Digital Narratives of Time, Death, and Utopia: Arcadia (Iain Pears) et al

I began Arcadia – a novel conceived and written for an app – over four and a half years ago when a lot of people were musing about digital narrative. After working my way through three publishers, two designers, four sets of coders and a lot of anguish, I am no longer surprised that few others have done anything about it.

Thus Iain PearsArcadia Cover, on why his latest novel is an app and why it took so long to build. His “few others have done anything about it” is characteristically dismissive and makes me grit my teeth. There is so much going on in digital narrative and related fields that it’s challenging to keep up with the variety. What Pears apparently means is that few novelists with London literary agents have done anything with digital narrative, and possibly that he doesn’t regard anything outside that circle as worth checking out. That is his prerogative, but a little more awareness of the world outside might have brought tools to his attention that would have lightened the workload.

It is true, though, that Arcadia is different in structure, scope, and conception from a lot of other interactive literature. The piece is a series of short scenes about many different characters, together with an app whose narrative map allows the reader to follow one character at a time or leap across time to seek the answers to questions. This puts it in a category with Snake Game and The Strangely-Browne Episode in that it is primarily letting the reader choose a course through the story, not alter the plot itself: it is not linear and the reader does have important agency, but that agency affects the reading experience, not the development of events.

Further, Arcadia takes place in three separate settings — Oxford of the 1950s and early 60s, a fantasy world invented by one of the Oxonian characters, and a technocratic dystopia of the future — though over the course of the plot, the reader may come to question whether these are in fact alternate universes and whether the fictional world is less real than our own. Another reading strategy might be to read all the events in one setting first, then pursue those in another.


The app

Pears has said that he wants reviewers to focus on the content of the work and not on its structure, and that he wanted the app to avoid being gimmicky and flashy. It does succeed in being fairly transparent, but I have a few thoughts about it nonetheless, before I go on to the content or the structure of the piece.

The app’s narrative map reveals some intriguing things if you study it carefully. One line splits in two when a character is in two places at once. (This is a story of time travel and alternate universes, after all.) Elsewhere a fresh line comes into being when a new character is introduced to the story. Crises in the story are evident because so many character threads come together and intertwine.


In the reading interface, though, the app downplays these important moments. When you read a chapter whose characters subsequently split up, the page looks like this:


…and you have to swipe sideways in that last quarter of the screen to check out what the alternative continuations might be. It’s understated, even possible to miss. In this particular case it is both striking and narratively important that either of your two next pages will belong to the Young Girl’s Tale, but you don’t see this at a glance. I could see aesthetic arguments for playing this subtle, but I think I myself would have preferred something that more clearly showed what was happening at this moment.

Meanwhile, once you’ve started reading a new chapter, you can’t jump sideways to any of its siblings unless you first go back to the top-level map. That’s something that I often would have liked to do. And if you swipe to go back a page when there are multiple strands leading to where you are, you also don’t get a choice of which backward step to take. At least once, I’m pretty sure I tried to back up to a vignette I’d just been reading but accidentally switched tracks and wound up confusing myself further. So the navigation here, while conforming somewhat to Pears’ declared desire for simplicity, did still miss some functionality I would have liked to have.


Routes through the map

IMG_0155There are many, many possible ways to read this — by which I mean not just that the combinatorial numbers are large, but that there are multiple reading strategies one might pursue. Follow one character to the end first? Read about events in one of the settings, then go to a different one? Switch back and forth between strands frequently, to try to get contemporary events at the same time?

I experimented with several of the characters, but soon settled on the story of Angela Meerson, a time-traveling scientist whose experiments in the future apparently precipitate a lot of the rest of what happens — though of course, as always with a time travel story, the question of cause and effect becomes rather tangled.

Once I’d read all of Meerson’s story, I went back and started filling in what had happened to some of the other characters. Other reviews I’ve read don’t center their discussion on Meerson, but focus instead on Professor Lytten (the Oxford man who has written the fantasy story) and on a young woman named Rosie — which seems to bear out Pears’ remark

Minor characters can become major ones at will, and central characters become bystanders equally easily.

In my readthrough, Meerson took on a primacy that she might not have for other readers. I chose to start with her because I thought her understanding of events would be the most authoritative, and would then give me the structure that would let me understand the more subjective, confused, and often emotionally richer experiences of the other characters. Her scenes are also, uniquely, narrated in the first person when she is alone.

I then filled in a lot of the events set in Oxford and in Willdon (the main scene of action in the fantasy universe of Anterwold), and last of all the strands for the characters who remain in Angela’s future world. Here, again, I was chasing the bits of the text that I thought might answer whatever questions I had next.

