Review: Kate Pullinger’s Jellybone

Review: Kate Pullinger’s Jellybone

Jellybone Cover Image

Jellybone
by Kate Pullinger
2017
oolipo / App


For some unknown reason I am one of those people that you find sitting and waiting at bus stops, train stations, in between lectures and the like. Maybe it’s the universe conspiring against me, maybe it’s the public transport system but either way I spend a lot of time waiting around. And, being someone from a part of the country where you do not make eye contact, you avoid all interaction, just queue politely and check your watch frequently with a huff to state your displeasure of having to wait; it was an intriguing prospect when I heard about oolipo.

Oolipo is a new mobile storytelling platform launched in 2017, though it has been in the works since 2015. The creator, Bastei Lübbe (co-funded by Johannes Conrady and Ryan Mullins), saw the gap in the market and brought multimedia storytelling to smartphones, introducing a hybrid of digital storytelling on the go.

The first story I started with was Jellybone.

Florence Evans is a young woman in living at home with her father in London whilst working the daily grind of an unpaid internship. You are drawn in immediately to the story:

Jellybone Screenshot

There is also the background noise of a bustling street, further immersing you into the atmosphere of the narrative (it’s advised you use headphones for the optimum experience). But what Pullinger has managed to do is take this even further, utilising the platform to its full potential – including Instagram posts that Flo makes throughout her day on a ‘genuine’ account on Instagram. You can follow jellybone_flossie in real life, complete with hashtags and all.

Jellybone Screenshot

Then comes the clincher: the ghost messages. Messages she has received ever since she was young but largely ignored until now. Now they’re from Lana, her best friend who went missing and was presumed murdered.

This sets the whole narrative in motion, pulling you in as you try to figure out what’s going on, as you attempt to decipher the garbled voice messages (that you can listen to too!) and texts that are being received. Your phone pings and buzzes as Flo’s does in the story; we never see the main character but we see through her eyes, we experience her emotions. Pullinger has created personalities for the characters largely through how they interact via messages, how they communicate.

And that’s what the story is all about, right? How we communicate with each other, with ourselves and in this case: with the dead.

The story has a set path from start to finish. It isn’t a text in which you as the reader have the choice of where to go or what to do, but rather it attempts to let you experience in ‘real time’ what the character you’re following does. It blurs the lines between the two, attempting to combine them for a fully interactive experience.

Although what makes this truly successful is the attention to detail: the loading dots at the bottom of the page, the crack on the characters’ screen becomes a crack on yours, voice messages that you can play and stop at will. It brings it all together to produce an excellent piece of interactive storytelling.

Oolipo is still quite young, yet it has the backing of authors such as Kate Pullinger, Matt Thorne and Karrie Fransman, and also invites anyone to use the software and become a creator. In the future, it would be excellent to see an offline feature introduced as now you have to be connected to the internet to access content. Jellybone has been by far one of the most intriguing, enjoyable experiences I have had regarding and reading interactive fiction.

I urge you all to give it a shot and maybe even start creating.

Review: Kevin Gold & Choice of Games’ Choice of Robots

Review: Kevin Gold & Choice of Games’ Choice of Robots

Choice of Robots Screenshot

Choice of Robots
by Kevin Gold and Choice of Games
2015
Text Adventure Game / Multiple Choice Game (ChoiceScript)


Choice of Robots is an extensive piece of sci-fi interactive fiction (IF) which draws heavily upon the genre. It borders on the edge of being cliché, but Kevin Gold was able to create something that is, well, gold. It’s almost a love letter to the genre and stays reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series.

It plays like most other IF games of choosing a series of three to five options, furthering the narrative with a few paragraphs and you repeat the process. Robots is also a solely text experience, having no images or sounds to accompany it.

The only visuals are bar graphs in the “Stats” page to help understand your relationships with characters. Other games may use sounds and images as aids to help support themselves, but Robots’ text is able to evoke the imagery and emotions just as well, or, even better than those with the extra bells and whistles.

It stands to reason, then, that the story has nothing to hide behind. It’s good news that the narrative within Robots is one of the best written pieces of IF that I have played. Robots boasts that it has over 300,000 words; that’s 100,000 more words than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This makes sense considering its many drifting path and avenues to actively go down or accidentally stumble into.

Whilst yes, the game draws upon science fiction clichés such as robots taking over the planet (to name one scenario), these stories focus more on the individuals and personal stories than the overarching narrative of the world ‘you’ inhabit.

In all, it’s a hard piece to summarise. It’s a game where player choice and actions all have meaning, creating a plethora of different narrative paths and so much replayability. That one time you snubbed a character off can very well come back to bite you. And that’s where that replayability comes from. It is a very character driven story, no matter what story you weave with your choices.

