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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: Lifeline by 3 Minute Games

Review: Lifeline by 3 Minute Games

Lifeline
by 3 Minute Games
Mobile app / Text adventure
Steam / iTunes / Google Play
2016


There’s a tendency in interactive fiction for authors to use fairly dry, prosaic description to bring players into their worlds. It works, but perhaps it’s fair to say that there is room for experimentation. What’s so special about Lifeline is that it dispenses with that omniscient narrator in a very specific way: through conversation. Lifeline engages the player directly with its main character: an astronaut stranded on a distant planet. What follows from this conceit is a game essentially formed as an extended conversation tree.

Technically, Lifeline is based on the Twine 2 language, but is dressed up in such a way that even those familiar with the format would scarce recognize it. The cold, grey metal textures of the UI echo a more utilitarian Star Trek communicator, but are subtle enough to seem at home on any modern mobile device. The game features limited play options (no restarts, toggles only for the music and sound effects) and after a brief introductory message, the fiction is only broken when the player opens the settings menu. From the get-go, the player is ostensibly, believably using a communication program to chat with and direct the protagonist.

The lost astronaut, Taylor, is very personable and easily empathised with, which makes it very easy for the player to invest in whichever the branching outcomes of the story they encounter. Lifeline avoids identifying its protagonist in terms of more obvious attributes such as race or sex, allowing those details to be filled in by the player. That is not to say Taylor is a blank slate or that s/he lacks personality – indeed, that is one of the strengths of the work. Taylor regularly discusses, protests or endorses the player’s suggestions and it’s consistently fun to engage with the erstwhile traveller.

The tone of the work is set immediately upon opening the application with an echoey, alien soundscape that despite hundreds of loops over the course of the game never seems to grow old. The reason why it stays fresh is presumably because the game is only played in very short bursts (roughly a couple minutes at a time). This is arguably one of the most important features of Lifeline: the fact that it unfolds in real time. The game takes place over the course of several real-world days – with messages from Taylor being relayed to the player through push notifications on their phone. After choosing their response, Taylor will go away for anywhere up to a matter of hours to complete whatever activity or goal the player advises them to engage with. This unique use of mobile device infrastructure makes Lifeline stand out among its peers.

For the most part, Lifeline steers away from trying to convey any sort of moral or political message – it possesses no overbearing themes and instead focuses on telling an engaging, yet ultimately pulpy science fiction story, with appearances from some familiar tropes. This is not to say the story lacks depth, however; there are many small details and deeper nuances to the plot and world that make the game worth replaying.

Where Lifeline fails, perhaps, is where it forces the player to choose from ‘Snarky Response 1’ or ‘Snarky Response 2’ and slightly hamfistedly railroads the plot in a specific direction. But for the most part, Taylor’s banter makes for a convincing enough reason to go with the flow. The endings can be rather abrupt or drawn out as the tension wanes and the player becomes increasingly unsure as to why Taylor is messaging them instead of running for his/her life.

Ultimately, Lifeline is a rare example of interactive fiction which takes advantage of the unique capabilities of the medium. Text messaging is the norm for almost everyone these days and Lifeline taps into that world; it slips very easily into the background of everyday life. It’s certainly not the most revolutionary mode of storytelling, but especially for the modest asking price (<$2) it’s worth a shot.