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Author: Charlie Wilson

Review: Phantom Williams’ 500 Apocalypses

Review: Phantom Williams’ 500 Apocalypses

500 Apocalypses Screenshot

500 Apocalypses
by Phantom Williams
2016
Hypertext


500 Apocalypses is a fictional ‘memorial garden’ containing short entries about different worlds’ apocalypses. It’s a hypertext database, which can either be explored linearly or through using the hyperlinks to jump around the entries.

No entry is entirely like another. Some are atmospheric in tone, soaring above alien planets to let us land on mountains and watch the sky tumble. Some are blunt. They tell us that this world ended in fire. Some are personal, a conversation between two people close to each other. Some are philosophical, discussing the greater purpose of language, of war, of sex. While some are prosaic, the large majority are poetic: not poetry, but in trying to express the alien experience the writing rarely touches on the definite, using our senses to portray a facsimile of another world.

Throughout the hypertext, there is a pervasive sense of helplessness. Of course, given the topic, that’s to be expected, but it still grabs me almost overwhelmingly while reading it. Part of it is that many of the entries are written from the perspective of people who know they are about to die and are attempting to come to terms with it. The rest is more about dramatic irony – we know that they are about to die, but they don’t. In a way, that’s worse: they never have a chance to understand what is happening. But in a way, that’s better as well; it’s a relief from the cruelty of the apocalypse.

Part of what’s great about 500 Apocalypses is the inventiveness behind it. It imagines all the ways in which a society can destroy itself, or the ways in which nature can destroy us. It raises questions about climate change, about refugees and civil disputes, about science and history and the recording of both, but most of all it raises questions about the nature of humanity and the nature of civilisation. I’m a firm believer that no work can be divorced from its context, and 500 Apocalypses certainly speaks for its time – although what it says is different for every reader. We bring our own context into reading it, and put our own emphases on the different disasters we get to peruse.

The form works well for this type of narrative. It gives readers more control over their consumption of the entries, allowing us to ‘save’ our progress so we can return to it on separate days – not unlike chapters in a novel – and the database-style is immersive, allowing readers to be sucked into the concept. It is not without its negative aspects, however; when returning to the main page, it occasionally reverts back to the top and you have to scroll down to find your place again. There’s also the matter of following hyperlinks within entries – there are often multiple hyperlinks within one entry, and you cannot return to the previous entry once you click on one to explore the others. That annoyed me while reading it, but it’s not the end of the world (as it were), as all of the entries are accessible through the main page.

500 Apocalypses is – well, I’d hesitate to call it ‘fun’. It’s interesting and engaging, and it uses the science-fiction genre without falling into too many of the tropes inherent there. There is no boggy world-building to be bored by, and it offers enough unique plots to make me want to finish reading all the options. What it is, however, is miserable and depressing – as one might expect from the title. It might not be fun, but it is something I’d recommend reading if you have the time.

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: Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis

Review: Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis

Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis
Interactive story / Twine game
2015


I’m always anxious about reading fiction about depression. There’s a tendency towards romanticising mental illness – or at least the ‘pretty’ side of mental illness – that rubs me the wrong way. Fortunately, Hana Feels might be about depression, but it is not romanticised.

Hana Feels is an interactive storygame centred around the eponymous character, Hana, and her struggle with depression. However, we don’t play as Hana, but rather the characters she interacts with, including her best friend, Jen, her boss, Christine, and a helpline volunteer named Will. Their reactions decide what path she will follow, either helping her recovery or making her worse.

There are three possible endings to the game: better, the same, or worse. Obviously, it’s not exactly true to life – recovery from mental illness isn’t linear in any way – but Inglis manages to capture a version of reality with these endings. There isn’t an ending where everything ends up hunky-dory. She’s not going to walk away suddenly cured, which is a relief for those readers who have experience with mental illnesses.

The thing is, Hana Feels has two possible readers: those with experience, and those without. For the former, it’s a familiar story. Although no two people have the same journey, there are elements that most people experience: alienation from family members and friends; feelings of self-doubt and blame; disassociation from everyday experiences and so on. In its way, Hana Feels is a mirror, and it hits home.

But for those readers who have never experienced mental illness, or have only ever watched from afar? For them, Hana Feels becomes something more like a manual. On my first playthrough, I got frustrated with how similar the options were – what does it matter if you ask someone’s name before you ask them how they are? It wasn’t until my second and third playthrough that I understood better: every word mattered when trying to help someone else, and they especially mattered when a single misstep could cause irreparable harm. It was uncomfortable and stressful and exactly what it’s like in real life – and that’s why Hana Feels is a great storygame.

I won’t say it’s perfect. There are moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite mesh perfectly, or where the reactions are too limited for there to be a satisfying option. But that in itself is quite clever: after all, we’re not reacting as we would, but rather exploring how the characters themselves might choose. It’s shorter than I’d like, and once you’ve figured out the right options to pick the game ends a little abruptly, but overall Inglis manages to draw us into the world successfully – uncomfortably, awkwardly, but certainly successfully.

Built in Twine 2.0, Hana Feels is sort of the quintessential storygame: limited interactions allow for different possible conclusions. For those used to interactive fiction, it is somewhat predictable, but that doesn’t detract from its enjoyability – rather, the comfort of the familiarity is a perfect offset to the discomfort of the topic. It’s free to play, only takes about fifteen minutes to get through, and is something I’d definitely recommend giving a go.

Read more about the project on Gavin Ingis’s blog.