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: Peter J. Favaro’s Alter Ego

Review: Peter J. Favaro’s Alter Ego

Alter Ego
by Peter J. Favaro, Ph.D.
1986
Text Adventure Game / Multiple Choice Game (ChoiceScript)


There are many reasons to play video games. Enjoyment is often a key factor (despite that friend who’s known to chuck their X-BOX controller into a wall); they also provide a valuable sense of escape from the real world.

If in 1986 you owned a Commodore 64 or one of the box-ish computers on the market then you had the option of living an “ordinary American life” through as many times as you wanted, thanks to Peter J. Favaro’s Alter Ego.

The game tracks choices made and the paths you choose, presenting you with different outcomes and endings accordingly… Well, every ending involving your death but in different circumstances. For example, decisions you make as a baby (yes, the game quite literally starts you off taking baby steps) influence whether your protagonist is extroverted or introverted, which might ring a bell if you’re familiar with attachment theory.

Each ‘life’ you play takes a while. I first played Alter Ego in 2014 to kill time and kill time it did. The first route took me just under an hour to complete (in 2014 the game was free; now you can access it once or buy it for $5 and play through as many times as you want). However, much of that is sifting through the same material: trying to find a decent job, trying to marry, trying not to let your ‘wealth’ and ‘happiness’ scores drop too low… Maybe scrap that part on video games being an escape from real life.

You’re very much trapped as the “average” 1986 American, something that became dull for me after my first playthrough. As such – rather morbidly – future playthroughs revolved around me seeing how quickly I could kill my player/character.

It’s interesting to view Alter Ego in 2017. The game places such emphasis on you being an “ordinary” American in the year 1986. Your first choice is gender: Male or Female. If you’re playing as a man your romance options are with women and vice versa. The reasoning behind this is that although it would be easy to add same-sex dating to the game, it wouldn’t have been accurate in context. As the game’s credits page explains:

“The current edition includes an updated interface and fixes bugs in the original version of the game, but the content of the game (the writing) hasn’t changed from the original 1986 version of the game…Telling the life story of a gay man in 1986 means telling the story of coming out of the closet, prejudiced employers, encounters with parents, and so on.”

It’s not just a matter of swapping pronouns in dialogue (a lazy solution anyway) it’s about accurately representing the struggles of queer Americans in 1986.

In the same way, although your character is never described, it’s clear they’re white, or at least white-passing, due to the lack of prejudice based on skin colour.

This is because, although your character can potentially live to be eighty years old, time in Alter Ego is frozen.

“The entire game of Alter Ego is set in 1986 […] Nothing of significance happens in America over the course of your lifetime.”

As such the smalls steps taken towards America being a (debatably) more understanding country could never occur.

Armed with this information, Alter Ego becomes almost dystopian. You can only be this “ordinary” 1986 American, and while you attempt to build your virtual life, you’re aware it’s your character’s privilege which allows them the opportunity. On the other side of the white-picket-fence people like myself and many others would be having a much harder time.

All in all, Alter Ego is worth a playthrough, especially since you do get one free run. It’s easy to become immersed in your character’s life and with the longer playthroughs taking you almost an hour to complete, there’s enough content to justify paying for the full version. After all, $5 is a small price to pay for the power of reincarnation… Until you get sick of 1986, that is.

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: Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World

Review: Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World

Queers in Love at the End of the World
by Anna Anthropy
Interactive Fiction / Twine Game
2013


Queers in Love at the End of the World is an interactive fiction written using Twine Sugarcane by Anna Anthropy, supposedly for a competition and inspired by a quote from Tumblr: “when we have each other, we have everything”.

The theme of the competition and therefore this IF is ‘ten seconds’. The reader is given ten seconds to go from start to finish by clicking on the links to try and find a path. This means you have little to no time to read anything, even the opening passage. You could, of course, spend time reading each passage and simply following your old path when you move onto the next page but that kind of defeats the purpose.

What little I managed to read in between frantic clicking on links is great writing: emotive wording, characterisation, and multiple paths to take. This IF is best suited to those who like to skim-read and get the gist of what path they’re taking, but someone who enjoys taking their time and reading isn’t going to have the best experience.

