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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: Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis

Review: Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis

Hana Feels by Gavin Inglis
Interactive story / Twine game
2015


I’m always anxious about reading fiction about depression. There’s a tendency towards romanticising mental illness – or at least the ‘pretty’ side of mental illness – that rubs me the wrong way. Fortunately, Hana Feels might be about depression, but it is not romanticised.

Hana Feels is an interactive storygame centred around the eponymous character, Hana, and her struggle with depression. However, we don’t play as Hana, but rather the characters she interacts with, including her best friend, Jen, her boss, Christine, and a helpline volunteer named Will. Their reactions decide what path she will follow, either helping her recovery or making her worse.

There are three possible endings to the game: better, the same, or worse. Obviously, it’s not exactly true to life – recovery from mental illness isn’t linear in any way – but Inglis manages to capture a version of reality with these endings. There isn’t an ending where everything ends up hunky-dory. She’s not going to walk away suddenly cured, which is a relief for those readers who have experience with mental illnesses.

The thing is, Hana Feels has two possible readers: those with experience, and those without. For the former, it’s a familiar story. Although no two people have the same journey, there are elements that most people experience: alienation from family members and friends; feelings of self-doubt and blame; disassociation from everyday experiences and so on. In its way, Hana Feels is a mirror, and it hits home.

But for those readers who have never experienced mental illness, or have only ever watched from afar? For them, Hana Feels becomes something more like a manual. On my first playthrough, I got frustrated with how similar the options were – what does it matter if you ask someone’s name before you ask them how they are? It wasn’t until my second and third playthrough that I understood better: every word mattered when trying to help someone else, and they especially mattered when a single misstep could cause irreparable harm. It was uncomfortable and stressful and exactly what it’s like in real life – and that’s why Hana Feels is a great storygame.

I won’t say it’s perfect. There are moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite mesh perfectly, or where the reactions are too limited for there to be a satisfying option. But that in itself is quite clever: after all, we’re not reacting as we would, but rather exploring how the characters themselves might choose. It’s shorter than I’d like, and once you’ve figured out the right options to pick the game ends a little abruptly, but overall Inglis manages to draw us into the world successfully – uncomfortably, awkwardly, but certainly successfully.

Built in Twine 2.0, Hana Feels is sort of the quintessential storygame: limited interactions allow for different possible conclusions. For those used to interactive fiction, it is somewhat predictable, but that doesn’t detract from its enjoyability – rather, the comfort of the familiarity is a perfect offset to the discomfort of the topic. It’s free to play, only takes about fifteen minutes to get through, and is something I’d definitely recommend giving a go.

Read more about the project on Gavin Ingis’s blog.

Digital Fiction Resources

Digital Fiction Resources

Quicklinks:

What is Digital Fiction?

Digital fiction (DF) as we understand it here at Wonderbox is:

Fictional stories that are written and read on digital devices, using some element of digital interactivity or expression (e.g., links, multimedia, gameplay). DF stories would lose something – or everything – if they were expressed in print form only.

For more thorough (and scholarly) overviews of what digital fiction is, have a look at the [S]creed for Digital Fiction, and Reading Digital Fiction’s overview.

Examples of DF include (but are definitely not limited to!) interactive fiction, text adventure games, hypertexts, Flash fictions (the ones built in Adobe Flash), multimedia fiction, mobile story apps, enhanced books, and more. We review a lot of these across a breadth of styles and platforms here on Wonderbox.

Writing Digital Fiction

(Previously posted on the Reading Digital Fiction website.)

Digital writers have historically used a lot of different platforms, often proprietary software that was both expensive, and repurposed for digital fiction. Luckily, a lot has changed as digital fiction has grown in popularity, and there are now a number of really great, inexpensive/free/open-source, built-for-purpose platforms for burgeoning digital writers to choose from.

The first step is always to check out existing digital fictions (start with our suggestions for readers and reading groups, and also review those collected at the Electronic Literature Collection and the Interactive Fiction Database), to get familiar with how digital fiction works, and be inspired by the different styles and genres you can write in.

Twine

If you are new to creating interactive texts, programs, or websites, it’s best to start simple. Twine, an open-source platform for creating hypertexts (called “Twine games”), is an excellent tool. You can build a Twine game in just a few minutes, and there is a fantastic community posting tutorials and sharing mods. The great thing about it is that as your skills advance, so does Twine; it can be adapted to work with conditionals, JavaScript, CSS, and html.

