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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: 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: 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: Gone Home by The Fullbright Company/Unity

Review: Gone Home by The Fullbright Company/Unity

Gone Home Logo

Gone Home
by The Fullbright Company / Unity
Console Game
2016


Gone Home is a first person adventure exploration game, first made for PC but then later developed for consoles. You play the game as 21-year-old Katie Greenbriar who has just returned home from travelling abroad. But it isn’t the home she left; it’s unfamiliar and peculiar despite being filled with everything she has ever known and loved, apart from one thing. Her family.

You start the game standing in front of the house, the lights off and a note taped to the door. Nobody is home. Once inside it’s time to explore and discover where the family has gone. Within the house you can interact with every light switch, open every drawer and pick up every book. It is one of the most interactive ‘point and click’ games I have played and thus enjoyed.

During the gameplay you learn about Katie’s family: Sam Greenbriar (sister), Janice Greenbriar (mother), and Terrence Greenbriar (father). What the family home lacks in life, it makes up for in notes, diary entries and snippets of clues that elude to the reason behind the missing family. As the game moves on, the house’s sinister past is revealed. A storm batters the windows. The TV is stuck on static.

The true control however, is in your hands. As the player it’s your job to decide what is and what isn’t important in finding what’s happened to Katie’s family. Hints and narrative guide you towards the next point but ultimately you choose where to go, how long you want the journey to last and for how long you are willing to get lost in the mystery.

However, if you are someone who likes clear direction and a linear narrative then this probably isn’t the game for you. On more than one occasion I became frustrated, not knowing where to go or what to do. The confusion of which clues to follow and which to ignore coupled with the seemingly never ending sands of time, leads to a feeling of restlessness. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of objects that I was able to interact with in the game, in some ways giving too much freedom. After a while, I listlessly threw some of the objects around the room before getting back on track with the narrative. The lure of the dark, brooding house brimming with secrets and bodiless voices is a failsafe way to draw you right back in.

What is so compelling about Gone Home is the way it pulls you slowly into the story. The narrative is fully immersive, created by handwritten notes, answer-phone messages and the unsettling sounds of an abandoned house. In addition, the storyline and characters have been well devised, from the sass of Sam to feeling sorry for Terrence all whilst turning corner after corner in the darkened house.

It’s messy, it’s complicated, and full of secrets. After all, what’s more intriguing than someone asking you not to go digging around for answers?

Gone Home is available for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

Bringing Digital Fiction Mainstream

Bringing Digital Fiction Mainstream

Presentation image.
My very first conference presentation.

I’ve come to publishing through my two-pronged careers as a writer and a researcher in creative writing (I’m still both, so I suppose I now have a three-pronged career?). As a writer and publisher, I get some data on my work here and there: some reviews and ratings on GoodReads, some purchase histories, click-throughs and reads on my sites and blogs, and that’s about it.

As a researcher, though, I sometimes get overwhelmed with data. How many people have cited my work, how many people have googled me, how many people have downloaded my papers. Academia.edu, in their push to become more of a commercial entity, has been urging me to purchase premium options for a while, and their marketing techniques include frequent emails with promises of statistics if I’ll just sign my bank account away.

What’s most interesting about the numbers coming from sites like Academia.edu is what it seems the average googler wants to see. And most often, people seem to land on this conference presentation (for which there is no paper, sorry): “Beyond the Novelty: Creating Digital Fiction for Mainstream Audiences.”

It’s the oldest of my “published”/searchable academic works, and even though it has no citations and no accompanying paper, it remains one of the most popular click-throughs. The title must draw people in. I often wonder what they were searching for. “What is digital fiction”? “Mainstream fiction”? “Creating digital fiction”?

It was my very first conference presentation as an academic, and it was mostly me talking about writing digital fiction, with an excerpt from my then-current project. It was very basic, and very much reflective of my attitude about the digital fiction I’d read at that point: that as a writer I was utterly hooked, but as a reader, I felt pretty meh about what was out there.

Of course, I’ve since come to appreciate the “classic” works of digital fiction, and found a few that I come back to over and over again. But as someone relatively new to DF, my attitude toward it reflected a lot of what I see in students and new readers of DF: that it was experimental, avant garde, and more art than story. That it was created for the writer, not the reader. That it wasn’t written for me to enjoy so much as to admire the genius of its creators.

So when I started my research, I had the same goal as any other writer: to write stories I would want to read. And like a lot of authors, I wanted as many people to read my work as possible. I wanted people to enjoy it. So my goal was to dig into writing DF for mainstream audiences.

A lot of digital writers have told me they don’t care about mainstream reach or commercial success. Awesome. I don’t begrudge them that. But I’m an academic in a time when the higher education system is crumbling; it’s not the safety net it used to be for writers to putter around in their own heads. I’m also a writer in an extremely exciting time for writing and publishing, when the big boys are getting knocked down and making room for the rest of us, for niche writers and more experimental platforms like Twine and Hyperbooks. So it makes a lot of sense to me to pull all these things together (and get more established on the “writer” and “publisher” prongs of my career in case the “academic” prong fongs off).

The best way to make a success of writing and publishing is to reach as wide an audience as possible; that means mainstream appeal. So that’s my aim with Wonderbox Publishing. To nurture digital fiction and help it find its feet in the commercial realm. To help digital writers become a part of that small percentage of fiction writers who make a living with their work. To expand the possibilities of technology and narrative.

The reviews we’re publishing focus on works that appeal to us as readers, for whatever reason. Works we love. Works we think have mainstream appeal. Works we want to see more of. We want to share these with you, and build a resource for readers and writers.

My eventual goal is for Wonderbox to serve as a publisher and distributor of quality, mainstream-appeal, commercial digital fiction. I’m starting with the reviews and the Hyperbooks Project (stay tuned for more on this) as ways to expand people’s awareness of good, enjoyable digital fiction, and ways to make it commercially viable. Bit by bit I’ll ramp it up until Wonderbox is the Amazon of digital fiction.

(Yep, it’s a cheeky ambition. Go big or go home!)