There are eight characters in this story and your relationship with them is measured in percentages. These bars hidden in a side bar with other stats, and are the only visual aids that Robots has. Throughout the game, which can take up to two hours, you will meet most of these figures but depending on how you play, you may not meet half. They come in and out of your life, either for the better or worse and each and every one of these characters feel real. As every good story should be, it’s driven by these characters.

As I mentioned at the start, Choice of Robots is a hard game. Its story can be so different from the last time you played that it feels like another game. It’s that fact, though, that makes this a must have for any lover of IF and science fiction.

Choice of Robots is available on Steam, App Store, Google Play and Amazon for £5.99.

Review: Andy Kelly’s Derelict

Review: Andy Kelly’s Derelict

Derelict Screenshot

Derelict
by Andy Kelly
2017
Hypertext / Twine Game


Derelict was written by Andy Kelly, @ultrabrilliant on Twitter, writer for PC Gamer, and contributor to Edge and The Guardian, amongst other places. It’s a short — I played in less than an hour — interactive horror science fiction story.

Like most people, I go through the story once on my own before reading what other people say about it, especially since this is a freely-provided online version. Go check it out on itch.io. I’ll wait for you to get back.

If you went off to experience the story for yourself, welcome HOME; and if you didn’t go off to explore the story yourself you’ll have missed the reference, so I recommend you do before going further.

One of the great things about Twine games is that I see a new format of story practically every time I see a new game. Twine is an accessible platform for writing interactive fiction, but it’s truly the ingenuity of the authors that brings the medium to life.

Derelict tells the story of the Orkney, a ship on an interstellar mission from the solar system to a colony 49 weeks’ travel away. All you know upon embarking on this interactive quest is that it’s your job to find out what happened to the missing crew of a vessel found drifting in space.

The conceit of the narrative is that you are examining the retrieved data from the black box found onboard the vessel, piecing together a narrative to inform your corporate superiors what happened to their investment.

Interactive narratives such as this one are interesting primarily because they often put you in the shoes of the implied reader of the story, instead of divorcing you the reader from the person the story is talking to. In this case, you have an in-story explanation of why you are trawling through reports, chat logs, and sensor sweeps: you’re the investigator figuring out the events as they occurred leading up to the discovery of a derelict ship.

I don’t know whether it’s the influence of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or the various military science-fiction novels I’ve read, but when a narrative delves into the daily lives and interactions between members of a crew aboard a space-faring vessel, I fall in love immediately.

This is a short piece, which is in some ways disappointing, and in others is perfect. What Kelly did with this story was give us just enough information, and the tantalising knowledge that there was more to read that we just didn’t recover, to know something important about these characters. We empathise with the pair who are clearly romantically interested in one another, we know that the corporate spy/representative is just doing his job as well he can when the rest of the crew think he’s on the ‘other side’, and we uncover just the briefest of rumour about the captain’s former partner.

These things all come together for us, the readers, to feel genuine horror when something happens to the crew. In typical horror science-fiction fashion, the crew falls apart roughly one member at a time until only a few are left. For a short time, we become embroiled in the lives of these men and women… only for that façade to crumble when we remember why we are reading the logs.

I said, “that we just didn’t recover” earlier and this is the other aspect I wanted to highlight. This narrative, short though it may be, gives you as the player/reader a direct role in the narrative through the interface of the webpage. You take on the role of the Sonmi employee who is trawling through recovered data. The highlighted hexadecimal ‘buttons’ are surrounded by those that cannot be clicked. What was in those files? How much more would we know if those had been recovered? What’s behind the screen!?

The interactive element adds a layer to the story that enriches the narrative, and the upside is that it’s easy for both the reader to imagine those extra pieces of story, and for the writer to imply that there are other parts to the story to see. Some may consider this a short cut, I suppose, but Kelly purposefully wrote a short piece, so we must forgive him.

We need more stories like this. Derelict is a fun, short romp through an easy-to-navigate system that gives you a sense of a wider world and more to discover that I find irresistible.

Review: Mez Breeze & Dreaming Methods’ All the Delicate Duplicates

Review: Mez Breeze & Dreaming Methods’ All the Delicate Duplicates

All the Delicate Duplicates Screenshot

All the Delicate Duplicates
by Mez Breeze & Dreaming Methods
2017
Hypertext


All the Delicate Duplicates is a piece of two halves – one, a first-person game, released this year and published on steam; the second, a hypertext that offers the backstory for the game, but can stand in its own right as a non-linear narrative telling the story of single-father John, his daughter Charlotte, and their mysterious dead relative, Mo. I didn’t get the chance to play the game, so I’m focusing solely on the hypertext.

