Browsed by
Author: Jordan Glendenning

Writer of speculative fiction; researcher of digital fiction.

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: Joanna Walsh’s SEED

Review: Joanna Walsh’s SEED

SEED
by Joanna Walsh
Illustrated by Charlotte Hicks
2017
Interactive Fiction
Best accessed on a mobile device.


SEED is written by Joanna Walsh and illustrated by Charlotte Hicks, and follows the tale of an 18-year old girl during four months of her life in the late 1980s. This story, one of many published by those at Visual Editions, is one best experienced on your mobile device; though possible to view on a desktop computer, you really do want to be able to swipe easily.

Described in the introduction as a coming of age narrative, SEED is a story that feels like an in-depth exploration of a character. We are free, as the reader, to choose the path through the narrative we like the look of best.

You’re able to swipe about the darkness of the story’s surface layer and follow the vines, or not, with whimsical abandon. It’s a fun experience, heightened by the quality of the webpage, prose, and illustrations.

If you dive in anywhere on the storyline at random, as I did when I first opened the webpage, you’d be excused to find yourself a little befuddled. The text reads a little off-kilter, with a sense of something odd going on. It’s not just because you don’t know where you are in the narrative yet, because you can find the same thing happening on reading the ‘opening’ lexia, or “chunk of text”.

Though the text is from a point of view that’s a little skewed, it brings a lyrical sense of amusement to the telling, which I enjoy:

“Ragged robin a canker, looks like something ill./ Outside the cattery don’t touch animals ever./ Brimstone butterflies./ The smell of humans on them doesn’t go away./ Crowsfoot. Yellow things./ Birds neither./ They will die, abandoned./”

The preceding quote is in verse, and judging from the introductory paragraph, and others that are in prose, is fully intended to have those line breaks. This poetic style doesn’t persist throughout the entire lexia, it often falls into a stream-of-consciousness style of narrative that is part and parcel of the whimsical weaving of story and style.

When you explore the text of SEED, and it seems obvious when thinking about the title of the piece, there are many illustrations of flowers, vines, and roots. I like this imagery because it reinforces the idea that you are following the thread, or root, of a story.

When you read to the end of a lexia, you can simply swipe again to move onto the next one that Walsh intended to follow on from what you were reading, or you can tap the cross and go back to the “main menu” of the narrative to find another. However, that’s a rather simplistic view of the text.

What I mean by this is that the main menu also shows an options panel, allowing us to pick which thread of the story to follow. For example, when I picked ‘land’, a green thread was left in its wake and related lexias were highlighted, showing me the path that discusses land. Anything not in that sub-section was greyed out.

In this way, you could come to SEED and read only the lexias concerning the land, or the house, or work, and leave it at that. You would have a ‘complete’ narrative, though it wouldn’t be the whole narrative.

You read ‘chapters’ of each month in which the story takes place – June, July, August, September – and once you finish exploring one month, you can move onto the next. Or not, as the choice is completely up to you.

However, what’s really, really, fascinating about this story is that when you read any lexia with only one thread enabled, you only see the text within that lexia relevant to that thread, and that thread alone.

If you have all threads enabled, you read every scrap of information in that lexia, and each one can be pages long. Disable all but one thread, and your lexias can be a single sentence long.

This functionality completely changed the way I viewed SEED, and I’m sure any other reader would react the same way: from cute and slightly befuddling, to clever and intriguing.

This text is beautifully lyrical, follows a character who is engaging and with whom you easily empathise, and is underpinned by fantastic technology that shines through when used on a mobile device.

I thoroughly recommend SEED, and I’ll be diving into the rest of Visual Edition’s books when I get the chance; I’ve still got another five read-throughs of this one to go!

Review: Andrea Corbin’s Base of the Comet

Review: Andrea Corbin’s Base of the Comet

screenshot

Base of the Comet
Andrea Corbin (@rosencrantz)
Interactive Fiction / Twine Game
2014


Base of the Comet, by Andrea Corbin, aka @rosencrantz, was one of the first Twine games I read that experimented with what it means to have different links in a hypertext. Then Corbin went on to try something I hadn’t seen before. It’s basically the story of a space scientist, Cal, who wakes up confused and alone on a spaceship. Here there be weird space monsters!

When you load the webpage, the first visible lexia, or story passage, loads and you instantly see two types of links, coloured purple or blue. Clicking on the purple links will find those paragraphs extending from a simple description to something more, and then to a full-blown investigation of whatever it is describing. Instead of navigation, purple is “explore”.

I really like this style of hypertext, and I what I liked the most was the very quick introduction to one key fact for this Twine text: there are a whole bunch of link types.

So, making Cal explore the environment (or not, as there is some element of control) we can move her on to explore the rest of the space vessel. Very quickly, it’s possible to dive into a loop of backstory.

With a new link colour (green) we enter flashbacks and see some characterisation, motivation, and minor plot. All of this is completely optional, of course, and that’s what I love about these games.

These optional lexias are fun, interesting, and deliver the meat of the story. We get the hint of past and current relationships, for example, which in reality has no business being in a short story of this type. However, as backstory it completely changes and becomes hugely important.

But, this wouldn’t be an experimental Twine game without something new, something quirky.

When we reach a section of the narrative that Cal enters a dark tunnel (I’ll leave the details to you to discover), the entire webpage goes completely black.

This combination of narrative and design brings a new level to the text that I wasn’t completely expecting, but it makes perfect sense now that I think about it. Of course it should go dark when there are no lights, right?

Not only does Corbin experiment with the narrative here (it’s speculative fiction after all) but the form of the hypertext, too. I don’t want to spoil every little design quirk that just adds to the experience; I want you to discover that for yourself.

The story is rather short, as it’s more of an experiment than a novel. But in the space that we have to explore, we find out some rather intimate aspects of backstory that flesh out the character of Cal, and we empathise with her easily.

The narrative doesn’t branch off so much in the beginning as it offers exploration of an area before one moves on; this gives the reader a sense of engagement with the story that is always welcome in a hypertext.

But, whilst the main narrative is mostly — key-word mostly — linear, there are multiple areas and rooms that are very easy to pass by. This text rewards the reader who explores with extra story, extra characterisation, and extra stats.

You have a very game-like statistics page at the end of a readthrough, telling you what you did and didn’t manage to do. It encourages replays, but at the same time could be slightly annoying to those who aren’t interested in replaying, I suppose, by taunting them with how much they missed the first time through.

As an aside, I once found 11 out of 7 things in this story. That’s right. If you can beat that, please leave a comment letting us know how you did in Base of the Comet, whether you liked it or not!

Base of the Comet was written in Twine by Andrea Corbin, @rosencrantz on Twitter, and can be found in various locations around the web, but mostly here.