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Judges for 2018 Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition

Judges for 2018 Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition

I’m so happy that Astrid Ensslin, Bronwen Thomas, and Eben Muse (well, and me) are all returning to judge this year’s Opening Up competition. We had such a great experience last year, and I hope that we can top it this year with even more works of popular/mainstream-appeal digital fiction.

As I stumbled on promotions in December (thanks to two grant applications…the grub-work is never done!), I’ve extended the submission deadline to 15 March 2018. That gives everyone an extra month to make some awesome interactive stories!

We’re changing up the way judging happens a little bit this year, now that we have some great digital creators in our “academy”. Creators who have been previously shortlisted in the competition will be invited to review the submitted works this year, and offer their own shortlists for each category. This will make up the shortlist for the competition, and the judges will choose the finalists. We wanted our creators to have more voice (outside the People’s Choice) category.

So get ready for a great Spring season full of fantastic new works of digital fiction!

Hyperbooks & hyperstories: That’s kind of our thing

Hyperbooks & hyperstories: That’s kind of our thing

New hyperstory release:

The Pyxis Memo: On Resurrecting the Free Web” (a hypertext in eBook form)

The Pyxis Memo
The Fracture of 2018 ended the United States as we know it. The fear, the violence, the bombs…where did it all originate? And can the box of destruction be closed once it’s been laid open?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Wonderbox is my little experimentation baby. I’m a writer and researcher in digital fiction, and in the past couple of years I’ve been questioning more and more why this fascinating, nubile, agile form of narrative hasn’t really hit the mainstream, despite almost 3 1/2 decades of creativity, sharing, and growth. So I turned my research and creative activities to publishing.

If you’ve had a squiz at the Wonderbox website, you may have noticed under “Projects” is a listing for Hyperbooks. This is my creative + publishing experiment to see if I can bring new (paying!) audiences to digital fiction through the established and thriving marketplace of eBooks. Why not? They’re already hypertextual!

I published my first “hyperstory”, a short hypertext in eBook form, last year about this time: “The Futographer“. I haven’t pushed it much, but my mom likes it, so there’s a ringing endorsement for you. It’s always been my aim to write something my mom would “get”, and not need me to walk her through it (she liked my previous interactive fiction, but it was definitely a guided tour).

Of course, this is the same woman who follows her “I love yous” with “I guess somebody has to.” Take her endorsement as you will.

Anyway, I’ve just released my latest hyperstory, “The Pyxis Memo: On Resurrecting the Free Web“. It’s not as straightforward, and my mom hasn’t read it yet, but my husband has, and he liked it, so there’s another ringing endorsement for you.

My goal with these hyperstories is to establish a niche for these works in eBook marketplaces. Start small, go big. Through the smaller texts, I’ve been learning the best ways to code my XML files so the hyperstories function as closely to online hypertexts as possible (yeah, there will be an academic paper or two out of this at some point), and hopefully building a little audience of awareness for them, so that when I finally work my magnum opus out (it’s coming, trust me), it will function brilliantly and beautifully and make me the next J.K. Rowling. Or, at least, I hope it won’t suck.

There you have it. Check out “The Pyxis Memo”, and let me know what you think (#PyxisMemo).

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.

Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition 2.0

Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition 2.0

Deadline for submissions: 15 Feb 2018

Announcement of winners: 31 July 2018

Entries accepted in English and Welsh.

Wonderbox Publishing, in conjunction with Bangor University (Wales), is sponsoring the second annual competition to discover the best “popular” digital fiction: digital fiction that appeals to mainstream audiences.

See last year’s winners here!

Digital fiction is fiction that is written to be read/played on digital devices. Importantly, digital fictions are different to e-books. Rather than existing as a digital version of a print novel, digital fictions are what are known as “born digital” – that is, they would lose something of their form and/or meaning if they were removed from the digital medium.

For example, they may contain hyperlinks, moving images, mini-games or sound effects. In many digital fictions, the reader has a role in constructing the narrative, either by selecting hyperlinks or by controlling a character’s journey through the storyworld. Digital fictions therefore require that the reader interacts with the narrative throughout the reading experience. Hypertexts, text-adventure games, multimedia stories, interactive video, literary games, and some mobile apps are all examples of types of digital fiction.

See our Digital Fiction Resources guide here.

There are no restrictions as to types of software you can use to produce digital fiction; everything from HTML, Adobe Flash, Inform7, Twine, YouTube, Twitter, and more have been used to make digital fictions. For the competition, please submit links or files that are openly accessible on any computer (Mac or PC), and that will run in a web browser.

Wonderbox Publishing is a new publishing endeavour that seeks to provide commercial space to digital fiction, and the Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition is therefore designed to expand digital fiction readership to include a broader segment of the public. Therefore while the competition is open to all writers (rookies and veterans) and all types of digital fiction, we are seeking entries of works that are broadly accessible, both in terms of intended audience and device compatibility.

This competition is funded through a Bangor ESRC Impact Acceleration Award, in partnership with Wonderbox Publishing, Literature Wales, and Jisc Wales.

The prize categories are:

  • Judges’ Prize
  • People’s Choice
  • Welsh Language Prize*
  • Student Prize
  • Children’s Story

*Welsh language entries are eligible for all categories.

Winners will receive a cash prize (to be announced) and an option to publish with Wonderbox Publishing.

For ongoing details of the competition, please watch this space, and subscribe to updates!

Ready to submit? Click here!

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.