The entire point is that you have no time to think, no time to react to the information you’re being given because the world is ending. The inclusion of a timer is an excellent way to replicate the anxiety one would feel when given only ten seconds to experience something.

Because of the tiny time limit, this IF has a high degree of re-playability. In the ten to twenty times a reader would usually spend reading an IF, they can experience many different paths of the game. I don’t know how many endings there are but one of the best parts is probably when you finish frantically clicking links and end up on a page with three seconds left where you actually have enough time to read it.

This IF relies heavily on assumptions: when you click on a link, you have some idea where you’re going to go. Most of the options are actions: “kiss her” etc., or the player-character thinking about something specific, such as “The memory of her smell when she’s far away”.

The title is the only overt reference to this being an LGBT+ piece. Nothing in the text (that I managed to read) was obvious that this should be anything more than the standard heteronormative piece. This piece is a massive hi-five to the LGBT+ community and one that I can definitely get behind. After all, why should writers have to conform to stereotypes in order to display a relationship that is fundamentally the same as those available in other fiction? The fact that the title itself states this is enough of a tip off and is great representation.

Anna Anthropy is an American video game writer and has a great list of other works if you want to follow her other works. I highly recommend it.

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: Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs

Review: Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs

screenshot

My Father’s Long, Long Legs
by Michael Lutz
2013
Hypertext / Twine Game


Players of My Father’s Long, Long Legs will probably never find a piece of hypertext more aptly described by the phrase “digging yourself a hole”.

This twine game, from Michael Lutz’s site Correlated Contents, explores the topic of an absent father in a rather peculiar way. You play as the eldest child, nameless like the other characters, identified only by their relevant roles: Father, Mother, Brother, Brother’s Friend, etc. Then through clicking hyperlinks to reveal more text, you burrow deeper into how the family is affected once the protagonist’s father begins digging in the basement of their home.

As you play the game, you learn little about the protagonist but much about her family. The first ‘choice’ you’re presented with is an option to learn more about your brother, mother or yourself (although, the latter only provides extra insight on the protagonist’s family situation and gender, as she’s later referred to as “young lady”).

The choices themselves are less about what dialogue the player accesses and more about what order it’s accessed in. The previously mentioned “Brother”, “Mother” and “Yourself” options must all be viewed to advance, but you can view them in whatever order you like. Similarly, to progress through the game, the player must click the link in the current passage to reveal the next passage.

As each passage is revealed the webpage becomes longer, revealing a daunting wall of text to the player. It’s easy then to imagine that you’ve done some digging yourself, buried deep in this black background, going deeper the more you read. Towards the end of the game’s first phase, you’re asked to make a real choice in My Father’s Long, Long Legs, but even this only results in a small dialogue change.

Then in phase two things get a little more interesting.

I categorise phase two by the change in background and how you read the text. In phase one, all the text you’ve read so far is still visible. You can scroll up and return to the beginning of the story, although it’s impossible to make any changes to your choices without restarting the game. However, in phase two each choice you make takes you to a new screen. Some screens are even repeated depending on which options you pick.

Not to mention, everything is black besides a small circle you control via mouse. This allows you to read the text underneath the circle, simulating a torch held by the protagonist. There are also audio elements, the sound of digging, and the humming of Johnny Cash’s “You Are My Sunshine” right at the end.

The player is now faced with choices again, heading in certain directions or performing other actions, trying to navigate the protagonist through the basement. I’ve completed the game a few times yet I struggle to discern whether specific choices take you to the ending quicker or not.

At times, the unsettling sound of digging in the background seems to become more loud or quiet depending on the choices taken. Perhaps this signals the player to follow their ears to reach the end, much like The Forest Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. Alternatively, it could be a certain number of choices that lead the player to the end, as they wander lost through the same few sets of decisions.

Overall, My Father’s Long, Long Legs is an engaging – and towards the end, frightening – piece of hypertext, lacking only in the branching paths so familiar to hypertext fiction. But despite the game only having one path, it’s a path well worth walking if you have twenty minutes to take in the scenery.

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.