For this particular blog entry, I intended to present a piece of hypertext fiction called “The Domovoi“—a very haunting, almost mystical tale based on a figure that appears throughout traditional Slavic folklore. However, when I went to find the story, I was excited to see that Bravemule (aka Kevin Snow) had written a new piece earlier this year: “Beneath Floes.” This piece really resonated with me in the context of everything we’ve been discussing in class. I really hope you guys like it. (If you’re interested, I also highly recommend checking out “The Domovoi” anyway, especially if you’re as big a fan of folk stories and mythology as I am.)
“Beneath Floes” is another tale steeped in folklore, but that of the Inuit culture. It’s very beautiful, and very creepy—almost like a chilling dream that never quite crosses the threshold into full-fledged nightmare. Danger is always lurking somewhere beneath the surface (literally), but even though a very real sense of dread pervades the story, I—my protagonist—always felt more curious and intrigued than scared. (The danger does eventually reveal itself, and there is one particular moment of explicit violence, but the horror aspect still stays much more uncanny than savage.) Based on the hypertext fiction I’ve read in and out of class, it seems like the inclusion of sound can sometimes have an adverse effect on the experience, but here, I think the music and the soundscape adds a lot to the story, and effectively creates an eerie sense of space. The Inuit culture is central to the narrative, and I think the way Bravemule handles this material heightens the immersive quality of the piece; everything that relies on cultural context is presented in a way that is clear enough for an outsider to understand, but subtle enough not to be distracting. (I had mixed feelings about looking up words like qalupalik, amauti, kiviuq, and qallunaat after I had completed the story; I thought that maybe this would break the fairytale-like spell the story had over me, and that maybe some of its power lies in the mystery…but my curiosity won out.)
I thought this piece presented many, many similarities with Kitty Horrowshow’s “Pretty Girl,” the most striking of which is a self-critique of the nature of storytelling veiled in a supernatural/horror cloak. (There’s also the presence of a simultaneously murderous and nurturing female with wild hair and talons, but I digress.) Like we talked about in class, calling a piece of fiction “interactive” implies that there is already a framework in place, and brings up questions of the user’s agency and control over the narrative. Admittedly, in “Beneath Floes,” not much is really in our control: we only get to change small details that are incidental to the plot. However, I don’t believe that these small choices were arbitrarily selected by Bravemule; their net effect was too compelling to have been random. Even though my brain acknowledged that the plot of “Beneath Floes” was technically locked in place, I still felt like I was creating my own atmosphere and character on an emotional, primal level. I instinctively invoked the indigenous Inuit hero rather than Superman for comfort because it felt right, and I yearned for bravery rather than strength. My qalupalik emerged from beneath the ice with my own unique flourishes, and I actually did feel “an uncertain connection with her.” My red moon loomed over me throughout the entire story, bathing the Arctic in the color of blood. (“Ominous,” the narrator assured me. “That’ll work well with the story. Okay, settle in and listen.” And I did.) I thought it was extremely effective that the choices were interwoven throughout the text so seamlessly; I never had the feeling that I was progressing along a tree of choices, with A branching to either A1, A2, or B, and so on. (I was also able to find two similar but distinct endings. I never did quite figure out the effect of changing the initial date from 1883 to 1884, if any exists.)
“Pretty Girl” seems to be primarily concerned with elements of more modern storytelling, specifically those of interactive texts and ergodic literature. However, at its core, I believe that “Beneath Floes” is about an oral storytelling tradition. It raises questions about the performative aspects of storytelling, and wonders about things that are lost during the translation from one medium into another. The words themselves are presented to us rhythmically, emulating how a storyteller might deliver the tale, mimicking the beats and pauses of words recited out loud. We are told an old myth that has only survived due to the academic interest of an unnamed anthropologist, but we are also made sure to understand that this adaptation is a shade of the original, at best. The second-person point of view in “Pretty Girl” felt simultaneously authoritarian and confining, but here, it’s more nuanced; it’s almost as if the narrator is allowing you to insert yourself into an ancient myth that is destined—doomed?—to keep repeating itself. The narrator—whom I personally internalized as an older female—really includes you in the telling of her tale, even to the point of questioning your choices. “This story is about you, but these are not your experiences,” she begins. “Still, I want to hear your voice.” She presents me with my first choice, seemingly innocuous, and actually seems to anticipate my hesitation. “Don’t worry,” she encourages, “there are no bad choices here.” Stories warp and shift as they’re passed on and retold to different people across generations; our protagonist’s mother has even adapted her bedtime story over the years, including more and more details about the qalupalik. (And how interesting: her choice to initially omit more specific details wasn’t for fear of scaring a small child, but because she would rather leave “such details…for [us] to envision—why infringe upon your young imagination?”) We are told the version of the hunting dog myth that the narrator concedes is incomplete, details having been lost ages ago, telling us that “when we hear this story, we have to breathe into it our own modern fears and loneliness.” Are we meant to do the same as users of interactive fiction?
Even though “Beneath Floes” lacks the explicit, violent terror of “Pretty Girl,” this is not just an innocent quest into the nature of stories. There is always that sinister undercurrent common to all fairy tales, and there are constant nagging reminders that we are not safe. In this context, the fact that we, as users, do not have much control over the narrative isn’t an authorial or programming flaw at all. It actually makes perfect sense: we users don’t have as much power as we think we do, and neither do our protagonists. The narrator’s original assertion that there are no bad choices doesn’t seem so encouraging anymore. Perhaps it was meant as a more melancholy reflection. Perhaps it was a warning, of sorts. Perhaps it was simply a grim statement of fact. We haven’t heard the ancient story of the hunting dogs, as its performer is long-forgotten, and the story has been diluted both by time and the written word. Perhaps things could have been different for us…but they won’t be.
(I also think it’s worth pointing out that Bravemule launched a Kickstarter campaign not for the project itself, but in order to collaborate with an Nunavut-based game studio called Pinnguaq. The piece had already been completed/published, but they wanted to facilitate a translation from English into Inuktitut, so that the culture depicted in the story could enjoy the tale based on their traditions. The mission statement says, “Beneath Floes is set on Baffin Island and centered around Inuit history, so we consider it important that the story be available to play in the indigenous language of the eastern Arctic.” As a gamer, language localization of various media (particularly video games) is extremely interesting and important to me, especially because localization is a much trickier progress than translation alone. Apparently, Bravemule and Pinnguaq spent a long time trying to involve the many dialects of Inuktitut in its localization in order to make it as genuine as possible. I thought that was an incredibly noble endeavor.)