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IT HELPS TO BE IN ON THE JOKE An Exploration of Agency in A Duck Has An Adventure by Jillian Hovatter

In the past when engaging with a piece of electronic literature, the term e-lit didn't even cross my mind. I had explored online born texts and played digital games, but I had never really analyzed them. At most I might have thought about some of the visual or audio aspects, but I never gave consideration to how the technical elements impacted the broader experience. In A Duck Has An Adventure, the user's choices reveal a more complex experience than the relatively straightforward nature of the text implies. The use of media specific analysis to explore user experience when interacting with an electronic text helps to not only evaluate a text, but also understand the role agency plays in that experience. The user's agency comes primarily from the choices they make in guiding the duck's life. For the purpose of this analysis, I am using agency as defined by Dene Grigar's in Digital Storytelling which refers to it as "the degree of freedom and choice a user has (30)." By performing a linear examination of the layout, narrative options, and technical elements in this piece of electronic literature I explore how user interaction can be influenced by content, including the humorous tidbits that could be overlooked depending on who is interacting with the text.

The text below A Duck Has An Adventure refers to it as a hypercomic adventure game. The action of clicking an option and moving forward a single space gives this piece of e-lit a board game like feel.

The Flash animated work A Duck Has An Adventure was created in 2012 by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey. This work allows the user to select from different life choices the duck character can make. The style of the game is two dimensional and feels like a comic book meets a board game. The comic bookish single action pace of this work of e-lit helps create simple, funny, and dramatic moments by giving the user a sense of agency in the choices they make despite the limited outcome options.

Fortunately, unlike many a board game, A Duck Has An Adventure doesn’t leave your movement down to a spin of the dial or a roll of the dice.

Thinking about the N. Katherine Hayles writing "Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media Specific Analysis", we can begin to understand that the use of media specific analysis lets us know there is more than just what appears on the screen creating the experience. When Hayles states "the crucial move is to reconceptualize materiality as the interplay between a text's physical characteristics and its signifying strategies. This definition opens the possibility of considering texts as embodied entities while still maintaining a central focus on interpretation. In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers. Materiality thus cannot be specified in advance; rather, it occupies a borderland—or better, performs as connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artifact and the user (72)" we need to be aware of our place as the user interacting with the text. Focusing specifically on the dynamic qualities of what makes up a piece of e-lit helps us not only become better readers of the text, but also helps in the understanding of how agency is implied within that text. The use of the programming language, the capabilities and limitations of flash animation, the lack of sound, the accessibility across platforms and the hardware the user employees to interact with the text are all part of this e-lit experience. If I downloaded the app onto my phone, my experience would shift. The smaller screen and it's touchscreen abilities would add another layer of experience by making the interaction more tactile than just a repetitive click of a button. This increased engagement could make the user feel an even greater sense of agency.

The use of panels and gutters makes this text very similar stylistically to a comic book. The simple illustrations and narration in combination with humor make the text read like cartoon strip in the daily paper.

In the beginning it took me a moment to figure out how to interact with the text. With many forms of flash animation that I have interacted with previously I found the action commences immediately. Sometimes it is an animation that appears instantly on screen, other times it is in the form of instructions that pop up on the page. Further correlating with the comic book experience is that this piece of e-lit requires the person engaging with the text to read the entire title screen to have an understanding of how to proceed.

Initially, I did not read all the material relating to the game play and I was futilely clicking away in all the wrong places hoping for the experience to begin. As you can see in the image above, it clearly states for the user to click panels to advance. I somehow misunderstood that the center image was considered a panel. A lack of familiarity with certain terms could negatively impact or all together prevent a person from interacting with the piece of e-lit.

Once the user understands that initial engagement with the text requires a click on the center panel, the story can begin. Notice the three ducks at the bottom of the larger panel. The user can gain achievements, collect hats, and have a variety of endings.

In the first few clicks the panels follow a linear path.

Each image or word panel moves the user forward a single space, but then a trio of options appear giving the user a series of life choices for our duck character.

This forking of the text is reminiscent of the choose your own adventure stories I would consume as a child.

