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Month: June 2017

Review: Gone Home by The Fullbright Company/Unity

Review: Gone Home by The Fullbright Company/Unity

Gone Home Logo

Gone Home
by The Fullbright Company / Unity
Console Game
2016


Gone Home is a first person adventure exploration game, first made for PC but then later developed for consoles. You play the game as 21-year-old Katie Greenbriar who has just returned home from travelling abroad. But it isn’t the home she left; it’s unfamiliar and peculiar despite being filled with everything she has ever known and loved, apart from one thing. Her family.

You start the game standing in front of the house, the lights off and a note taped to the door. Nobody is home. Once inside it’s time to explore and discover where the family has gone. Within the house you can interact with every light switch, open every drawer and pick up every book. It is one of the most interactive ‘point and click’ games I have played and thus enjoyed.

During the gameplay you learn about Katie’s family: Sam Greenbriar (sister), Janice Greenbriar (mother), and Terrence Greenbriar (father). What the family home lacks in life, it makes up for in notes, diary entries and snippets of clues that elude to the reason behind the missing family. As the game moves on, the house’s sinister past is revealed. A storm batters the windows. The TV is stuck on static.

The true control however, is in your hands. As the player it’s your job to decide what is and what isn’t important in finding what’s happened to Katie’s family. Hints and narrative guide you towards the next point but ultimately you choose where to go, how long you want the journey to last and for how long you are willing to get lost in the mystery.

However, if you are someone who likes clear direction and a linear narrative then this probably isn’t the game for you. On more than one occasion I became frustrated, not knowing where to go or what to do. The confusion of which clues to follow and which to ignore coupled with the seemingly never ending sands of time, leads to a feeling of restlessness. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects that I was able to interact with in the game, in some ways giving too much freedom. After a while, I listlessly threw some of the objects around the room before getting back on track with the narrative. The lure of the dark, brooding house brimming with secrets and bodiless voices is a failsafe way to draw you right back in.

What is so compelling about Gone Home is the way it pulls you slowly into the story. The narrative is fully immersive, created by handwritten notes, answer-phone messages and the unsettling sounds of an abandoned house. In addition, the storyline and characters have been well devised, from the sass of Sam to feeling sorry for Terrence all whilst turning corner after corner in the darkened house.

It’s messy, it’s complicated, and full of secrets. After all, what’s more intriguing than someone asking you not to go digging around for answers?

Gone Home is available for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

Bringing Digital Fiction Mainstream

Bringing Digital Fiction Mainstream

Presentation image.
My very first conference presentation.

I’ve come to publishing through my two-pronged careers as a writer and a researcher in creative writing (I’m still both, so I suppose I now have a three-pronged career?). As a writer and publisher, I get some data on my work here and there: some reviews and ratings on GoodReads, some purchase histories, click-throughs and reads on my sites and blogs, and that’s about it.

As a researcher, though, I sometimes get overwhelmed with data. How many people have cited my work, how many people have googled me, how many people have downloaded my papers. Academia.edu, in their push to become more of a commercial entity, has been urging me to purchase premium options for a while, and their marketing techniques include frequent emails with promises of statistics if I’ll just sign my bank account away.

What’s most interesting about the numbers coming from sites like Academia.edu is what it seems the average googler wants to see. And most often, people seem to land on this conference presentation (for which there is no paper, sorry): “Beyond the Novelty: Creating Digital Fiction for Mainstream Audiences.”

It’s the oldest of my “published”/searchable academic works, and even though it has no citations and no accompanying paper, it remains one of the most popular click-throughs. The title must draw people in. I often wonder what they were searching for. “What is digital fiction”? “Mainstream fiction”? “Creating digital fiction”?

It was my very first conference presentation as an academic, and it was mostly me talking about writing digital fiction, with an excerpt from my then-current project. It was very basic, and very much reflective of my attitude about the digital fiction I’d read at that point: that as a writer I was utterly hooked, but as a reader, I felt pretty meh about what was out there.

Of course, I’ve since come to appreciate the “classic” works of digital fiction, and found a few that I come back to over and over again. But as someone relatively new to DF, my attitude toward it reflected a lot of what I see in students and new readers of DF: that it was experimental, avant garde, and more art than story. That it was created for the writer, not the reader. That it wasn’t written for me to enjoy so much as to admire the genius of its creators.

