Separately, I appreciate your analysis of “path is pattern.” What do you think Moulthrop is saying about the book (the institutional/historical “Book,” not RL specifically) when he leads the reader down a path that only ends in pattern instead of a traditional conclusion?


  2. endorphinique says:

    I’m excited to see how you explore these two texts together in this idea of escape. Presumably, once you retrieve the missing pages, you can leave Myst and escape the book that you (Stranger) are trapped in? (I’ve never played the game, so I don’t know if this is how it actually plays out.) I would say this is quite different from how Reagan Library reaches an “ending.” Since Reagan Library doesn’t really have one, can we really escape the library or are we trapped there indefinitely, in some sort of Mobius strip? The note “you can end this” sounds both dubious and unsatisfying yet very pointed here.

    Your discussion of how Myst explores time in terms of “Ages” and whether Reagan Library’s “states” construct a sense of time or ignore it again sounds like a site of comparison that may be connected to your “path is pattern” question? If Myst takes a more general approach of viewing time as a linear path, the pattern of time, then, is already set as something that builds upon the previous moment/Age. Reagan Library doesn’t seem to view time in this way because of its states.


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