Stuart Moulthrop's game-like "Deep Surface" is playable online through the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1, and the user will need Flash Player 7 or later in order to experience the risks of reading that it presents. The reader is first immersed into the literature by diving down into the sea using the cursor. The reader is animated as a blue ball on the right side on the screen that changes to red when the reader begins to run out of air. As the reader dives deeper the reader experiences the various levels of the ocean’s text. Each level has its own narrative, and the deeper one goes the more complex the narrative form becomes. The reader must precariously balance one’s life while simultaneously trying to read the text on the screen and watch how much air is left. This is difficult as the text often overlaps one another when moving between levels making thing harder to read. If the reader gets too caught up in the moment the reader will die from lack of oxygen, but if the reader only pays attention to the air meter then one misses the narrative structure.
The form of the game is based on the structure of deep sea diving in the ocean. There are four levels, each with its own unique narrative. Though the narratives do not intertwine to tell one complete story there is a shared cadence among them, much like there is a unifying rhythm to the diverse types of waves and undercurrents in the ocean. There are also two speaking voices; one is feminine and light, the other masculine and powerful. Both resonates something different with their tone depending upon what they are saying. The feminine voice provides the reader with instruction and provides a form of comfort throughout the work; after the reader’s death, it becomes almost matronly. The masculine voice emerges from the bottom of the ocean and acts as the monster of the sea. The longer one stays on each level the more words appear, but the more likely the reader is to run out of air. The reader must pay attention not only to the narrative, but to the hints the game gives to allow them to stay underwater longer.
This game can be maddening at times because you can never win. There is no high score, and while it is meant to mimic deep reading I find it also mimics life. You can go through life focusing only trying to survive and, consequently, miss everything around you—or, conversely, you can try to take it all in all experiences at once and forget about your basic needs, ie oxygen. The key to this game is moderation, which is also the key to life.
Even though the game mimics deep reading, it is difficult to locate it within literary tradition. This is because while it does have narrative components, seen throughout the separate oceanic levels, they do not connect seamlessly to tell a story. It also takes a lot of time and patience to appreciate all of the aspects to this piece, which might encourage many readers to write it off before the story has a chance to develop. This piece requires commitment. Even so, a structuralist approach to the text works well. Through an analysis of the different units of narrative, in this case the different levels of the sea that reader must navigate, one can see a clear parallel between the “game” and the act of reading.
Stephanie Albrecht was a student of Dr. Lisa Swanstrom for a course in Literary Theory taught at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring term of 2014. ?