Stranger Horizons: A Review of Contemporary Cybertext and its Possibilities

Speculative fiction, meet interactive fiction; interactive fiction, meet speculative fiction. You two have a lot in common: you both tell stories about worlds in which psychological or social truths are turned over, examined, held up to the light. You both have writers who are interested in amplifying marginalized perspectives and honoring the human condition, often through another angle. And online platforms are crucial for both of your dissemination. I’ll leave you two to get acquainted, shall I?

Okay, so that’s a bit precious. I won’t pretend that there’s a huge divide between these two communities that’s vast and unbridgeable, or that I’m any sort of unifying figure. What I do want to do in this post is something very specific: I want to draw attention to a couple of pieces that I think might be useful to speculative fiction authors who are interested in incorporating interactivity in their work, that might shed light on various ways to approach such an aim. To that end, I’ve collected 5 of my favorite hypertext fiction pieces that I think might be most fruitful to SF writers, and offered thoughts on why they’re successful.

Natalie Theodoridou’s Sleepless is a piece about a world in which people have stopped dreaming; it incorporates a lot of the techniques that make Twine as versatile as it is, especially for stories about technology and transformation. Text transformation, popups, full screen effects, disorientation: it’s an engaging, lyrical speculative fiction story which uses interactive fiction’s capabilities to immerse the reader. It’s a short read, and I don’t want to give away too much, so I’d suggest playing through it on your own to get a sense of the wide variety of techniques IF can offer even a relatively linear story.

Chikodili Emelumadu’s The Fixer is the closest thing to traditional literary fiction on this list. Written in Twine, it could easily work just as well in Undum; the official summary on sub-Q is “two women hire a private investigator to trail their erring husbands”, and what follows is a brilliant work of Igbo magical realism, the sort of story we need more of in all literary spaces. The plot is mostly linear, closer on the IF spectrum to dynamic fiction than parser piece. This is in no way a criticism; it’s an incredibly strong, compelling story, and the reason I include it is because it serves as both an example of excellent contemporary fiction, and an example that writing IF doesn’t necessarily imply creating a gameified plot, if that’s an issue that’s stymying you.

If we’re talking about strong fiction where a gameified element is crucial to furthering the plot, I would recommend A. DeNiro’s Solarium. Absorbing, gripping narrative is uncovered through the acquisition of reagents, as you attempt to subvert the course of history. I’d call Solarium’s genre “magical realist apocalypse”; the choices involved always feel gripping, immediate, personal. A wonderful demonstration of ways a reader’s progress through the narrative can be made to pay off in the denouement.

Eidolon is worth checking out if you’re interested in how to incorporate more traditional “game” elements—specifically, puzzles—into an interactive narrative. It’s a beautiful, lyrical tale told from the perspective of a child who’s just woken up past midnight in a deserted house. There’s a creeping sense of horror and mystery and dread that only deepens the further you play through; do be advised that it’s quite a long piece and the lack of a save feature means you can’t simply resume your place later.

Finally, we have Beautiful Dreamer, a lovely story about an insomniac awake on a winter’s night. It’s another in the magical realism genre—this is not our world, but enough of it is recognizable as you explore. There’s a variety of different choices you can make in the beginning, but both game and world contain an internally consistent structure. It’s a soft, moving piece in its own right, but also a good example of how to keep multiple disparate pieces moving in the same narrative direction.

As a bonus, I might shout out to Fabricationist DeWit, a Twine about waking after an apocalyptic event and attempting to remake the world. Commissioned for a TEDxCERN, it’s an excellent example of how hypertext, speculative fiction, and pressing issues can come together to make something rare.

Five (all right, six) Twine stories, each doing something very different with the program, but each an example of a successful piece of interactive work. I hope this gives people, speculative fiction writers and newcomers to interactive fiction alike, a jumping off point for some of the possibilities that hypertext allows, and sparks ideas for new directions.

I’m considering doing another post in this series, if there’s enough interest, on how to go about doing some of these specific interactive mechanics—but I’d need to know what people would find most helpful/interesting.

As ever, I’m available for questions / coding help (or recommendations if I’m not the best person to ask) / or any other IF-ambassador-type needs at catacalypto at google’s free mail service.

The State of Things

I’ve been uncharacteristically silent lately, though you may have seen me on Twitter being excited by Invasion’s release on sub-Q. Kerstin did some incredible work on the illustrations, and I finally feel that the sub-Q version is the story I was trying to tell. I can’t recommend working with them highly enough, even if–especially if!–you’re an established writer who is new to IF and interested in what sort of stories the genre can tell that don’t work in other ways.

I’ve been working pretty much constantly for the past two months on several projects, but unfortunately I can’t talk about any of them publicly yet. This is a strange position to be in: I’m chipping away at work, or laying foundations for what I hope might be far-reaching and amazing on the future, and I want to jump up and down and shout from the rooftops…but I can’t.

Instead, I just haven’t said anything. Which obviously is less than ideal.

I don’t tend to talk a lot publicly about things I hope to do: I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I get ashamed if I offer to write, or create, or facilitate something and then the result never materializes. But other people are far less bothered by these perceived failings than I am. And if nothing else it will serve as a record of my practice: what I valued and wanted to put my energy towards.

So here’s a list of some goals I’m working towards or thinking about in the first half of 2016. I want to talk more to speculative fiction writers about the possibilities of interactive fiction, to get these communities talking, to make resources available to anyone who’s interested in dipping a toe into the world of IF.

– to that end, I’m going to start writing a very, very basic guide for writers who have little-to-no JavaScript experience for a program called Raconteur, which is an extension of Undum. Undum is the IF platform that I think looks most like traditional static fiction, and I want to make it more accessible to non-programmers. (Accessibility in other ways–especially with screen readers–is another crucial issue, one that I’m currently still trying to address in my own work.)

– look for a blog post later this week called “Towards New Perspectives of Cybertextuality: A Review”; it’s a list of 5 recent pieces of IF that might get non-IF people talking about the current state of the field, specifically (hopefully!) from a speculative fiction point.

– Here’s the big one. I’m going to put my money (well, my time and skills, which for a freelancer is the same thing) and extend an offer to established speculative fiction writers interested in IF. Send me a story (5k or under) you’ve either previously published and have the rights to reprint, or something you’re still revising, that you’d like to see in IF. I’ll work with you on developing your vision and talking you through the coding, and when it’s published, I’d like to release a blog post series of the illustrated revision process as a blog post series about how to bring interactive elements into a static story to amplify the impact of an existing work or create something dazzlingly groundbreaking. If there’s enough interest, I might even do this for more than one work; it all depends.

Why am I offering this when I have a dissertation, my own contract work, and my own passion projects? Because I care deeply about narrative and its possibilities, about interactive fiction and speculative fiction, and because I think there is still so much uncovered ground. And new is exciting. And because of momentum.

The cat’s doing well. So am I. It’s time to keep moving forward.