Browsed by
Category: Reviews

Reviews of stories, books, and digital 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: 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: Jon Bois’ 17776, or What Football Will Look Like in the Future

Review: Jon Bois’ 17776, or What Football Will Look Like in the Future

17776 Screenshot

17776, or What Football Will Look Like in the Future
by Jon Bois
2017
Hyperfiction


As a self-declared nervous-wreck, I’ve always been envious of those with faith: without the promise of an afterlife, the end of this current life and its limited time seems more daunting. Only recently did a friend of mine express fear of the opposite. He, a Christian, is terrified by the thought of existing forever, explaining fears of life (or afterlife) becoming inevitably repetitive and losing all meaning.

This is the main concept behind Jon Bois’ 17776, or What Football Will Look Like in the Future.

In a utopian version of earth where war and poverty have been eradicated, people suddenly stop dying. No more babies are born, the current kids grow but everyone evens out to the age they feel most comfortable at.

On the surface level this sounds incredible, the immortal being trope without all the angst of “my lovers keep getting old and dying without me”. And the human characters in 17776 are mostly grateful, if not a little concerned about whether their indefinitely long lives continue to have value.

The story is presented through 25 chapters, each chapter existing in its own webpage and linking to the next. Some pages contain video links but most is plain text and images/GIFs. Different characters are represented through different text colours with narrative being delivered exclusively through dialogue.

It’s tough to world-build through dialogue alone – people don’t often rattle off everything they know about their own existence. So, to keep the dialogue convincing while also filling readers in, the main POV follows “Nine”, a space probe who has just woken from a one-thousand-five-hundred-year-long coma.

They are naturally very confused.

Nine asks questions just often enough for readers get used to the world in 17776 while letting the various storylines progress. The storylines in question revolve around how Americans are keeping themselves entertained in 17776: by coming up with games.

The main game focused on is a bastardisation of American football: pitches are now hundreds of miles long and games last centuries. One of the first scenes we’re shown by the space probes is a player running into a tornado, armed with the knowledge it can’t kill her.

At one point, a mishap during a different game sees the breakage of a history lightbulb in California that had been functional since 1901 – something that surprisingly exists in real life. This causes “Ten”, the space probe who woke Nine, to mourn like she’d lost a family member.

“Perhaps in a more fearsome age […] we would not have room in our hearts to care for such a little bulb. But we are living in an age without loss. This is a sorrow we have forgotten to experience.”

For me this quote sums up why 17776 is so interesting.

It’s impossible for a truly utopian society to exist; as a species we have different preferences, so in one person’s heaven it may never rain whereas another may enjoy the changing weather. As such, examples of utopian society in media are often flawed societies with out-of-touch almost brainwashed citizens (think the bare-foot people of Spectre in Tim Burton’s Big Fish).

However, the people in 17776 are aware not everything is perfect. At one point a character laments over seeing a mural of a mother and her baby knowing he can never experience fatherhood and a rep for a faith group recounts dwindling numbers for church services as people become accustomed to an existence between life and death.

So, if like myself you’ve spent time fretting over your own demise I’d recommend going through Jon Bois’ 17776. It may not change your outlook on mortality but it’s a hell of a read.

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.