So when I started my research, I had the same goal as any other writer: to write stories I would want to read. And like a lot of authors, I wanted as many people to read my work as possible. I wanted people to enjoy it. So my goal was to dig into writing DF for mainstream audiences.

A lot of digital writers have told me they don’t care about mainstream reach or commercial success. Awesome. I don’t begrudge them that. But I’m an academic in a time when the higher education system is crumbling; it’s not the safety net it used to be for writers to putter around in their own heads. I’m also a writer in an extremely exciting time for writing and publishing, when the big boys are getting knocked down and making room for the rest of us, for niche writers and more experimental platforms like Twine and Hyperbooks. So it makes a lot of sense to me to pull all these things together (and get more established on the “writer” and “publisher” prongs of my career in case the “academic” prong fongs off).

The best way to make a success of writing and publishing is to reach as wide an audience as possible; that means mainstream appeal. So that’s my aim with Wonderbox Publishing. To nurture digital fiction and help it find its feet in the commercial realm. To help digital writers become a part of that small percentage of fiction writers who make a living with their work. To expand the possibilities of technology and narrative.

The reviews we’re publishing focus on works that appeal to us as readers, for whatever reason. Works we love. Works we think have mainstream appeal. Works we want to see more of. We want to share these with you, and build a resource for readers and writers.

My eventual goal is for Wonderbox to serve as a publisher and distributor of quality, mainstream-appeal, commercial digital fiction. I’m starting with the reviews and the Hyperbooks Project (stay tuned for more on this) as ways to expand people’s awareness of good, enjoyable digital fiction, and ways to make it commercially viable. Bit by bit I’ll ramp it up until Wonderbox is the Amazon of digital fiction.

(Yep, it’s a cheeky ambition. Go big or go home!)

Review: 80 Days by Inkle

Review: 80 Days by Inkle

"80 Days" by Inkle

80 Days
by Inkle
Digital Fiction – App & Steam Game
​2014


80 Days is loosely based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days as it has us take the role of Passepartout escorting his master, Monsieur Phileas Fogg, around a very steampunky 1872. It plays out like an interactive novel come board game and is available on iOS, Android and Steam.

I have never read the original text from what this game is based upon, but that doesn’t take away from the charm of the piece. The game features a very stylised, silhouette graphic style, accompanied by a beautiful score and atmospheric sound effects to indulge you in this fantastical adventure.

The game, much like the premise of the book, is focussed on Fogg’s bet: an eighty-day journey to circle the globe. This bet, then, requires a strict itinerary, budget, managing your master’s health and the ability to manage one’s time. Whilst it is not the most complex of systems to understand, it can be unforgiving. On one occasion, I was forced to beg on the streets in South America due to mismanaging money and resulted in four days wasted which added to the ninety-eight-day journey.

All the style and management mechanics accompany a wide and varied narrative with a quality of writing akin to its visuals and sound design. No one playthrough is wholly the same as the last, for the number of branching paths (visualised as actual roads to different cities) is astounding. In one playthrough I found myself leading a mutiny on a ship and in the next rugby tackling Jesse James to the floor of a train after he stole £3000 from my person.

Meg Jaynath’s writing has you assume the role of Passepartout. He is front and centre of the narrative as the story is told through his memoir-like writings which make for a charming and witty read. During the text aspects of the game, you are often given the choice of two or three musings and Passepartout will then ‘write’ further.

Meg’s writing also allows you to play him how you see fit: a proud Frenchman devoted to the service of his master, a wary traveller who despises the company of Fogg – just to name two avenues of ‘playing’ your Passepartout. In turn, this adds to the replayability of the game by giving you different types of person to assume along with the different routes of travel.

Each trip around the world takes around two hours and not once was I left feeling that it was wasted time as I explored new and varied narrative paths. Trip after trip, the world seems to flesh itself out more. Different interactions with different individuals will add new details, conflicting ideologies or confirmation of what you previously understood about the 80 Days world. The game’s addictive nature for another adventure, and the way that it is written negate the need for extensive exposition dumps which 80 Days could have easily fallen into.

