Inanimate Alice

Inanimate Alice is a digital novel that incorporates visual, sound and interactive elements. In one description I read, it is called “transmedial” – a storytelling technique that utilizes multiple digital platforms and formats. It even includes a game within the game for the player if they choose. The overarching theme of this story for me was a sense of loneliness and feeling out of place. In this Episode 4 (of which I discovered there at least six episodes), Alice discusses moving to a new city  in England. There is heavy digital/electronic/industrial overtones here – from the staticky soundtrack that accompanies most of the game to the repeated imagery of buildings, factories and urban decay.  I get the sense that it’s important we recognize that this is not just a story about a human individual, but how she relates to the urban landscape and (as I found out later) to the digital world. In the telling of the immediate setting for the story (Alice climbing the stairs of a rickety factory and getting stuck), I notice that the words take on the motions of a person – like climbing the stairs or “struggling” to get up on the platform after the stairs collapsed. Interesting to see human characteristics animating previously inanimate words. I notice early on that as the scenes progress, boxes are revealed on the right side of the screen, making it possible to view any section of the story at any time, but only after the scenes have been revealed in order the first time. I would note that this is kind of like memories of how you got to a certain point in your life (or predicament) – like once it happens, you can think back and try to figure out how you got there, but can run through the memories in any order you choose.

Alice’s recollections of Moscow show that she reflects on the same parts of that city as the one she’s in. Very industrial with fences, lots of buildings and walls and even stairs. The stairs I sense are a critical symbol in her story.  The literal stairs that brought her to where she is can also be a metaphor for the experiences she’s had that brought her out of Russia and into England. Yet, just as the stairs are swept out from under her, the experiences that brought her to England haven’t necessarily given her the sense of belonging or satisfaction she had hoped for, and now she’s left, marooned or stuck in a sense, in a new place, with no way to go back and only an unmarked path to go forward.

It’s clear through her recollections at school and with her project that she is allied with digital technology and uses it as a pathway to make friends. She is trying to make the best of the situation she finds herself in, but has her doubts of whether it will work out. She wonders if her new friends really like her or is she is just a “novelty”. We see the indications of her wanting to do what it takes to fit in. Her parents are obviously not try to make things better for her, and both the imagery and the way she discusses her parents she tons of limitations. The home is limited because its skinny and outdated and the layout is bad (with walls everywhere and long stairs – again!). She calls it horrible but says she likes the idea that they are staying, again trying to make the best of a bad situation. Her parents seem incapable of the same emotion and its interesting how she makes a literal list of things she doesn’t like about them (very teenager-like). We never see any images of her parents. I think its interesting that school, home, friends, her project and her city are the only options to click on – like they are the only things in her world.

I should mention that I liked the idea of her building projects on her phone, but I felt it could have been more interactive for the player.  We could only really click one place at a time and had limited options.

I think her imagery of the city is fascinating. Based on everything I had seen and experienced up to this point, I expected the imagery and sounds would have been much more industrial. But the imagery was almost pastoral – the music calmer and less urgent and she even mentions how she likes the weeds and we see drawings of geese – showing us she is working to see the natural part of the city (or maybe again trying to find the silver lining in a nasty situation.)

Back to the factory, I felt like the creators did a great job using the imagery and the sounds to communicate a haunting loneliness. The idea that Alice keeps going even when she runs into obstacles is a good metaphor for how we’ve seen her conduct herself in this new city up to this point. I didn’t realize who the sketch of the boy was until I googled the story series and discovered its her imaginary digital friend Brad. This part of the story adds another layer, in that it allows the reader to either play the game by trying to escape the catacombs by themselves (or with help from Brad) or to simply read a narrative that walks them through. Both are effective, although there were images I felt like I saw in one or the other experience that weren’t present in both. I like the idea that you could get a different experience depending on what you chose. The constant image of urban decay, abandoned industry and desolate, crumbing rooms and tunnels simply underscored the loneliness that Alice must have felt and several times, she starts to give  in to paranoia, wondering if someone is watching her or if she hears something that she cannot see. The multiple faces that show up on the walls in graffiti form are very distressing. Especially this one:


Maybe they are the ones she senses are watching her? The fact that she emerges to triumphant music and to a scene of more buildings is almost disappointing.  What about her friends? Her home? Instead, for her, the moment of success seems to be that she can see with true perspective – no longer limited, she sees the city before her – “like it all belongs to me”. Being able to see everything with clarity seems to be her victory. But I must say, that throughout the story I had assumed that getting out, or overcoming the challenge of being trapped in an abandoned building meant getting out on the ground floor. It wasn’t until the end that I realized she was escaping upward… Is the key to her happiness to not look to the next challenge until she has to, namely how to get down from the top of the building?