The story is told through different short texts, largely told from John’s perspective and relating to Charlotte. As the tale unfolds, we discover that Mo, formerly interred at The Actory Hospital, died in the fire that destroyed the Hospital. John (and Charlotte) then inherited her possessions, which in turn seem to drive them both to the edges of their sanity. It is an eerie psychological thriller, exploring the struggles of a relationship put under strain by outside forces.

One of the best parts about All the Delicate Duplicates is that everyone gets a different experience when reading it. Through randomly shuffling the posts, every reader gets an individual journey, while still getting the same information. I was actually a little disappointed with my shuffle – I ended up reading it almost entirely linearly, starting with snippets of Charlotte’s early childhood and ending with the climax, as if a traditional story. For new readers to digital fiction, this might be a good place to start: you can restart the story as many times as you need and read all of the sections in different orders until it makes sense.

Most of the sections are told through John’s point of view. A few are ‘mixed media’ pieces (i.e. newspaper reports or the like), but the large majority are him – and most of those are him talking about Charlotte. John is kind of the definition of the unreliable narrator. At first it’s because he’s just reporting what he can see of Charlotte, but the rest is that he starts losing his memories – or maybe he’s always been losing them, and he only just starts to realise – and we lose touch with what the reality of the situation is.

My only criticism is that I didn’t really engage with the story. Part of this might be that I didn’t play the game, but I found John’s perspective at times confusing and at times irritating. Needless to say, it didn’t endear me to the story. I felt like it fell into one of the pitfalls of non-linear narratives – it expended so much energy being confusing that it didn’t leave me any space to enjoy the narrative, or to understand the characters. For readers who prefer plot-driven narratives, this probably wouldn’t be a problem, but I rarely like fiction that isn’t character-driven, so it was a sticking point for me.

I’d recommend reading this if you are a beginner or have little experience with digital fiction. It’s self-explanatory with how to use it, and it hits a lot of the more common tropes to familiarise yourself with it. It’s also probably a lot more interesting if you play the game alongside it, which you can purchase here.

If you do read All the Delicate Duplicates, I’d be interested to hear how you got on with it. Leave a comment and let me know.

Review: Peter J. Favaro’s Alter Ego

Review: Peter J. Favaro’s Alter Ego

Alter Ego
by Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D.
1986
Text Adventure Game / Multiple Choice Game (ChoiceScript)


There are many reasons to play video games. Enjoyment is often a key factor (despite that friend who’s known to chuck their X-BOX controller into a wall); they also provide a valuable sense of escape from the real world.

If in 1986 you owned a Commodore 64 or one of the box-ish computers on the market then you had the option of living an “ordinary American life” through as many times as you wanted, thanks to Peter J. Favaro’s Alter Ego.

The game tracks choices made and the paths you choose, presenting you with different outcomes and endings accordingly… Well, every ending involving your death but in different circumstances. For example, decisions you make as a baby (yes, the game quite literally starts you off taking baby steps) influence whether your protagonist is extroverted or introverted, which might ring a bell if you’re familiar with attachment theory.

Each ‘life’ you play takes a while. I first played Alter Ego in 2014 to kill time and kill time it did. The first route took me just under an hour to complete (in 2014 the game was free; now you can access it once or buy it for $5 and play through as many times as you want). However, much of that is sifting through the same material: trying to find a decent job, trying to marry, trying not to let your ‘wealth’ and ‘happiness’ scores drop too low… Maybe scrap that part on video games being an escape from real life.

You’re very much trapped as the “average” 1986 American, something that became dull for me after my first playthrough. As such – rather morbidly – future playthroughs revolved around me seeing how quickly I could kill my player/character.

It’s interesting to view Alter Ego in 2017. The game places such emphasis on you being an “ordinary” American in the year 1986. Your first choice is gender: Male or Female. If you’re playing as a man your romance options are with women and vice versa. The reasoning behind this is that although it would be easy to add same-sex dating to the game, it wouldn’t have been accurate in context. As the game’s credits page explains:

“The current edition includes an updated interface and fixes bugs in the original version of the game, but the content of the game (the writing) hasn’t changed from the original 1986 version of the game…Telling the life story of a gay man in 1986 means telling the story of coming out of the closet, prejudiced employers, encounters with parents, and so on.”

It’s not just a matter of swapping pronouns in dialogue (a lazy solution anyway) it’s about accurately representing the struggles of queer Americans in 1986.

In the same way, although your character is never described, it’s clear they’re white, or at least white-passing, due to the lack of prejudice based on skin colour.

This is because, although your character can potentially live to be eighty years old, time in Alter Ego is frozen.

“The entire game of Alter Ego is set in 1986 […] Nothing of significance happens in America over the course of your lifetime.”

As such the smalls steps taken towards America being a (debatably) more understanding country could never occur.

