In This is How You Will Die, Nelson has taken a slot machine interface and reconfigured it as a fortune-telling device that creates poetic accounts of the user’s demise, as paced out against the loss and gain of “death credits.” As the reels spin and verses are randomly locked into place, a foreboding narrative emerges, punctuated with occasional clips that combine brief texts with video, adding to the overall feeling that the work is a chaotic assemblage. One does not need to see the Flash files that Nelson has adapted towards his macabre purpose (or is it the player’s purpose?) to see that it functions as a slot machine. The action of the piece, the awarding of credits, and language about “winning” and death as a “gamble,” clearly suture the reception of this piece to the experience of the slot machine.
As is often the case Nelson begins with familiar frames of reference (vernacular language, popular formats, and folksy themes). Situated within the history of poetry, where artists have worked in forms ranging from the overt structure of the sonnet to the subtle vernacular structures of free verse, Nelson works from the microscopic level with words, codes, phrases, and Flash (.fla) files and up to familiar forms like games, graphs, menus, etc. Specifically, in the case of this work, it is built upon a slot machine made in Flash, with copied bits of code, while more generally absorbing the sounds, words, and images of the worldwide web (Leishman). To a certain degree, these parallels don’t map exactly onto the formal alphabetic qualities of the print poem nor do they function strictly semiotically as texts, rather, their similarities are only relative to their position within this schema. As Talan Memmott points out, rather than function through matching familiar icons, the surprise of the piece revolves around the different elements presented on each reel. There is no clear analog for the position of a line of action script or an entire file and such coding in print poetry, except in the grammar of procedure. In this case, this procedure is held between the expectations of a familiar game of chance and the surprise of absurdist juxtapositions of text.
When seen from a view of electronic literature that begins with hypertext, This Is How You Will Die, plays a couple familiar games with the reader. The succession of brief, terminal fictions generated as the reels spin and the phrases are locked into space has quite a bit in common with the poetic shuffles of OULIPO progenitors like Raymond Queneau’s “100,000,000,000,000 Poems” (1961, cited in Vincler). On the other hand, it shares some of the fatal character of Jon Ingold’s All Roads (2001), a work of interactive fiction which leads to a single conclusion. Like All Roads, Nelson’s piece begins with a feeling of indeterminacy which progresses towards the one definitive reading: the player’s death. In fact, N. Katherine Hayles’s explanation of All Roads could easily be applied to Nelson’s work: “the meta-textual object of assassination is the illusion that hypertext is synonymous with democracy and user empowerment” (“Electronic Literature”). Yet both Queneau’s and Ingold’s works seem to run past each other in this work, making This Is How You Will Die into a poem that manages to be something of both but neither at the same time. Queneau’s random project is finite, but its ultimate realization, the theoretical apprehension of all possible sonnets exists beyond the scale of the human reader. Thus, there is an end to the reading process, but that end remains highly hypothetical, preempted by the practical end of the reader, through actual personal death if not through simple fatigue. Ingold’s work does more than gesture towards the finite, it begins formally with the suggestion of possibility (as an interactive fiction) but even at the beginning, the writer suggests that All Roads lead to where the piece takes us: a singular conclusion. One work points to the finitude that exists at the far reaches of comprehension and the other reaches to the finitude that exists at the heart of the fiction. This Is How You Will Die, contains the scale of random recombinations, yet does not define the limit by the number of different combinations possible given the set of variables. Similarly, Nelson “writes” an ending into the piece, a quite precise one: your death. Instead, the piece concludes when the player lacks the "credits" to continue. The only narratives that resist their definitive readings are those in which “credits” are won, in which play is extended. The final draft of the text occurs when you lose, when your credits approaches zero, and of all the possible absurd scenarios, one is conclusively determined as the prediction of your demise.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (2 January 2007) “Electronic Literature: What is it?” Electronic Literature Organization. http://www.eliterature.org/pad/elp.html
Heckman, Davin (2011), “Inside Out of the Box: Default Settings and Electronic Poetics.” Dichtung Digital 40 www.dichtung-digital.de/
Ingold, Jon (2001). All Roads. Electronic Literature Collection.Vol. 1. http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/ingold__all_roads.html
Leishman, Donna. (August 2007) “Leishman on Two of Nelson's Works” Iowa Review Web 9.1: http://research-intermedia.art.uiowa.edu/tirw/vol9n1/artists_each_others...
Memmott, Talan (2012). Digital rhetoric and poetics: Signifying strategies in electronic literature. Dissertation. Faculty of Culture and Society, Malmö University. https://dspace.mah.se/handle/2043/12547
Vincler, John. (20 March 2010) “100,000,000,000,000 Poems.” Electronic Literature Directory. http://directory.eliterature.org/node/374http://directory.eliterature.or...