Alternative history is a fascinating field – it explores what would happen if certain events played out differently than they did in real life. What if the D-Day invasion had failed? What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? These opportunities to explore alternate worlds open up untold possibilities for authors and storytellers.
That is what I thought I would find in “First Draft of the Revolution”, the interactive epistolary novel by Emily Short and Liza Daly. (“Epistolary” meaning that it pertains to letters and letter-writing). I was drawn to it specifically because I hoped that it would present an experience that paralleled that of an alternative history narrative. While there were elements of that, the experience was not as exciting as I had hoped.
The interactive experience at the heart of “Revolution” is one in which the reader actively participates in the exchange of nearly two dozen letters between four different figures living in an alternate France in 1788 and 1789 (Juliette and Henri, a husband and wife, the mother superior from Juliette’s former convent and Henri’s sister, Alise). While it takes place during the years of the French Revolution, it is set in a world of Short’s imagination in which magic and magicians are common.
The story itself is interactive in the sense that it uses a form of hypertext to present the player with options to choose alternate ways of wording letters back and forth. It is definitely e-literature in that the core of the entire experience is based in an exploration of linguistics and word choice. The choices are presented in the form of limited hypertext that opens a box on the screen when highlighted phrases embedded in the letters are clicked. The twist is that the reader isn’t shown the alternate wording that they can choose. Instead, they are presented with a brief blurb characterizing the fictional letter writers’ mindset (i.e. whether the wording as initially constituted would be too blunt, too subtle or whether it would be taken seriously). In some cases, you can erase a line completely. It is important to note that the alternate wording of the letter does not appear until after a choice is made. This is critical to the interactivity. The reader must consider their motive (or the characters’ motive) apart from the wording. Short describes it as an “interactive piece about the process of writing”. It was a fascinating take on how writing is an evolving process; how we as writers rarely (if ever) write something down on a page (particularly a letter to someone else) in one shot and consider it finished. It is the process of considering one’s word and tone, taking the audience or recipient into account, and choosing words that accurately convey one’s intentions that are at the heart of how this story works. The fact that Short opted to build the game around the written letter encourages the reader to take time and be patient (just as we would in writing a real letter). Unfortunately, though, if you aren’t into the idea of editing letters, there is essentially nothing else to the experience. While the parchment-style “paper” and calligraphy looks great, there is no audio, no video and nothing to click except the lines on the page, the option to send the letter and the arrows at the top of the page that lead you backward and forward through the game. (You can’t go back and “rewrite” the letters once they’ve been sent. Once it’s sent, it’s sent.)
The idea here is to give the reader the chance to think through their choice of wording before sending the letter off. As I played it multiple times, I found myself trying to adopt a persona for each character and crafting my letters to fit their persona. In one instance, I “played” Juliette as a brasher, straightforward woman. In another, I channeled a more submissive tone. Depending on his word choice, Henri could be caring and sensitive to his wife or harsh and unforgiving. But there was only so much I could do or choose, and that limited how much I enjoyed the experience. For instance, one must change a certain number of lines in a given letter before the option to send that letter appears at the top of the screen. You cannot, for example, send a letter without changing anything. In addition, only certain lines can be altered and, of course, there are a finite number of choices you can make when trying to alter them. I found that there are certain scenes you reach no matter what choices you make in the letters. By not allowing the reader to send letters whenever they felt like it and by limiting the variation of storylines, I felt the authors intentionally limited the experience. Short herself said that the story was not designed to be CYOA (“choose your own adventure”). She said “the interaction is all about revising the letters” and said she wanted to offer “lots of small, parallel choices submitted at once rather than a sequence of large choices submitted serially”. In that way, she said, she hoped the story “creates some of the texture and exploratory feel that (is often) missing from CYOA.” After thinking about that, I believe Short achieves her goal, but only partially. There is plenty of interaction here and a sense of exploration, but she’s right: much of it is in your mind, rather than in the game. So how much of that interaction actually impacts the game? Inkle, which co-made the code for “First Draft” with Liza Daly, answered the question this way. “We can tell you that every choice you make is discarded by the computer the moment that you commit to it. But do the choices affect the story? Yes. Of course they do. Partly because the choices are being remembered by the other data-collecting system in action during the game, which is the one that sits between your ears. And partly because you’re performing the act of choosing.” In other words, the act of considering your choices and experiencing the narrative through your own choices is the game. The problem for me was that with each successive experience, the pathway through this novel became more and more familiar and lost some of its thrill. With some letters, the reader is encouraged to change multiple lines; there is only one alternative to each highlighted line, and you must change all of them before you have the option to send the letter. It left my sharing the sentiments of critics at the site kotaku.com “Seems like a nice little exercise for people who enjoy writing, but it’s not really a ‘game’. In another review, a critic said “Some branching paths and endings would have made it gratifying”.