Armed with this information, Alter Ego becomes almost dystopian. You can only be this “ordinary” 1986 American, and while you attempt to build your virtual life, you’re aware it’s your character’s privilege which allows them the opportunity. On the other side of the white-picket-fence people like myself and many others would be having a much harder time.

All in all, Alter Ego is worth a playthrough, especially since you do get one free run. It’s easy to become immersed in your character’s life and with the longer playthroughs taking you almost an hour to complete, there’s enough content to justify paying for the full version. After all, $5 is a small price to pay for the power of reincarnation… Until you get sick of 1986, that is.

Review: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

Review: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

The Arrival
by Shaun Tan
2006
Book


My love affair with Shaun Tan started when my mother called me up saying that she had found a book that “…you would just love. It’s just weird and you.” Which is a fair enough assessment considering we both have a penchant for the weird and wonderful regarding all aspects of life.

This little book (literally) is called Eric; it combines simple storytelling with intricate illustrations which are the means that cause your mind to wander. The writing is just a little nudge in the right direction.

After finding myself bemused and a little more than curious I went on a search for other tales by Shaun Tan and came across (read: immediately fell in love with and had to own on pain of death) The Arrival. Let me sum it up for you quick: it is an exquisite piece of storytelling that fosters the imagination and draws upon your deductive skills.

It has no words.

None.

There is no nudge in the right direction and that is what is so wonderful about this piece of literature. You as the reader must delve into each of the illustrations, unpicking every pencil stroke, each stationary expression and every little clue that you can find. The best part is that words aren’t needed; sure, the story itself has an intended meaning – the author wrote it to depict something specific – but you get to create your own narrative. Decisions are yours to be made; because of this you have a certain degree of freedom when choosing what’s happening. However, it could be frustrating if you are used to ‘traditional literature’ where the author uses language to securely lead the reader to the conclusion.

The interactivity in this story lies in the fact that the images firmly put you in the main character’s shoes. The reader is just as bewildered as he, trying to figure out what all these new symbols mean, how to get from one place to the next, how to survive in a world that is it entirely unfamiliar. It creates the connection between reader and character compelling us to care, to draw on our empathy and to make us keep turning the page.

Rooted underneath the grayscale, vast landscapes and intriguing creatures a heart beats within the pages. Showcasing something that we can all relate to, that we can all find similarity in our own lives to connect with.

Even the way The Arrival is presented (as a tattered leather bound journal) captures the reader’s attention, and I believe is a wholly different form of storytelling that should be explored for years to come. For some reason, there is just something about being able to hold this book in your hands, to turn each page, opposed to swiping left on a screen that adds to the ambience.

Overall it is a uniquely packaged experience which, although may not be considered literature by some, should be held in the very highest esteem.

Go forth. Create your own story within a story.

Review: Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World

Review: Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World

Queers in Love at the End of the World
by Anna Anthropy
Interactive Fiction / Twine Game
2013


Queers in Love at the End of the World is an interactive fiction written using Twine Sugarcane by Anna Anthropy, supposedly for a competition and inspired by a quote from Tumblr: “when we have each other, we have everything”.

The theme of the competition and therefore this IF is ‘ten seconds’. The reader is given ten seconds to go from start to finish by clicking on the links to try and find a path. This means you have little to no time to read anything, even the opening passage. You could, of course, spend time reading each passage and simply following your old path when you move onto the next page but that kind of defeats the purpose.

What little I managed to read in between frantic clicking on links is great writing: emotive wording, characterisation, and multiple paths to take. This IF is best suited to those who like to skim-read and get the gist of what path they’re taking, but someone who enjoys taking their time and reading isn’t going to have the best experience.

The entire point is that you have no time to think, no time to react to the information you’re being given because the world is ending. The inclusion of a timer is an excellent way to replicate the anxiety one would feel when given only ten seconds to experience something.

Because of the tiny time limit, this IF has a high degree of re-playability. In the ten to twenty times a reader would usually spend reading an IF, they can experience many different paths of the game. I don’t know how many endings there are but one of the best parts is probably when you finish frantically clicking links and end up on a page with three seconds left where you actually have enough time to read it.

This IF relies heavily on assumptions: when you click on a link, you have some idea where you’re going to go. Most of the options are actions: “kiss her” etc., or the player-character thinking about something specific, such as “The memory of her smell when she’s far away”.

The title is the only overt reference to this being an LGBT+ piece. Nothing in the text (that I managed to read) was obvious that this should be anything more than the standard heteronormative piece. This piece is a massive hi-five to the LGBT+ community and one that I can definitely get behind. After all, why should writers have to conform to stereotypes in order to display a relationship that is fundamentally the same as those available in other fiction? The fact that the title itself states this is enough of a tip off and is great representation.

Anna Anthropy is an American video game writer and has a great list of other works if you want to follow her other works. I highly recommend it.