What does DF look like?

What does DF look like? Back in the 90s, the digital fiction works I was most familiar with were those published by Eastgate Systems: they were black and white works with little boxes around the words, indicating hypertext links. They didn’t look like much, really… the interesting part was the hypertext. Later, DF became more about multimedia, on the one hand, and code and algorithms on the other, the look changed; it became more self-consciously colourful, sometimes signalling its digital nature through the use of vibrant graphics and data visualizations. Often, green text on a black background evoked “computer.”

Some of this aesthetic was about the genre, and the late 20th century. Games from the same era share much of the look and feel. Some of that, though, merely reflected the presentational expression possible in one or other early authoring systems. Limited fonts, poor type rendering, 8-bit colour (and sound?)… many of these things are part of what people remember about DF’s early years.

As Flash became a standard toolkit for digital storytelling and expression, production values got a lot better. But 2000s-era Flash has its own characteristic look and feel; animated text, zooming views, standardized transitions were easy to achieve, and therefore became commonplace.

Steve Jobs ushered in a new era about 5 years ago, with the launch of Apple’s mobile platform and his banishing of Flash from iOS. That was arguably a good decision, as it lent a huge amount of energy to the development of open web-based standards to take Flash’s place. Today, we inherit a vast open web platform, built on simple open technologies like html, css, and javascript. The web platform is more than 20 years old now, and it begins to show the signs of maturity — in some areas at least.

The web’s agenda, stated or unstated, has been to absorb all other publishing and presentation systems. It has, I think, done so, at the expense of elegance; web authoring is still a bit of a dog’s breakfast, simply because there are so many options, so many toolkits and frameworks, and whatnot. But just about anything is possible now. Good typography is within easy reach on the web now, as is native support for animation, vector graphics, video, and audio. Ubiquitous frameworks like jQuery provide a solid foundation of basic interactive functionality. And designers have begun to think mobile-first, a move that is important not just because we all carry phones, but because it provides a way of throwing off the “web design” conventions and aesthetic of the first decades.

So what should Digital Fiction look like in 2014? Especially given that the open web platform places very few constraints on designers. The lack of constraints is both a blessing and a curse; those early experiments found a ready-made genre and style in the narrow limits afforded by early platforms. In the absence of such things, how do begin to design for wide-open media?



CBC Radio3 Digital Magazine

CBC Radio3 was originally a magazine, long before it was a podcast or radio show. The project was an innovative Flash-based multimedia publication, published weekly in Vancouver. Pathways faculty member Haig Armen was a producer on the project.

According to its official archive (which features 105 issues!) at http://archive.cbcradio3.com/,

The CBC Radio 3 digital magazine ran from November 2002 until March 2005, garnering numerous accolades in Canada and abroad with its unique blend of music, journalism, literature and photography.

Over the course of its brief run, the magazine won over 20 awards, including one Art Directors Club award, two New York Festival Awards and three Communication Arts Awards, and was featured in several web and design books. In 2003, the groundbreaking website won three Webby Awards in a single year: Best Broadband Site, Best Radio Site and the People’s Voice Award for Best Broadband Site.

Flight Paths

Flight Paths: A Networked Novel was the second major digital fiction project from Kate Pullinger & Chris Joseph. Like Inanimate Alice, Flight Paths is episodic; Episode 1 was published online in 2007, and a sixth episode appeared in 2012. It orchestrates text, image, and audio in the delivery of the story of Yacub, a young Pakistani man who stows away in the landing gear of an airliner bound for London. He falls from the plane as it approaches Heathrow and crashes into Harriet’s car in a Sainsbury’s lot. Pullinger’s 2014 novel Landing Gear takes Yacub’s and Harriet’s stories—and their intersections—forward.

See http://flightpaths.net/

Inanimate Alice

Inanimate Alice, says Wikipedia, is “an interactive multimodal fiction,”  written and directed by Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph. The first episode was released in 2005, and there are now four ‘official’ episodes on the Inanimate Alice website. The work has been extensively used in teaching digital literacy, inspiring students worldwide to create their own digital fiction and as such there are many more episodes out there.

The core story, which traces the experiences of Alice, who is an 8yr-old girl in Episode 1, as she moves with her parents to a variety of places around the world. The story is told via a combination of text, sound and image, with the reader controlling the pacing and direction of the story at various points.

A Guardian interview with Kate Pullinger in 2006 provides some context: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/dec/07/technology.internet