As for my ideas, I am sticking with my idea of using musical lyrics to tell a story between a father and son. They will each be represented by guitars. The plot structure will be an encounter between the two, in which each tries to communicate in his own “voice” (the boy with rock and roll or heavy metal lyrics and the father with blues or ’50’s rock lyrics), but they will be unable to communicate or understand each other. At the point in which clicking between the two builds the conversation to an impasse, we will transition to a scene of a concert (where the boy will have fled) and the player can hit different points on the screen to play guitar solos.  It will then transition back to the home scene and the father and son will attempt to communicate again. At some point in the back-and-forth, they will strike the correct “chord” and they will begin speaking in a common “voice” to resolve the conflict. I will need imagery of guitars for the main characters, as well as a concert and home image for the two scenes. I will then need a bank of prechosen audio snippets to represent each character’s voice, with one set for the before-concert conversation and one set for the after-concert conversation. They will be randomly chosen when the player clicks the guitars. At some point, clicking two “correct” snippets in succession will erase all of the audio snippets except two – which will represent the final exchange between the two. (in the same “voice” or song).

Playing Alice

So, I have an oddly specific fear–I don’t like being in locked rooms or rooms that only have one entrance and can be locked if I don’t have a key or another means of vacating them. I’m not claustrophobic or anything like that. The size of the space doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the space has an entrance that can be locked and I might not have a means of getting out of it. Escaping. At my old school, there was this locker room–really more of an over-glorified hallway–that only had one door into it. No windows. Totally not up to fire code. Anyway, I remember watching that door like a hawk. Staying as close to it as I could while changing. Being locked in that room was a constant fear of mine every time I went to get ready for gym. Somebody might slam it too hard behind them or bump it into it while getting ready–not privy to my worries. Unable to understand them. I don’t think my fear unreasonable–Not. One. Bit.–but perhaps, when I was younger, it posed problems for understanding. Kids can be cruel. Didn’t want to end up locked in there as some kind of joke, you know.

Anyway, while playing Inanimate Alice, this old fear of mine came rearing its ugly head. In this Elit piece,  you–the reader–assume the role of Alice and have to navigate your way through an abandoned and dilapidated old factory-structure. While climbing to the top of the place on a dare, the staircase “falls out” from under you and forces you to “go through” the factory in order to get out. I use quotation marks here because nothing actually, physically happens to you–the reader. On the screen, images of stairs and of the factory appear one after the other like snapshots in order to create the illusion that you are traveling or navigating through the space. The progression of images accompanied by the text on-screen is very effective in creating this illusion of movement. When the stairs “fall out” from under you, the images appear one on top of each other at angles, corners overlapping, piling up as if they are stairs falling one after the other. As if you were actually disoriented or shocked, the images seem to appear in the haphazard, chaotic kind of way. The view on your screen seems quite comparable to reality if reality appeared just in snapshots of action.

There is this brief interlude in the midst of this disaster. In it, you explore some of Alice’s past–how she came to England, what her home-life is like, what her school-life and friends are like, and what she thinks of the city. Of course, all of these different nodes are accompanied by images and text which make them your sights and your thoughts. All of this background info, I think, is meant to help readers better assume the identity of a 14-year-old girl living in a new and unfamiliar city, trying to make friends and discover who she is. Readers even get an almost meta sort of experience when another stories appears on Alice’s PDA-like device. It is showing viewers how Alice likes to create digital stories but, honestly, it is showing the readers how Inanimate Alice was made. It is reminding readers that this is a game, a piece of fiction, in a very off-hand-but-not-really kind of manner. Which, didn’t do me much good while I was going through that factory.

Because I have a legitimate fear/phobia, I think it is understandable that I rushed through escaping from the factory. Even though there were no locked doors I could see (in fact every way you went through this space, there were multiple avenues to explore), I still felt like I was in an enclosed space I couldn’t get out of. The use of pictures and images of real places definitely contributed to that feeling. It made everything feel more real. Like, I was actually lost and scared in this creepy, old building trying to find my way out. And, the sounds, too, made the space feel more like a physical place. Water drips, metal clangs, and footsteps sound as you navigate through this space. And, all the walls are graffiti-ed with monsters–so many eyes follow you. Text appears on-screen when you veer from the “correct” path, asking if you’re always going to be lost or if you’ll ever find your way out. It definitely got my heart pumping. But, remember I do have phobia. So, maybe my perceptions were a little off. It’s understandable, remember?

