There's a question that sometimes comes up in conversations about interactive fiction: Is it literature, or a game?
I've wondered myself, as I've joined animated characters on their journeys and tried to fit their narratives into a preexisting slot in my mind. But recently, as I watched
- an adventure story told through a series of 10 Flash-animated films - I began to think there might be a better way to look at it.
Alice's story begins when she is 8 years old and living in a remote part of China with her parents (and her imaginary friend Brad). The second and third episodes are set in a villa in Italy and an apartment in Moscow, and in each place Alice finds herself alone, thinking her way out of a scary situation or just keeping herself company. It's a sophisticated piece of storytelling that makes use of digital imagery and sound, haunting electronic music composed by cocreator Chris Joseph, and of course interactivity. The viewer is also a
, who participates by making the stories move forward and by solving puzzles as Alice introduces them. The third chapter gives users the option to only watch and read the story, or to "play" it.
As the story progresses Alice will grow up to be an artist who, in a nice bit of self-reference, designs characters for a computer game company. The series is still in creation by Kate Pullinger and Joseph, who both teach in the area of digital media arts at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. The fourth episode is due out this month.
Such digital fictions - whether they're experimental or take a more traditional approach - have tended to be of interest to a somewhat narrow audience. But
has found reception in different realms. The available episodes have been translated into Spanish, Italian, French and German, and currently
is a featured project in the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008 (
). It has been exhibited as a piece of digital art in several countries, and also screened at film festivals.
When it comes to defining projects like
, then, it might depend on whom you ask. Joseph thinks young people are more readily respectful of the digital format.
"It seems most people these days equate literature with the novel, which is obviously a relatively recent form, and then judge all other literature by that standard, which is a terrible measure of digital literature," Joseph said in an e-mail interview.
"My feeling is that younger audiences already do accept digital lit as lit; for the elder population it may well happen through cell phones rather than computer screens, as for most people the latter are too cumbersome, related to work tasks, and too uncomfortable to read on for long periods of time."
If that's true, then it shouldn't be surprising that Alice has also found her way into classrooms.
Pullinger, who has published novels and collections of short fiction in addition to creating other digital pieces, said she and Joseph did not set out to make
a children's story. But the first several episodes take place during the character's childhood and adolescence, and the series' producer, Ian Harper of the Bradfield Co., saw the potential for
to be used as an educational tool.
He hired Jessica Laccetti, who did the story's Italian translation, to create supplemental educational materials, which are available on the site (
) as a free download. The idea is that pieces like
could both engage reluctant readers and acclimate students to "reading" within digital formats - as well as help teachers and parents get a feel for the kinds of technologies their kids are using.
"Teachers have responded incredibly well to
, but as with any new form, it's difficult to find and expand the audience - [though] this is changing already," Pullinger said.
If readers continue to enjoy these kinds of stories, the question may change from
they are, to where.
"I think the key to whether or not this form succeeds and continues to exist will be in finding interesting ways to 'publish' work like this. Traditional book publishers have been very slow . . . to even think about born-digital projects. A project like
is ripe for serialization - to be sold in episodes via a variety of platforms [such as] mobile phones, e-readers, computers, etc. In the 19th century the serialized novel was hugely popular - the digital realm allows for a reinvention of this form of publishing."