This addictive narrative and gameplay has led me on four journeys thus far, and I have yet to truly ‘complete’ this piece. In these four journeys, the closest I have come to winning the bet was eighty-two days. This frustration, and eagerness to ‘win’, drive me to start the thing all over again, resulting in another fresh experience.

This piece of digital fiction is the age-old idiom of “It’s the journey that matters and not the destination” personified. There is the possibility that you will never win the bet but the journey around the world and the stories that unfurl are the real prize. This is the strength of 80 Days and why I recommend it so highly.

Opening Up Digital Fiction

Opening Up Digital Fiction

As part of the AHRC-funded Reading Digital Fiction research project I’ve had the privilege of working on, I recently hosted the Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition. The competition was a key element to meeting one of the research project’s aims: to introduce more readers to digital fiction.

With that aim in mind, we sought out “popular” digital fiction — the DF equivalent of “commercial” fiction. We wanted works that would appeal to mainstream audiences, which at this point, generally aren’t even aware there’s such a thing as digital fiction, much less have preferences or favorite authors. Ideally, we wanted to build a list of generally accessible digital fiction that the general public would not only understand, but like.

The competition was a wild success in this regard. We were amazed to receive works from all around the world (24 countries!), from established digital writers to university students to families working together. The range of styles and forms and platforms was astounding; no two works were similar, and all made use of the digital medium to integrate reader and narrative.

The shortlist provides a strong reading list of the types and varieties of digital fiction currently being made; the list of winners shows the quality of writing that goes into these works. Any reader new to digital fiction (as well as those experienced in DF!) could make a fantastic start with these lists.

As for the competition itself, my current goal is to find some follow-on funding in order to keep it going, transferring it over here to Wonderbox. I want to continue building on the great works submitted this year, encouraging new and experienced digital writers alike to develop works that can eventually slide into a commercial publishing stream (which is one of the core aims of Wonderbox).

So stay tuned — we should have updates and a new call for submissions soon!

Review: Adam Cadre’s 9:05

Review: Adam Cadre’s 9:05

9:05
by Adam Cadre
Interactive Fiction / Text Adventure
​2000


9:05 is the third interactive fiction published by Adam Cadre. It is, in his words, “a standard intro-to-IF piece” and the public opinion seems to be the same. If you’re looking for a way into interactive fiction, take this path.

9:05 harkens back to days where games like Zork were all the rage, complete with all the fun (read: frustration) of unrecognised verbs and pedantic wording. It may be quite a short game with maybe 10 minutes for your first playthrough (depending how fast you pick up on how to phrase your commands) but the multi-ending nature of it means you can play it over again.

The narrative of 9:05 places you in a bedroom, being awoken by the phone ringing. You are informed you’ve slept in too late, and given a description of the room you’re in. What a typical situation. You’re late for work, which might quell your enthusiasm to continue reading. But trust me on this one and bear with it.

You must answer the phone, and you can look around the room before cleaning yourself up and getting out of the house. Whilst in the house, there’s little you can do to affect the ending but looking around gets more story details and helps you to understand some of the endings.

Once you leave the house, however, you’re given a bit more freedom – you can choose to take certain exits on the freeway, etc. This does mean, though, that you tend to rush through the inside of the house on replays because you already know what you’re doing, and there is certainly room for more branches adding from the very beginning.

Those who tend towards impatience will often find themselves barely skimming the descriptive text and thus missing clues as to the ending they’re heading towards. Even though the sentences are stripped down to the bare bones of description, the game tends to repeat itself or you’re scanning just for the information you need right then (especially when you forget if the bathroom is to the north or south).

Cadre has almost no voice in this piece (only when telling you it’s probably a good idea to go through the tutorial first) but it’s clear he’s used to creating these interactive fictions (IFs) (no mistakes in there still being a Pop-Tart on the counter after you’ve eaten it).

One of the best things about 9:05 is the community that surrounds it. Though you can’t interact or view others’ results, it’s such a popular and well-circulated game that almost anyone you encounter who’s dabbled in IF will know what you’re talking about. Then there’s that shared smugness of knowing about the game’s secrets versus those people who haven’t read it before or gave up because the late for work trope put them off.

For all that 9:05 can put you off initially with the complicated commands and run-of-the-mill storyline, it’s not what you expect it to be. Cadre certainly knows how to put a twist in the tale and divert a reader’s expectations.