It’s worth noting that game developers often use Twine, or Twine-like environments, as planning and organizational tools for their game design. Even if you choose to go on to other platforms, Twine’s easy-to-use, visual mapping space can be a valuable tool for digital writing.

Twine resources:

Texture

Texture is a more recently developed platform, but it is already showing promise. Texture provides a WYSIWYG platform to create interactive narratives. Check out some of the Texture stories already written, and write/publish your own.

ChoiceScript

ChoiceScript is the platform used for Choice of Games fictions, and is freely available. If you enjoy CoG, or “multiple-choice games”, this is a good option.

InkleWriter

InkleWriter creates interactive stories in a scrolling visual that mimics the look of book pages, a nice crossover between interactivity and print-based stories.

Inform7 & TADS

On the purely text-based front of interactive fiction (a.k.a. text-adventure games) is Inform7 and TADS. Through these platforms, you can create parser-based interactive fictions in the mode of the old commercial games of the 1980s (think Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure). The form has turned to more of a literary bent in recent years, and experienced a resurgence.

Inform7 resources:

Quest

Quest allows you to create interactive fictions of the Inform7/TADS style, but without the need to learn the specific coding language.

Ren’Py & Novelty

Ren’Py and Novelty are visual novel engines. Both are free, and both offer large libraries of VNs to explore, as well as extensive tutorials on how to make them. VNs are more popular in the East Asian market than in the West, as you’ll see from the visual style, but that popularity means they have been around for a while longer, and have more examples and tutorials, than some of the other engines.

Adobe Animate CC (formerly Flash)

Flash was created as a general-purpose multimedia tool, and as such it’s A) expensive, and B) really robust (although finicky). You pay a lot for it, but you also get a lot (probably more than most digital writers need, given its wide range of uses, from multimedia websites to Flash games). A lot of digital fiction has been created on Flash, and some of the…er…”flashier” works use it well.

The limitations of Flash, of course, are well-known, as Flash has had a rocky relationship with mobile devices.

HTML-CSS-JavaScript

Because of the controversy and difficulties with Flash and mobile devices, a lot of digital writers shifted to HTML (and later, HTML5) in the early 2010s. With new attributes and potential for dynamic websites, HTML5, used in conjunction with CSS and JavaScript, enables digital writers to create fictions that work across all devices, with a minimum of adjustment between them. Clearly, working in these “pure” code-based environments requires some digital expertise, but once mastered, they offer a strong foundation for the digital writer to implement a wide array of digital fictions, from web-based dynamic texts to stand-alone mobile apps.

And finally, don’t forget the e-Book

Remember, e-Books have hypertext functionality! Using tools like Sigil and Calibre, enterprising digital writers can create hypertexts that can be enjoyed on any device, and sold through all major e-book sellers (including Amazon and the iBookstore). Our Hyperbooks project has started down this route in order to explore the commercialization potential of digital fiction and hypertexts, and we welcome all digital writers to join us!

Have other platforms or tools you like or that you built? Comment on this post with them and we’ll add them to the page.

Reading Digital Fiction

Resources for Reading DF (includes links to some great introductory DFs)

Resources for Reading Groups

Where to find DF:

Have suggestions for resources? Comment on this post with them, and we can update the page.

Opening Up Digital Fiction

Opening Up Digital Fiction

As part of the AHRC-funded Reading Digital Fiction research project I’ve had the privilege of working on, I recently hosted the Opening Up Digital Fiction Writing Competition. The competition was a key element to meeting one of the research project’s aims: to introduce more readers to digital fiction.

With that aim in mind, we sought out “popular” digital fiction — the DF equivalent of “commercial” fiction. We wanted works that would appeal to mainstream audiences, which at this point, generally aren’t even aware there’s such a thing as digital fiction, much less have preferences or favorite authors. Ideally, we wanted to build a list of generally accessible digital fiction that the general public would not only understand, but like.

The competition was a wild success in this regard. We were amazed to receive works from all around the world (24 countries!), from established digital writers to university students to families working together. The range of styles and forms and platforms was astounding; no two works were similar, and all made use of the digital medium to integrate reader and narrative.