On the positive side, I think there were several points of the story in which I felt that Short’s goal of forcing the reader to think through the implications of their words was driven home in a particularly effective manner. By the middle of the story, we’ve learned that Henri believes that the bastard son that Juliette has met while in exile from Paris is actually his own son and we have several options as to how he tries to find out for sure from Juliette. I tried multiple different ways, but no matter what I did, Juliette always seemed to see right through him. We also find out that Juliette is becoming more and more attracted to the friar, but also begins to suspect he is not what he seems, even struggling with telling her husband that the friar’s ideas seem “revolutionary”. The extent of her attraction is revealed, not through the written words, but through the thoughts that are revealed while she is deciding how to phrase her latest letter to her husband. After Henri catches on to the friar’s intentions towards his wife Juliette, he decides to write a letter to her, asking about their relationship. The first option you get is just a blank page and an encouragement to start over. Your option to rewrite starts as a single line “do you take him in place of me” – very emotional, Henri too upset to even write a greeting. He rewrites it again, with a choice to criticize her for “doing wrong”, but we are not allowed to send that. It ends up being a long letter in which he admits his relationship with Bernadette (the bastard son’s mother). He also challenges her to answer to charges that she is sleeping with the friar or in a relationship with him. Juliette goes through similar ways of thinking, wondering how much to reveal about her feelings, but eventually simply says she has been faithful. The one line that cannot be changed is the first one: “I have not betrayed you.” So we as the “player” are not allowed to hide that truth from Henri and Juliette apparently has no intention of trying to hide it. Could the story have been more interesting if we had been allowed to do so? Perhaps, but it would then have been the reader driving the narrative and not the reader-as-character.
I should mention that “First Draft” is set in a world that Short previously explored in interactive fiction games like “Savoir-Faire” (2002) and “Damnatio Memoriae” (2006), stories about magic-users in an alternate France of the mid-1780’s. In those stories, she explains a type of magic known as “Lavori d’Aracne” in which objects (like letters) can be linked together. The earlier stories represent a more rudimentary form of interactive fiction. However, those earlier stories are just typewritten text and rely on the player’s input to carry the narrative. In “First Draft”, Short has taken on much more of that job herself.) As such, the “First Draft” story is rich with parallels to the actual French Revolution, which took place in the late 1780’s. Locations and dates share significance. For instance, “First Draft” begins in the city of Grenoble in the summer of 1788, the time and setting for the first major conflict of the real French Revolution, Parallels exist throughout – from references to French churches that fell in both the fictional and real world, as well as the inherent struggle between those in power and those who aren’t. Short describes her universe of “Lavori d’Aracne” as one in which “certain anti-aristocratic forces are finally discovering how to break the magical power that has kept the nobility in power for so long.” It is not a far leap to draw a rough parallel from the anti-aristocratic forces in her stories to the actual French peasantry that finally found a way to topple the ruling religious and governmental hierarchy in the closing years of the 18th century.
“First Draft of the Revolution” was recognized by the XYZZY Awards for the Best Use of Innovation a few years ago. Rock Paper Shotgun reviewed it and praised its inventiveness, although the reviewer’s mother says “the idea was all right but the hook didn’t hook me”. That echoes something from the XYZZY review, in which it is praised as a “unique mechanic and a refreshing take on interactive text.” But once again, we find the same kind of criticism we discussed previously, as the reviewer argues that the lack of choices that I mentioned before makes it feel many times that the creator is guiding you and that “the experience comes close to feeling on rails.” The review also points out that “while the project’s website implies certain choices can have an effect on subsequent letters in the web-based version, it wasn’t clear what the effect was.” As previously mentioned, I felt the same way, finding that you were destined to arrive at certain points of the story no matter what you did or how many times you played.
I came away from “First Draft” with a sense that there was good news and bad news. While I thought the whole thing was inventive and aesthetically beautiful, the limitations in the game play sapped some of the excitement and thrill. At points, it was even boring and I clicked lines randomly just to get to the next letter. I was frustrated that here weren’t more options available and that the story became predictable the more times you went through it. On the other hand, once I played it a few times, I gained a new appreciation for the way the narrative was advanced through the character’s thoughts and deliberations in conjunction with the reader’s word choices as opposed to the narrative alone. It reminded me of the fact that our own character is often held mostly below the surface and just hinted at by our words and deeds. Our thoughts provide a much clearer picture of who we are. In addition, “First Draft” shows how we can mold our relationships and alter our destinies simply by the words we chose to use and, just as importantly, the words we chose not to use. Is there perhaps a modern day lesson here for those who head to Twitter or Facebook and fire off missives without thinking them though? I think there could be, even if that wasn’t initially what the creators intended. Nevertheless, the importance of how we communicate and the importance of thinking about how we say things, not just what we say, could not be starker than it is in “First Draft”.