IF Comp 2013: Solarium (Alan DeNiro)

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Solarium is a choice-based science fiction/fantasy story in Twine about life after a nuclear apocalypse, and the reason that apocalypse happened in the first place. It is fairly substantial for a choice-based story, and took me probably half an hour or more to read.

Alan DeNiro can write. His last IF Comp entry, Deadline Enchanter, was extremely strange, but memorable and evocative. He also recently released a bit of interactive poetry in Twine called Corvidia, which I quite liked. So I wasn’t surprised to find that Solarium is well-written. In comparison with those other two works, I also found it more moving and accessible, making it my favorite of DeNiro’s IF so far.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen in other reviews of this — and in reviews also of Corvidia, for that matter — is that these texts don’t “need” to be interactive in order to work. Here I strongly disagree. Solarium is not a heavily branched narrative, and there are only a few choices that significantly affect the outcome of the story. But people who equate interactivity with strongly branching narrative have missed a great deal — I might even say most — of what interaction is good for.

Solarium relies most heavily on three types of link or interactive text.

— There are links that replace an existing phrase with something else. Sometimes this is a gloss or explanation for the original text (a trick Autumn’s Daughter does as well); sometimes it’s a replacement for the original text, a word or phrase that is more accurate (as also seen in Dad vs Unicorn). The experience of reading one text, then expanding it out to the other text, can capture the experience of skepticism (“is this really true? let me dig deeper into these words”) or research (“I don’t understand this, so I’ll look into it further”) or reconsideration (“I put it one way to start with, but I think I’d now rephrase”).

In one place, Solarium lets the player flip back and forth between pronouns, thus effectively converting a sentence to refer to a different person. This isn’t a choice that conveys agency within the story — this way of playing with and manipulating the text does not, so far as I could see, alter the output that follows in any other way — but it encourages the player to understand multiple applications of the text, in a way that would otherwise take heavy-handed effort to communicate.

This effect, which would be impossible to replicate on paper, has become a common idiom in Twine narratives after Leon Arnott created a macro to make it easy.

— There are links that produce whole new sections of text, but may be gated, inaccessible until the reader has experienced another part of the story. This is a classic hypertext technique, and in Solarium’s case, it enforces certain paths through the story.

There’s enough flexibility that you can read things in more than one order, but because you need certain resources to open certain links, you’re guaranteed to be returning to certain points in the narrative, reading through them again to reach the point where you are now able to go on, where you were not able to proceed before. That means that you’ll definitely see certain passages several times: they’re revisited again and again, important events that the protagonist can’t stop remembering. Other passages close and become impossible to reread once you’ve passed through them once.

While in theory one could have a similar effect in a paper book by repeating certain text sections, the interactive format encourages the reader/player to engage with the story as a structure, to build out an understanding of how the parts of the story relate to one another.

— There are links that produce small amounts of new text on the same page, as a pacing device. This can get very tiresome if used to extremes, but DeNiro applies it judiciously in Solarium, and to especially good effect at the very end. It’s appropriate for this story to require some slight effort on the part of the reader to experience, as it is taking a great deal of effort on the part of the protagonist.

Some of the commentary about whether Solarium or similar works are “interactive enough” is plainly tied in with the IF community’s self-questioning about the fate of parser IF. That’s a discussion that I suppose we’re fated to go on having for a while. But I think that, unless one really means “I prefer parser IF”, it is severely mistaken to call something like Solarium non-interactive, or to imply that its interactivity has no effect on the experience of the work.

I’d like also to talk about the content a bit, but Solarium is well worth trying out; I recommend going through it yourself before proceeding.

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The premise is that, in the 1950s, the United States decided to launch a massive preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. Solarium then explores why and how the US leadership was led to this point: specifically, they encountered a supernatural being called the archon that claimed to be able to protect the US from any return strikes, and after an initial test proved successful, they went ahead and bombed the USSR. The archon then withdrew his protection, with the result that a number of US cities were also destroyed. The main action of the story takes place the year after all this has occurred. The protagonist and his love interest are both also supernatural beings, trying to thwart the archon but unable to prevent the nuclear disaster.

Much of the story is about the severely warped mentality operating during the Cold War, and the things it led to: the CIA’s interventions in Iran, the fantasy that nuclear war might be winnable, the MKULTRA program. I originally thought DeNiro might have invented Project Solarium, but it seems that was real as well, except for the fourth subgroup and main characters that DeNiro adds. It is hard, looking back, to imagine how anyone could have thought these strategies were morally acceptable, or even pragmatically workable.

As for the immortals, the idea is that a group of angel-like beings were created by a supreme deity, but promptly abandoned and ignored. The archon, who is one of these beings, has been trying ever since to attract some reaction from the creator, by more and more extreme means. Starting a nuclear war on earth is the latest of these, an act of desperate rebellion against a missing father who doesn’t seem to be paying attention.

These two strands — the supernatural family drama and the cold war madness — might seem like an implausible blend, but they work together surprisingly well. In both aspects of the story, moral clarity is lost. For the angelic characters, the creator’s intentions are obscure; for the Americans, fanatical devotion to homeland, power-lust, and fear of communism have taken over from any other perspective on right and wrong. The alchemical process the protagonist uses to access his memories of the past is a process of spiritual purification, but it cannot reverse what has happened to the planet, only help him to understand his own situation better.

Overall, an odd, rich, and evocative story, well executed, and one of the best entries I’ve encountered so far.

It also kind of made me want to replay CIA: Operation Ajax.

11 thoughts on “IF Comp 2013: Solarium (Alan DeNiro)

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