by Kate PULLINGER & Chris JOSEPH (Canada/UK), 2004-ongoing
by Ruth Page
Inanimate Alice is at once technologically sophisticated yet highly accessible. A far cry from the text-centred and non-linear nature typical of at least some first wave hypertext fiction (for example the early canonical Eastgate works), Inanimate Alice is both richly multimodal and is designed with a strong sense of narrative coherence and progression. Nonetheless, it resists easy categorisation. Some have deemed it 'Flash Fiction' others more neutrally relying on the broader terms 'Digital' or 'New Media Fiction.' On one level, this reflects the terminological flux in which current e-lit criticism finds itself and the fact that Inanimate Alice is profoundly hybrid, occupying a cross-over space between many different genres, including but not limited to the graphic novel, computer game, bildungsroman and detective story.
Inspired by an idea from Ian Harper, Inanimate Alice is written by accomplished author Kate Pullinger in collaboration with the equally talented digital artist Chris Joseph. The high impact and quality of Inanimate Alice is rightly recognised by an array of nominations and international awards, along with its translation into French, German, Italian and Spanish. The story is also accompanied by impressive educational resources, and has proved itself to be useful in the new media classroom and beyond.
Inanimate Alice tells the story of the main protagonist, Alice, from child to adulthood, where she becomes a games animator for 'the most successful games company in the world'. Structured as ten self-contained episodes, of which the first three are currently 'live', Alice's development forms the macro-level trajectory for the project. Each episode becomes progressively longer and more complex, both in terms of the plot development and the interactive affordances which are exploited (for example, the games embedded in each episode become longer, more integral to the story and more challenging). Whilst the geographical episode titles (China, Italy, Russia) hint at the cross-cultural scope inherent in the story content, it is the border-crossing between gaming and narrative, and the human-computer relationships that are thematically prominent in the episodes available thus far.
Alice's young age in the opening episodes (8, 10 and 13 years respectively) has led to the project being adopted as an example of digital literature aimed at children or young adults. However, the piece was never conceived as such, and such categorization may underestimate its full potential. Instead, the accessibility of the text is a result of the narrative lucidity in the writing and design structure which effectively depicts the perspective of the young narrator (and which may alter as further episodes unfold). There is a strong sense of narrative structure within each episode, which begins with a suspenseful problem to 'hook' the reader, followed by backstory and ending with a positive resolution (Pullinger (2008)) 1. In each episode the levels of complication increase, but show similarities with archetypal quest plots, such as that described by Propp (1928) 2. For example, episode one is generated when a family member is absent from home, and episode three appears an encounter with villainy. The interface design promotes narrative linearity too, for the viewer follows segments by clicking on a double arrow icon. There is no spatialised map to guide navigation, although the reader's sense of progression within Inanimate Alice can be determined by the progressively descending toolbar which also allows them to return to previously viewed segments.
The linearity of Alice's story is creatively and crucially interwoven with multimodal resources, symbolically represented in the recurring images of Alice's handheld electronic device (figure 1). The reader does not simply view a series of static textual segments on a screen. Instead, image, sound and animation effects are closely integrated to serve multiple narrative purposes. At one level, visual and aural resources function illustratively. For example, we see images of places and spaces in which the story is situated and hear sounds appropriate to particular scenes, such as Alice's breathing or muffled voices. The text distorts as if to mimic the jolting car journey in the first episode, and loss of electronic connection in the second. The semiotic resources are not attempts at realistic depictions though, and enhance the hybrid and digital nature of the text by blending styles from the graphic novel, digitally enhanced photography and computerised icons, some of which alter across episodes to mirror Alice's increasing age and technological competence.
Aural resources mimic conventional soundtrack effects. The music for each episode acts as a cue for the geographic location (quasi-oriental music accompanies 'China', and so on). Typical narrative functions occur, such as the use of rhythm to signal dramatic tension and a shift to major harmonies indicates plot resolution. Similarly, the contrast between music and static noise works as a leitmotif, where the static symbolises Alice's isolation.
