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Author: Pan Saville

Writer of queer fiction and aspiring writer of ergodic fiction.

Review: Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword

Review: Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword

The 50 Year Sword Cover

The Fifty Year Sword
by Mark Z. Danielewski
2005
Book


Autumn is finally in the air; the smell of coal fires litter the evening air where I live, the leaves are turning to rich golds and warm umbers. Either joyfully or annoyingly (depending on your opinion of the matter) everything is pumpkin spiced, and you can more than likely find me holding a pumpkin whilst telling the Christmas crowd to back off.

Are you settled? Warm socks and a steaming mug of whatever takes your fancy?

Because you have a date with “a bad man with a very black heart…”

The Fifty Year Sword is at first glance an exquisite looking book; however, it holds something quiet, something menacing within its pages and under its jacket. The story is told by five speakers, differentiated by coloured quotation marks, and is told entirely in dialogue.

Chintana has decided to attend the 50th birthday party of Belinda Kite, the woman with whom her husband had an affair. A storyteller comes to the house to entertain five orphans with a dark tale where they traverse through The Valley of Salt, amongst The Forest of Falling Notes, scaling the Mountain of Manyone Paths to reach the Man With No Arms.

If I were to tell you any more than that, it would give away too much. Danielewski is renowned for his ability to juxtapose imagery and narrative to create a non-trivial text and The Fifty Year Sword is a wonderful welcome into this world if you haven’t yet delved into it.

The narrative draws you in; the dialogue that is crossed between and cut amongst provides it with a quickened pace. The visuals of the seemingly sliced pages, the stitched embroidery providing you with a sense of connection all add to the overall experience, everything in Danielewski’s worlds is done deliberately with deep thought and finesse.

Some find this kind of literature as gimmicky, rather pretentious and occasionally not worth taking the time to read. First printed in 2005 with a limited edition run of 1000 copies, and then another run several years later, it has proved itself to be a cult favourite. Relying on intricate, woven language and the depths of the reader’s mind rather than unnecessary depictions of violence, it is a much more successful tale for the ages.

Ergodic fiction is continuously growing, changing and adapting to new various platforms. With these changes come new methods of becoming immersive, of providing an all-round experience but if you’re daunted by the scale of that or unsure where to start, then The Fifty Year Sword is an excellent doorway in.

This book is more than a ghost story told on Hallow’s Eve and more than a fairy-tale to be forgotten.

The last question to be asked: What will happen on your fiftieth birthday?

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: 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: Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest

Review: Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest

screenshot

Depression Quest
by Zoe Quinn
2013
Hypertext / Twine Game
Steam / Play for Free


I know, the title doesn’t scream ‘thrilling-thing-you-want-to-do’ but bear with me for a second. Depression Quest is an interactive Twine game with collaborators Patrick Lindsey and Issac Schankler. You play as someone living with depression who is given everyday situations to navigate and choices as to what you can decide to do.

It is not a fun game.

It isn’t meant to be.

The purpose is to educate those who play so they have a better understanding of what living with depression entails, this can range from people struggling with the mental illness or those trying to support them. As you begin you are given snippets of information about your background such as your social circle and the fact you have a girlfriend called Alex.

The story is navigated via hyperlinks but additionally also has music which you are encouraged to listen to as you play. But you don’t miss anything if you do; I gather it’s there to provide some sort of ambience yet it’s rather just stereotypical sad piano.

Depending on which choice you take, others are struck through so you no longer have that option. You can see the most positive or logical option, you know it’s there, but you’ve chosen to ignore it or not pursue it for whatever reason. This element of the game in particular I found interesting, more evocative of real life frustration. You’ve made a choice. You can’t go back. You have to deal with what’s left.

However, a drawback for Depression Quest is that if you’ve dealt with or are dealing with depression you know how to get the ‘positive’ outcome. As with all games, you want to beat them, you want to achieve the best possible outcome and with this, it’s fairly simple to do. This part of the gameplay feels almost encouraging, that if you can manage it here there’s the possibility you can do it for yourself too.

Additionally, parts of the writing start to feel like it’s more of a personal account of their mental health, what choices they feel they had at that time so it can come across as very narrow in its scope, and slightly tedious.

Adversely you do get several chances to open up to the other characters, to change your progression if you’ve decided this isn’t quite the path you want. One thing that is beneficial is that the game provides something akin to stress relief. You can choose the most disastrous options but there is no fall out, no lasting damage, no broken friendships, etc. It’s all contained in cyberspace, waiting for the reset button.

In essence, it is an educational tool in a sea of thousands and there is no doubt that for some it has served its purpose. Depression Quest is a good attempt at trying to battle the stigma of mental illness through a more interactive, widely accessible platform and should be utilised more often.

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.