The shortlist provides a strong reading list of the types and varieties of digital fiction currently being made; the list of winners shows the quality of writing that goes into these works. Any reader new to digital fiction (as well as those experienced in DF!) could make a fantastic start with these lists.

As for the competition itself, my current goal is to find some follow-on funding in order to keep it going, transferring it over here to Wonderbox. I want to continue building on the great works submitted this year, encouraging new and experienced digital writers alike to develop works that can eventually slide into a commercial publishing stream (which is one of the core aims of Wonderbox).

So stay tuned — we should have updates and a new call for submissions soon!

Review: Porpentine’s All Your Time-Tossed Selves

Review: Porpentine’s All Your Time-Tossed Selves

All Your Time-Tossed Selves
by Porpentine
Digital Fiction – Google Forms
​2016


When it seems as if every book is a copy of The Girl Who ​                   , every film is a sequel, and every TV show is a remake, some writers still write. Still experiment. Still play. Porpentine, most commonly known as a prominent Twine author, is one of these. Her latest digital fiction, All Your Time-Tossed Selves, is a simple experiment, stepping away from Twine as a platform and using Google Forms instead. Its short length, linearity, and thoughtful contemplation make it a great read for those who love poetry with a bit of story, even those who aren’t very familiar with digital fiction.

All Your Time-Tossed Selves is a short, poetic narrative that can be played in 2-5 minutes. The narrative places the reader in a dying city, flitting from memory to dialogue in multiple-choice, drop-downs, and radio buttons laid out as lines of poetry. The work proceeds mostly linearly; the reader choices may alter the subsequent text, but only slightly, and the narrative soon converges back to its main thread again. As it is quickly read/played, it lends itself to re-reading/playing, which allows the reader to reconsider various lines and take different meanings from their choices. While the reader/player agency in All Your Time-Tossed Selves is mostly illusory, the act of reading each line and selecting one that resonates, for whatever reason, gives the impression that the reader-player is diving deeper and deeper into the text, accessing it through one chosen line at a time.

The work itself is not earth-shattering in terms of its poetry or narrative, though there are some very affective moments in which the brief passages allow the simple Google Form interface to fall away into the remnants of a doomed world. Rather, it is the platform and the experimentation itself that are prominent here.

The tradition of digital fiction bristles with experimentation, particularly in the technologies that are used to build it. Historically, digital writers re-purposed digital technologies such as Flash, HTML, JavaScript; and even though some specific DF engines have emerged (Storyspace, Inform7, Literatronica, Twine, Texture), All Your Time-Tossed Selves demonstrates that creativity is always reaching out to play with a new medium.

Google Forms as a medium obviously has some limitations: the customization options in terms of visual effects are few, resulting in a sameness of form. Yet these limitations enhance the more literary aspects of the work, enabling the reader-player to focus less on flash-whizz-bang, and more on the text. The plain, nondescript interface slips away much like the pages of a book; it backs out of the way of immersion in the poetry itself.

By the same token, it permits a modicum more of cognitive engagement in the reader-player than a simple hypertext. As the work progresses through the selection and submission of multiple choice answers, clicks on drop-down lists, and checked options in radio buttons, it offers the reader something more to do than simply clicking on a link. At the same time, the arrangement of these options suits the poetic medium, as each option can be laid out as a line in a stanza. Porpentine has both subverted the medium of Google Forms for creative purposes, and made use of its affordances for affective communication of the text.

Finally, Porpentine has enabled the “See previous responses” function of Google Forms, which enables the reader-player to see all of the options, and what other reader-players chose for each. This pie-chart laden review of the text gives an alternative reading path for the reader-player, and also a sense of community with those who have gone before, and provides fascinating fodder for those interested in reader-player behavior, from psychologists to writers. Why are so many reader-players driven to explore the letter-writing exchange that is alluded to, as opposed to exploring the player-character narrator? What can this data tell us about what readers are looking for in a text — whether interactive or not? What can this data tell us about this text itself?

The bar graphs and pie charts can’t answer all of these questions, and perhaps it would take the pleasure out of the poetry if they did. Nonetheless, they offer yet another path back into the work, sifting through the rubble of the text and its destroyed city. And who doesn’t enjoy pondering a narrative in its aftermath, in some form or other?

Try All Your Time-Tossed Selves for yourself, and add your comments here!

You can find more of Porpentine’s work here.