In short, if you haven’t already – whether you’re new to interactive fiction or not – try 9:05. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

You can find 9:05 and Adam Cadre’s other works at http://adamcadre.ac/if.html.

Review: Porpentine’s All Your Time-Tossed Selves

Review: Porpentine’s All Your Time-Tossed Selves

All Your Time-Tossed Selves
by Porpentine
Digital Fiction – Google Forms
​2016


When it seems as if every book is a copy of The Girl Who ​                   , every film is a sequel, and every TV show is a remake, some writers still write. Still experiment. Still play. Porpentine, most commonly known as a prominent Twine author, is one of these. Her latest digital fiction, All Your Time-Tossed Selves, is a simple experiment, stepping away from Twine as a platform and using Google Forms instead. Its short length, linearity, and thoughtful contemplation make it a great read for those who love poetry with a bit of story, even those who aren’t very familiar with digital fiction.

All Your Time-Tossed Selves is a short, poetic narrative that can be played in 2-5 minutes. The narrative places the reader in a dying city, flitting from memory to dialogue in multiple-choice, drop-downs, and radio buttons laid out as lines of poetry. The work proceeds mostly linearly; the reader choices may alter the subsequent text, but only slightly, and the narrative soon converges back to its main thread again. As it is quickly read/played, it lends itself to re-reading/playing, which allows the reader to reconsider various lines and take different meanings from their choices. While the reader/player agency in All Your Time-Tossed Selves is mostly illusory, the act of reading each line and selecting one that resonates, for whatever reason, gives the impression that the reader-player is diving deeper and deeper into the text, accessing it through one chosen line at a time.

The work itself is not earth-shattering in terms of its poetry or narrative, though there are some very affective moments in which the brief passages allow the simple Google Form interface to fall away into the remnants of a doomed world. Rather, it is the platform and the experimentation itself that are prominent here.

The tradition of digital fiction bristles with experimentation, particularly in the technologies that are used to build it. Historically, digital writers re-purposed digital technologies such as Flash, HTML, JavaScript; and even though some specific DF engines have emerged (Storyspace, Inform7, Literatronica, Twine, Texture), All Your Time-Tossed Selves demonstrates that creativity is always reaching out to play with a new medium.

Google Forms as a medium obviously has some limitations: the customization options in terms of visual effects are few, resulting in a sameness of form. Yet these limitations enhance the more literary aspects of the work, enabling the reader-player to focus less on flash-whizz-bang, and more on the text. The plain, nondescript interface slips away much like the pages of a book; it backs out of the way of immersion in the poetry itself.

By the same token, it permits a modicum more of cognitive engagement in the reader-player than a simple hypertext. As the work progresses through the selection and submission of multiple choice answers, clicks on drop-down lists, and checked options in radio buttons, it offers the reader something more to do than simply clicking on a link. At the same time, the arrangement of these options suits the poetic medium, as each option can be laid out as a line in a stanza. Porpentine has both subverted the medium of Google Forms for creative purposes, and made use of its affordances for affective communication of the text.

Finally, Porpentine has enabled the “See previous responses” function of Google Forms, which enables the reader-player to see all of the options, and what other reader-players chose for each. This pie-chart laden review of the text gives an alternative reading path for the reader-player, and also a sense of community with those who have gone before, and provides fascinating fodder for those interested in reader-player behavior, from psychologists to writers. Why are so many reader-players driven to explore the letter-writing exchange that is alluded to, as opposed to exploring the player-character narrator? What can this data tell us about what readers are looking for in a text — whether interactive or not? What can this data tell us about this text itself?

The bar graphs and pie charts can’t answer all of these questions, and perhaps it would take the pleasure out of the poetry if they did. Nonetheless, they offer yet another path back into the work, sifting through the rubble of the text and its destroyed city. And who doesn’t enjoy pondering a narrative in its aftermath, in some form or other?

Try All Your Time-Tossed Selves for yourself, and add your comments here!

You can find more of Porpentine’s work here.

It’s alive!!!

It’s alive!!!

Nothing is real until it’s posted on the internet. So with a click of the rather apt “publish” button, Wonderbox Publishing’s new site became real today.

We’ve got a couple of projects underway already (check out Normal Deviation, our first anthology!), as well as some ideas for the future, so keep an eye on this space for the future of publishing!