Blended together, image, sound and animation create a multimodal narrative perspective that counterbalances the absence of character depiction, for throughout the text, we do not see Alice's face (or any of the other human protagonists). Pullinger describes the dependence on Alice's first person written narration as encouraging a readerly type of engagement (2008), but the visual and aural stimuli that mimic Alice's focalization leads to a multi-semiotic experience beyond that found in offline print literature. Actual responses to the multimodality are varied (some find the music irritating, others love it), but the use of sound and image to amplify verbal focalization draws attention to the complexity of the reader's corporeal and psychological interplay with the text and the physicality of cybertextual perception more generally (Ensslin (forthcoming)) 3.
Inanimate Alice's multiplicity extends beyond its use of semiotic resources, also exploiting the creative synergies between narratives in new media and computer gaming. Ludology-narratology debates are well-rehearsed and it is not my intention to reiterate them here. Instead, Inanimate Alice blends together concepts from both genres. Clearly, the text itself is primarily a digital fiction, and the actual games are subordinate, embedded in each episode. However, as the narrative unfolds, the points of difference between games and storytelling become less clear. Both the narrative episodes and the games have similar underlying quest-like structures, with puzzles to be completed in order to reach closure. Narrative and gaming segments are interdependent insofar as both must be negotiated successfully in order to progress through the text (the games cannot be played without reading the story and the narrative cannot proceed unless the games are won).
Thematically, narrative and game are intertwined for the central character is also a game animator. Likewise, the audience are both readers (of narrative segments) and players (of the games). The figure Brad created by Alice is both avatar and character. However, the audience's interaction with the games and narrative is not identical. Avatars can be manipulated (for example, Brad's icon can be slid across the screen to catch the falling Russian dolls in episode three) whereas although the reader experiences Alice's focalized perspective, they cannot change the actions that Alice takes. Alongside this, there are subtle differences in the navigation of narrative and game segments. The reader is explicitly told how to move from one narrative segment to the next on the opening screen of the text. In contrast, there is no instruction on how the games are to be played. Instead the viewer has to work out for the rules for interacting with each game by hovering, clicking and dragging the cursor variously, nor do these rules transfer from one game to another or into the narrative segments. Perhaps familiarity with gaming literacy is assumed to be greater than that of digital fiction. Or perhaps the puzzle of how to interact with the game is part of the game, and assumed to be too frustrating for successful narrative processing. Either way, the progressive complexity of the gaming interaction in future Alice episodes will no doubt be fruitful grounds for further hybrid cross-over between story and game in online texts.
In conclusion, Inanimate Alice is an excellent introduction to contemporary digital fiction, but its accessibility does not mean that it should be regarded as simplistic. The elegance of the narrative content and smooth integration of semiotic modes and generic structures requires considerable skill in order to appear so seamless. Nor should this ease be dismissed as less worthy than the more challenging qualities of other digital fiction which is either more complex in its multi-linear structure or less explicit about its navigation. Recent studies have shown that readers benefit considerably from clear signposting in digital fiction and a strong sense of narrative progression (Pope (2007)) 4. With this in mind, the qualities of the opening episodes of Inanimate Alice offer a sure foundation which later episodes may seek to complicate. Let's hope Alice animates her avatars and readers with similar success as her future unfolds.
1 : Pullinger, K. (2008). Blog Post authored on Electronic Literature. Accessed 18 April 2008.
2 : Propp, V. (1968 ). Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Laurence Scott. University of Texas Press.
3 : Ensslin, A. (forthcoming). "From (W)reader to Breather: Cybertextual De-intentionalisation and Kate Pullinger's Breathing Wall."
In R. Page and B. Thomas (eds.) New Narratives: Theory and Practice. UNP: Lincoln and London.
4 : Pope, J. A. (2007). How do readers interact with hypertext fiction? An empirical study of readers' reactions to interactive narrative. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bournemouth.
N.B. The authors informed us that Episode 4 of Inanimate Alice will be online in the next few days!
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