Constantly, I was clicking “B” and asking Brad for help through the space. I’m so glad a companion was offered. As of yet, I have not just gone through and read the piece, so I can’t speak to that, but I know that Brad turned out to be an excellent guide. I don’t know if they’re offered in the Reading Only option. Though, I do wonder who Brad is? An imaginary friend of mine/Alice’s? It wasn’t really explained to me. Though, this installment is number 4 in an apparent series, so, maybe, Brad as a character is explained in one of them. All I know of them is that they appeared as a handy–get it?–silhouette over an image that directed you through the space as necessary–or, in my case, throughout the entirety of the piece. There was no limit to how often you could call on them for help.

When I did finally get back outside, the relief I felt was palpable. Seeing the white rays of daylight brought my heart-rate back down. Honestly, I don’t think we’ve gone over a piece as interactive as this one yet. It is kind of similar to Tailspin in that you click around to navigate through the piece, but there’s more action in it. More movement created with the progression of images on-screen. It’s also kind of like High Muck-A-Muck in that there is a multi-leveled story here. But, Inanimate Alice is arguably less complex. High Muck-A-Muck had many different veins of story and so many different modes of articulating those stories. I’m not saying one is better than the other–just that one is meatier than the other. As mentioned, this is only one installment of Inanimate Alice so, maybe, all the installments together are just as meaty as something like High Muck-A-Muck. I suppose I should say, to be more accurate, that Inanimate Alice and High Muck-A-Muck differ in how their content is collected and then presented. One is altogether and the other is divvied up.

I played one piece from Volume 3 of the ELit collection–The Tower, I think–that had a similar kind of navigation to Inanimate Alice. It was first-person oriented. You used your mouse and computer keys to move through the space. And, it was all presented as if your computer screen were your eyes. Sort of like most video-games now. Still, it was definitely different from Inanimate Alice. This piece reads very similarly to a traditional story. We have a clear beginning, a middle, and an ending. When you emerge outside the factory, the piece ends–cuts to credits. It is the middle of the piece that is different and more organic. I consider this piece to be like a hybrid between a book and a video-game. We have a blending of elements–but also some delineated elements like the PDA scene which is very digitally driven versus the opening scene which just has text that identifies Alice as a character. Having the text move around an image or fit onto a shape within the image–like a stair or a door frame–was a very interesting detail and a very simple one that incorporated the two mediums together–digital and textual. It got me moving my head and being interactive, at least.

Overall, I found Inanimate Alice to be a very interactive–if fear-inducing–piece with a nice blend of traditional and new literary techniques.


***Now, for my idea for my own Elit piece!

As with most of my work, I would like for my project to be both personal and fantastical. Exploring my experiences through a fantastical or mythical lens has been a long-time focus of mine. That distance is helpful for me but also, I think, it helps add interest for other readers. Makes my stories something different to read.

Anyway, I’d like to create a (probably) hypertext piece that explores abuse and its lasting ramifications. The way hypertext allows for an “out-of-order” experience and the way it creates this illusion of moving back and forth through layers of consciousness I think suits my topic very well. Abuse, especially abuse suffered as a child, imprints itself differently at different junctures of life. Sometimes, living with it, can be 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Or, really, there is no forward or back. No beginning or end to its effects and its impact. You think you’re over it, moving forward, and then something happens or someone says or does something and you’re there, back in the moment. It’s almost escape. A lot of the time. And, I think this electronic medium lends itself to communicating and articulating that.

Most of my piece is probably going to consist of prose, poetry, and other mixed kinds of poetic narrative. I don’t want it to be too graphic because that’s not how I most commonly experience it. And, I don’t think it needs to be too graphic in this medium to communicate depth and dislocation and disquiet. Speaking of, I’d also like to incorporate taking sound away in this piece because I’m planning on naming it Silent Screams Weren’t Always. It’s a line that came up in one of my prose I was writing for this piece and I think it would really fit. Silence or silencing is a large part of any abuse narrative and so  think it is important to include. Especially since this medium allows for sound, I really want to play around with taking it away.

I don’t have too many characters that are going to be a part of this story. Most of them are going to be from myth or story. Philomela, Persephone, Cassandra, Ophelia, Echo, etc. I’m still working on it. Trying to add characters who either connect to abuse or silence.

So, that’s what I’m working on right now. Mainly, I’m doing writing and some story-boarding. Would love to learn more about some sites to check out in order to start trying my hand at creating?

Image courtesy of Google Images: Fire Escape