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.

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