I can also see, though, why one might start with Lytten, the 1960s don-and-spy living in North Oxford who has designed Anterwold. We first meet him telling his story to a group of Inkling-likes in a setting not obviously distinguishable from the Eagle and Child, though a few years after the historical Inklings had stopped meeting there. He is friends with Tolkien and impatient with Lewis, and his comments on both sound a lot like authorial ventriloquism. Of all the characters, he seems most likely to offer Pears’ own perspective on events.

That these diverse reading approaches work is a tribute to Pears’ meticulous construction. The storyline of each character does make sense read through by itself, though it may appear full of startling coincidences. Each character line does come to an emotional conclusion. But the book is also seeded with hints of what might be found elsewhere. Towards the end of the Willdon section, a character mentions that there is a long story to explain something she has done, and it was immediately evident where I should go look for that explanation. Elsewhere there is a mystery laid out so that you might discover either the culprit or the significance of the act, but not both at once. It remains mysterious regardless of which end is up.

The effect is also down to Pears cheating — or, at least, not quite keeping the implicit promise of the narrative design. You can follow most of the characters from one vignette to another using the narrative map, but there are a few who go uncharted, including one very significant character.

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Lithomobilus / NonBinary Review / The Strangely-Browne Episode

IMG_0150Lithomobilus is a free reader app that advertises itself as being for non-linear storytelling:

Lithomobilus is the first e-book platform that augments existing narrative forms and makes entirely new nonlinear narratives, without eliminating the things that make books wonderful. Our online writing software gives authors the power to expand upon their existing works, create new works with built-in expansion opportunities, and craft amazing nonlinear works.

Currently the content includes five issues of the NonBinary Review, one issue of Unbound Octavo and a few standalone stories. NonBinary Review takes existing, public domain work and sets it side by side with response material from current authors; so far these include The King in Yellow, Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Unbound Octavo contains three short prose pieces that, as far as I could tell, could have been presented in a standard ebook format with no loss of structure.

Meanwhile, the pitch to readers is as follows:

When you are consumed by a story, you can never get enough. You want more characters, more details, more commentary, more of what makes that book addictive. The Lithomobilus e-book platform delivers it all without taking you away from your book.

Which isn’t that far off from the pitch for the Coliloquy novel I covered last month, but Lithomobilus takes a different approach to the same challenge.

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This Book is a Dungeon (Nathan Meunier)

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As indicated in this screenshot, This Book is a Dungeon is a) a Kindle book about game development with Twine and b) the Twine-based dungeon developed as described in the book. The word “Bookumentary” makes my teeth itch a little, so I will pretend I didn’t see that. And I can’t comment on the success of this piece as a self-publishing experiment, so I’ll just talk about the first two aspects.

The book is 81 pages long, which means that the book and game together are definitely far outside the usual “I will play this in 20 minutes in my lunch break” realm occupied by most Twine pieces — though it’s written in a breezy, confident, slightly repetitive style that makes it a pretty fast read:

It’s truly rare to find me doing only ONE thing at a time. Ever. I’ll admit that my rampant ADD is partly to blame. I try to work this incessant need for chaos and spinning plate juggling to my advantage, though it sometimes bites me in the ass. I can’t ignore this one, though. The drive is too great. Plus it’s new and shiny, so off we go!

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Witch’s Brew: The Spellspinners of Melas County (Heidi Kling)


What’s Cool from Coliloquy: In Witch’s Brew, Lily and Logan’s fate is already decided, but Heidi explores several different possible pathways for how they get there. She shares scenes that wouldn’t normally fit in a book format and gives readers more precious moments between the two young lovers. As the series progresses, you’ll see some normal narrative forms, interspersed with smaller scenes, alternate points of view, and a lot of “what if” scenarios. (Source.)

Coliloquy was a company creating interactive ebooks for the Kindle, which was semi-recently sold to digital publishing platform Vook. Witch’s Brew is the first book of a YA fantasy line of theirs. I’d encountered some articles about Coliloquy in the past, which made it sound as though the main selling point of the platform was that it was able to deliver reader metrics, not that it supported a significantly richer or different reading experience than other interactive fiction platforms out there.

The premise of Witch’s Brew is that the teenage witch Lily is preparing for the Gleaning, a mystical contest/battle against an evil warlock. Long ago light magic was apportioned to witches and dark magic to warlocks, and the Gleaning makes possible a redistribution of powers, which everyone apparently accepts is necessary even though the witches and warlocks who lose are Never Seen Again. But when Lily meets a breath-takingly sexy teen warlock who is able to speak to her telepathically, she begins to question whether she has been told the whole truth, and whether she and her hunky counterpart might not be the key to saving the future of magic. There are enchanted tattoos.

Side-characters include the beautiful, wise, shape-shifting mother figures of the coven (though there are some hints that all may not be completely as it seems there); Logan’s voodoo-using warlock buddy Chance (seemingly sort of a nice guy, though he doesn’t get a lot of character development); Lily’s angelic little sister Daisy, whom I could not stop picturing as Dawn Summers; and Jacob, the lead warlock, who has red-rimmed eyes, exhales toxic dust, and eats eggs whole, like a snake. He runs a pharmaceutical company, in case you weren’t sure of his moral alignment.

