Reading in the future: Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths

Three years before We Tell Stories, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph created the first episode of Inanimate Alice. Designed to be a reading-on-the-screen experience for children, it goes much further than presenting flat text on a screen and is instead an interactive storybook. Alice is eight years old and lives in China with her parents. Her father is often away searching for oil and she spends a lot of time with her mother and her hand-held device.

The beautiful graphics, haunting music and sometimes crackly sound combine with the story to create a real sense of tension. It’s a blend of a book and a video game. I can’t imagine how forward-looking it would have seemed in 2005, not even including the fact that Alice’s device predates the iPhone, but it’s still fresh and astounding in 2013. The premise also reminds me a little of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.

Episodes two and three were produced in 2006. In episode two Alice is now ten years old and living in Saudi Arabia, but the action takes place in Italy, where she is on holiday with her parents. By episode three, they have moved to Russia. Episode three is, for me, the pinnacle of the episodes so far. It’s where the video game aspect comes to the fore most logically and beautifully. To say more would be to spoil it.

In episode four, Alice is fourteen and she and her parents are now living in a town in the middle of England. This is the latest episode and was produced in 2008. It is my least favourite of the episodes. The game quality is even more to the forefront, but it feels a laboured add-on. The feeling of freshness is gone.

Originally, 10 episodes were planned and apparently episode five is in production.

Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph also collaborated on Flight Paths, which they call a networked novel. They began working on it in 2007 on their blog and encouraged contributions from others. The central idea was based around the stories of a number of young men who have stowed away onto flights going to Heathrow and then fallen from the undercarriage into a prosperous part of West London as the plane prepares to land.

In 2009, from the contributions they’d received, they created five story fragments. A sixth followed in 2012. The presentation of these stories is very similar to Inanimate Alice, but minus the interactivity. These stories are purely about reading on the screen and as such they delight me much less. I find that without the interactivity, I don’t want to read from the screen. And I’m not sure where to place myself in relation to the story. With Inanimate Alice, I’m secure in the knowledge that the stories are aimed at younger readers. But the story within Flight Paths and then the manner of its presentation are at odds. Reading on the screen certainly seems aimed at younger readers. But the subject matter is not. The latter two stories have an element of magical realism, which I enjoy very much but I don’t think that this is the right expression for them.

One of the supporters of Flight Paths is if:book. The Australian branch, if:book Australia, has been involved in a number of digital projects and I will return to them in a future post.

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