What does DF look like?

What does DF look like? Back in the 90s, the digital fiction works I was most familiar with were those published by Eastgate Systems: they were black and white works with little boxes around the words, indicating hypertext links. They didn’t look like much, really… the interesting part was the hypertext. Later, DF became more about multimedia, on the one hand, and code and algorithms on the other, the look changed; it became more self-consciously colourful, sometimes signalling its digital nature through the use of vibrant graphics and data visualizations. Often, green text on a black background evoked “computer.”

Some of this aesthetic was about the genre, and the late 20th century. Games from the same era share much of the look and feel. Some of that, though, merely reflected the presentational expression possible in one or other early authoring systems. Limited fonts, poor type rendering, 8-bit colour (and sound?)… many of these things are part of what people remember about DF’s early years.

As Flash became a standard toolkit for digital storytelling and expression, production values got a lot better. But 2000s-era Flash has its own characteristic look and feel; animated text, zooming views, standardized transitions were easy to achieve, and therefore became commonplace.

Steve Jobs ushered in a new era about 5 years ago, with the launch of Apple’s mobile platform and his banishing of Flash from iOS. That was arguably a good decision, as it lent a huge amount of energy to the development of open web-based standards to take Flash’s place. Today, we inherit a vast open web platform, built on simple open technologies like html, css, and javascript. The web platform is more than 20 years old now, and it begins to show the signs of maturity — in some areas at least.

The web’s agenda, stated or unstated, has been to absorb all other publishing and presentation systems. It has, I think, done so, at the expense of elegance; web authoring is still a bit of a dog’s breakfast, simply because there are so many options, so many toolkits and frameworks, and whatnot. But just about anything is possible now. Good typography is within easy reach on the web now, as is native support for animation, vector graphics, video, and audio. Ubiquitous frameworks like jQuery provide a solid foundation of basic interactive functionality. And designers have begun to think mobile-first, a move that is important not just because we all carry phones, but because it provides a way of throwing off the “web design” conventions and aesthetic of the first decades.

So what should Digital Fiction look like in 2014? Especially given that the open web platform places very few constraints on designers. The lack of constraints is both a blessing and a curse; those early experiments found a ready-made genre and style in the narrow limits afforded by early platforms. In the absence of such things, how do begin to design for wide-open media?