Dene Grigar's Digital Storytelling states that "the way in which an author/artist lays out the procedures for a work impacts the user’s AGENCY (30)." The appearance of different choices gives the user a sense of agency because now instead of just clicking to move the story forward along a single path, the user can take the duck in three possible directions. The ability to pick from three paths combined with a variety of different outcomes makes the user engaging with this piece of e-lit feel more in control.

The use of achievements makes the reader feel a sense of accomplishment. The addition of humor makes the user, at least in my case, want to further engage and see what possible outcomes are available. The ability to move along multiple situations and timelines creates a greater sense of agency.
This piece of flash e-lit does not incorporate sound. similar to a comic book, this text writes out sounds. Sometimes the results are humorous.

The ability to travel back in the text and the potential overlap of stories add a depth to the narrative. The scheduled movement feels more unpredictable because the text can shift direction or even combine with another storyline. This makes the story more engaging and gives the user more agency because they have the ability to to stick with one story or go back and follow all storylines to completion.

I was repeatedly struck by how the use of humor in the text kept me engaged. At times the humor took form in the illustrations or in the unfolding of the story line. I especially loved the description of Kitten cove as a hive of scum & villainy (Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina call out?) with a cute panel in between that read like a dramatic pause followed by the panel and Kittens.

Historical nods to figures like Howard Hughes feel almost like an Easter egg hidden within the text.

My favorite of all the popular culture nods in this text is captured in this picture. The achievement: The Leap Home with the "Oh Boy!" underneath takes me back to the days when I would eagerly await for a new episode of Quantum Leap to air back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

The use of a Quantum Leap reference really made my day while I was playing with this piece of e-lit. It made me feel a deeper attachment with the text which in a way spun itself into feeling even more agency.

In addition to the historical and pop culture references, we find literary references to The Old Man in the Sea. As a Xennial (a person born between 1977-1983), I was able to get just about every reference that this game had to offer. This makes me believe the intended audience is people around my own age. I imagine a person that does not have a frame of reference for many of the jokes contained within this piece of e-lit might have a different view of their agency within the game. A child may enjoy the images and clicking on the panels, but they wouldn't find the same humor when the duck in a fishing boat is pursuing a giant marlin. My grandmother might get the Quantum Leap reference because Scott Bakula was eye candy for all age, but she wasn't into Star Wars so she would miss out on the joke about Kitten Cove. Being left out of a joke, if you are aware you are missing something, can have a negative impact on the users view of their own agency.

This cat is reflecting on agency.

Peeling back the layers of a digital born text is an involved process that goes beyond the methods of analysis employed when analyzing print text. In addition to the message of the text, we have to include all that goes into the creation of the digital born text and the medium necessary to engage with the text. The visual and audio elements that appear on a screen are merely the surface component of the text, the code is the root of the creation and the platform on which you engage with a text are all equally important in understanding the digital experience. Each level of the text must be examined and taken into consideration because all of it impacts how a user views their agency.

Each path unlocks different hats and achievements. There are 16 different endings that are possible. At any point the user is free to go back to previous choices and go down a different path making it possible to easily gain all hats, all achievements, and all of the different endings.

The image above is a screen shot of the entire game. When looking at it from this view it seems like the user's agency would be very limited. There are all of the possibilities laid out in one wide view which makes the game feel small, but when the user is actively engaging with the text at times it feels like there are limitless possibilities. The ability to take different path, the comic book/board game aesthetic, the clever jokes and pop culture references, and the opportunity to change the ducks narrative are all part what gives the user a sense of agency in this game.

Works Cited:

Grigar, D. Digital Storytelling. ENG 281-101—MUOnline, “Required Readings and Viewings,”https://marshall-bb.blackboard.com/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_82945_1&content_id=_2448558_1.

Hayles, N. K. "Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis." Poetics Today, vol. 25 no. 1, 2004, pp. 67-90. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/54949.

Credits:

Created with images by juliejordanscott - "The Adventures of the Wooden Goose" • Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos - "Bascom Lodge at Mt Greylock Summit" • Checo Che - "#peanuts #snoopy" • cdrummbks - "choose your own adventure 138: dinosaur island" • cdrummbks - "quantum leap: carny knowledge" • Alexas_Fotos - "luggage antique cat british shorthair duck funny" http://e-merl.com/stuff/duck.html

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