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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.

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.

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: Andrea Corbin’s Base of the Comet

Review: Andrea Corbin’s Base of the Comet

screenshot

Base of the Comet
Andrea Corbin (@rosencrantz)
Interactive Fiction / Twine Game
2014


Base of the Comet, by Andrea Corbin, aka @rosencrantz, was one of the first Twine games I read that experimented with what it means to have different links in a hypertext. Then Corbin went on to try something I hadn’t seen before. It’s basically the story of a space scientist, Cal, who wakes up confused and alone on a spaceship. Here there be weird space monsters!

When you load the webpage, the first visible lexia, or story passage, loads and you instantly see two types of links, coloured purple or blue. Clicking on the purple links will find those paragraphs extending from a simple description to something more, and then to a full-blown investigation of whatever it is describing. Instead of navigation, purple is “explore”.

I really like this style of hypertext, and I what I liked the most was the very quick introduction to one key fact for this Twine text: there are a whole bunch of link types.

So, making Cal explore the environment (or not, as there is some element of control) we can move her on to explore the rest of the space vessel. Very quickly, it’s possible to dive into a loop of backstory.

With a new link colour (green) we enter flashbacks and see some characterisation, motivation, and minor plot. All of this is completely optional, of course, and that’s what I love about these games.

These optional lexias are fun, interesting, and deliver the meat of the story. We get the hint of past and current relationships, for example, which in reality has no business being in a short story of this type. However, as backstory it completely changes and becomes hugely important.

But, this wouldn’t be an experimental Twine game without something new, something quirky.

When we reach a section of the narrative that Cal enters a dark tunnel (I’ll leave the details to you to discover), the entire webpage goes completely black.

This combination of narrative and design brings a new level to the text that I wasn’t completely expecting, but it makes perfect sense now that I think about it. Of course it should go dark when there are no lights, right?

Not only does Corbin experiment with the narrative here (it’s speculative fiction after all) but the form of the hypertext, too. I don’t want to spoil every little design quirk that just adds to the experience; I want you to discover that for yourself.

The story is rather short, as it’s more of an experiment than a novel. But in the space that we have to explore, we find out some rather intimate aspects of backstory that flesh out the character of Cal, and we empathise with her easily.

The narrative doesn’t branch off so much in the beginning as it offers exploration of an area before one moves on; this gives the reader a sense of engagement with the story that is always welcome in a hypertext.

But, whilst the main narrative is mostly — key-word mostly — linear, there are multiple areas and rooms that are very easy to pass by. This text rewards the reader who explores with extra story, extra characterisation, and extra stats.

You have a very game-like statistics page at the end of a readthrough, telling you what you did and didn’t manage to do. It encourages replays, but at the same time could be slightly annoying to those who aren’t interested in replaying, I suppose, by taunting them with how much they missed the first time through.

As an aside, I once found 11 out of 7 things in this story. That’s right. If you can beat that, please leave a comment letting us know how you did in Base of the Comet, whether you liked it or not!

Base of the Comet was written in Twine by Andrea Corbin, @rosencrantz on Twitter, and can be found in various locations around the web, but mostly here.

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.

Review: 80 Days by Inkle

Review: 80 Days by Inkle

"80 Days" by Inkle

80 Days
by Inkle
Digital Fiction – App & Steam Game
​2014


80 Days is loosely based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days as it has us take the role of Passepartout escorting his master, Monsieur Phileas Fogg, around a very steampunky 1872. It plays out like an interactive novel come board game and is available on iOS, Android and Steam.

I have never read the original text from what this game is based upon, but that doesn’t take away from the charm of the piece. The game features a very stylised, silhouette graphic style, accompanied by a beautiful score and atmospheric sound effects to indulge you in this fantastical adventure.

The game, much like the premise of the book, is focussed on Fogg’s bet: an eighty-day journey to circle the globe. This bet, then, requires a strict itinerary, budget, managing your master’s health and the ability to manage one’s time. Whilst it is not the most complex of systems to understand, it can be unforgiving. On one occasion, I was forced to beg on the streets in South America due to mismanaging money and resulted in four days wasted which added to the ninety-eight-day journey.

All the style and management mechanics accompany a wide and varied narrative with a quality of writing akin to its visuals and sound design. No one playthrough is wholly the same as the last, for the number of branching paths (visualised as actual roads to different cities) is astounding. In one playthrough I found myself leading a mutiny on a ship and in the next rugby tackling Jesse James to the floor of a train after he stole £3000 from my person.

Meg Jaynath’s writing has you assume the role of Passepartout. He is front and centre of the narrative as the story is told through his memoir-like writings which make for a charming and witty read. During the text aspects of the game, you are often given the choice of two or three musings and Passepartout will then ‘write’ further.

Meg’s writing also allows you to play him how you see fit: a proud Frenchman devoted to the service of his master, a wary traveller who despises the company of Fogg – just to name two avenues of ‘playing’ your Passepartout. In turn, this adds to the replayability of the game by giving you different types of person to assume along with the different routes of travel.

Each trip around the world takes around two hours and not once was I left feeling that it was wasted time as I explored new and varied narrative paths. Trip after trip, the world seems to flesh itself out more. Different interactions with different individuals will add new details, conflicting ideologies or confirmation of what you previously understood about the 80 Days world. The game’s addictive nature for another adventure, and the way that it is written negate the need for extensive exposition dumps which 80 Days could have easily fallen into.

This addictive narrative and gameplay has led me on four journeys thus far, and I have yet to truly ‘complete’ this piece. In these four journeys, the closest I have come to winning the bet was eighty-two days. This frustration, and eagerness to ‘win’, drive me to start the thing all over again, resulting in another fresh experience.

This piece of digital fiction is the age-old idiom of “It’s the journey that matters and not the destination” personified. There is the possibility that you will never win the bet but the journey around the world and the stories that unfurl are the real prize. This is the strength of 80 Days and why I recommend it so highly.