“Living Will” by Mark Marino

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

Screen capture of "Living Will" by Mark Marino. A will is displayed with instructions. Text: "LIVING WILL / by E R Millhouse / LIVING WILL / You hold in your hands the Living Will & Testiment of E.R. Millhouse, making you the controlling executor/rix, beneficiary, and heir. / INHERITANCE / My daughter, Salomee / Bequests.......4 / Legal Fees........605 / Medical Fees.....160 / Ta........4 / DRXL........93 / POV.........Salomee"
Open “Living Will” by Mark Marino

This next generation hypertext fiction and game shortlisted for the 2012 New Media Writing Prize is a wonderful example of how contemporary HTML and JavaScript can bring in multiple nodes into the same page to produce a seamless new document— a testament to the paths taken by the reader. Powered by two JavaScript libraries, Undum and JQuery, this work uses a scoring system to reward and punish the choices made by the reader/player who controls a character in the story, presumably with the goal of getting the most money. All this, conceptually framed by the structure and language of a legal document— a last will and testament— provides a genre through which a deceased character with an aptly Victorian name, E. R. Millhouse, can address his living heirs.

Now that I’ve brought up the word “genre,” I must address the rhinoceros in the room, because nothing in the document seems to fit any traditional definition of poetry. Read the following excerpt for a representative sample of its writing.

Screen capture of "Living Will" by Mark Marino. The text of the will itself. Text: "There will be many clauses. As your eyes greedily devour this text, I encourage you to grab what you will. In the event that I am incapable of utterance, even via the slightest gesture, the blinking of an eye as in that pretentious film about the butterfly and the bell jar my daughter insisted I suffer through, then I wish for my estate to be distributed immediately -- before it is completely eroded and dispersed by the amortization of legal and medical expenses accruing in my perpetuity, their hourly bloodletting hourly penalizing each transaction. Moreover, I am enclosing burial instructions for that untimely event as well. The boffins at Droxol Vox have collaborated with the fine fellows of legal and financial to create this unique dynamic instrument, this telematic testament, subject to and conductor of the ever-shifting winds of market forces, as a prosthetic to my own will. In a moment of weakness, I inquired whether I could live inside this document, as in a virtual world, and the guffawed, but what is a will but a stimulation of ourselves reduced to a set of procedures for the allocation of our resources? So into my own perpetual underworld, let my pronoun manifestation be your Virgil."

This is prose.

It is well written prose and I could even make a case for it to be considered a prose poem, but that would be a bit disingenuous. The language here certainly contains literary allusions and metafictional references to how will is encoded through programming and scripting languages into electronic documents to carry out intentions long after presence has become absence.

“Wait a minute!” I thought. “Is this Mark Marino’s way of signaling readers that perhaps there is something in the code worth looking into?” He is, after all, a founder of the Critical Code Studies discourse. So I clicked with my right mouse button to reveal a menu (mentally snickering at how Mac users had to push the Control key and then click their mouse) and selected “View Page Source” in the menu. At the bottom of the source code, clearly marked by Marino’s documentation was a link (in line 157) to the main game file, which I followed. Here is what I found.

Source code of the poem. Text: "The insides of the Living Will of ER Millhouse / In this document, you will find the imperatives that drive my Will / If you are reading it, you have decided that the surface effects of my Will / are insufficient to satisfy your needs and that you need to know / what drives my logic or perhaps wish to encode your Will. / A little tracking to see what the heirs are up to"


Documentation that remains in the main character’s voice. Deliberate line breaks. Word repetition. Enjambment. A direct address to the actual reader— not a character (or are we in character as we read the code?)— gently chiding us for needing more than what is offered on page generated by this code.

Well played, Mark Marino. Well played.

And he’s consistent, documenting and shaping the texts into a different presentation from what we encounter in the webpage. For example, let us revisit the same excerpt shown above, but this time in the source code.


The first thing to note is that the codes that display prose organized into sentences and paragraphs is cut into lines here. Is it because it is more comfortable to read the text when kept within the confines of a browser window without needing to scroll horizontally? Certainly, but these line breaks weren’t placed by a WYSIWYG editor: Mark Marino placed them deliberately. Read these lines to discover how some of these breaks portion the language into ideas, cognitive units, and phrases with a rhythm different from the generated paragraphs. These lines read differently, even though they (sort of) contain the same text.

This is a code poem, with instructions for your browser to produce a text and other instructions for readers to produce another performance of the text (as “executors” of the text). I recommend reading the “screen” text first, playing along with its powerful narrative experience. Then go into the source code (following my instructions above) and re-experience the work as a code poem, savoring its line breaks and variables.

There are pleasures in both texts.

Featured in New Writing Prize 2012, Avenues of AccessELO 2013: Chercher le Texte Virtual Gallery

Read more about this work at ELMCIP.