Here are some representative quotes:

“Girls,” she addressed us with flashing Indigo eyes, “join me, please.”

After the long hike, the magic eucalyptus smacked my system like a jolt of espresso.

The smell of beer mixed with the jubilant sounds of teenage revelry…

It’s a genre exercise, and it’s directed at people who fantasize about moody 16-year-old boys with chiseled abs and about being able to speak magical Gaelic. I wouldn’t say that it’s quite as far out of my preference zone as zombie horror, but this is not a genre where I tend to hang out just to enjoy the scenery, and this book is very much for people who do want to linger there. The marketing quote above is actually a pretty clear explanation of what interactivity is for in this book: giving you more “precious moments” between Lily and Logan.

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Loose Strands (Darned Sock Productions) and Mapped CYOA

coverphotoLoose Strands is a choice-based interactive story app for kids ages 9+. It tells the story of Roland Bartholomew Dexter the Third, a boy who lives in an impoverished barbershop and is never allowed to go outside. His parents fashion clothes and even food out of hair leavings. Since he can’t go outside to school, he reads books about history and dinosaurs and airplanes, but these books have been so rigorously censored that they aren’t much fun. It never seems to be his birthday.

The only bright spot, if you want to call it that, is that Roland has unusually vivid dreams about the might-have-beens, the things that would have occurred if only he’d made a different decision from the one he did take.

Loose Strands is a story about regret: about being debilitated by the desire to erase the past, or, conversely, plagued by the inability to learn from our mistakes. It handles this with a kind of Lemony Snicket gloss. The villain is cartoonishly evil, the world a fantastic rendition of a totalitarian dystopia. The characters are charming, but not enormously nuanced. Now and then the narrator addresses the reader in a condescending Let Me Tell You About The World fashion, and the pacing around the end of part 1 felt a bit slow to me. Nonetheless, it’s a story about the nature of choices that makes a strong use of the choose-your-path structure.

Whenever you get to a choice point, you can swipe the page in one of two (or occasionally three) directions in order to proceed to the next portion:


And when you’ve made a choice, the book immediately zooms to the overall story map and blacks out a bunch of spots — showing you how your decision has prevented you from ever seeing certain possible futures. It’s partly a reminder that what you do matters, a “Clementine will remember that” tag — but it’s expressed in an explicitly negative way.


Likewise, you can sometimes use the map to go to an earlier page, but if you’re trying to rewind too much, you’ll get a message saying you’re not allowed to go back.

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CIA: Operation Ajax

CIA: Operation Ajax is an enhanced graphic novel about the 1953 coup d’état in Iran, engineered by the CIA and British intervention.

The story is compellingly told, with the clear intent of both teaching the reader something and establishing a particular attitude towards what happened. CIA: Operation Ajax works to establish its credibility. It is thorough — it runs about a dozen chapters and took me multiple hours to read; this is not a brief pamphlet, and to lay out a story about 1953 it starts with originating events in 1908 and works its way forward. There are also a number of supporting documents that are embedded in the story or accessible through supporting menus. In some panels, a star appears — a kind of visual footnote marker, which will bring up citations or background articles for claims that the story is making. And yet this is also not a documentary. The choice of dialogue, the manner of drawing, the narrator’s plainly expressed horror and regret about what happened, all convey an unmistakable attitude towards events, and the final chapter drives home the point that the effect of American intervention was to destroy a democratic government and create significant future problems in the region.

The production values are extremely impressive, and it makes the most of the idea of a computer-aided comic format: panels slide in and out of frame, speech bubbles pop up and disappear, characters shift positions; but the comic book metaphor never drops away entirely, and the screens never cross the line into the territory of animated movie. The only exception is that old newsreels are embedded at intervals, documenting events such as the arrival of Mossadegh in New York to speak to the UN. There are no voiceovers, but background sound effects and music do a great job of establishing mood. I would suggest being sure to read with headphones or somewhere where you can afford to leave the sound up.

By the standard of most things I review on this blog, CIA: Operation Ajax is only very barely interactive at all. You can tap to advance the story; you can tap stars or look through the character roster to bring up supporting evidence. The affordances are roughly equivalent to turning pages or flipping to a set of end-notes in a conventional book — and if accessing notes is less annoying in this format than it would be on paper, conversely you’ll be tapping to advance many more times than you would turn pages under ordinary circumstances, just because of how many different frames there are. There’s too little connection between reader actions and story events to establish a sense of complicity in what’s happening, much less to leverage some of the more difficult and complex player/story relationships we see in interactive narrative. So I’m not convinced by some of the more breathless blurb-writing about how it represents a revolution in interactive storytelling. What it does do is present a fairly uninteractive story in a very memorable and compelling form.