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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.

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: 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.

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: 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: 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.