It’s July 2017 and I’ve just arrived at the University Fernando Pessoa in Porto for the Electronic Literature Organisation’s conference entitled ‘Affiliations, Communities and Translations’. I’m here to talk about an episodic work of digital fiction I’ve been involved in for the last 8 years called Inanimate Alice, specifically it’s imminent translation into Portuguese and a forthcoming new spin-off for Virtual Reality called Perpetual Nomads.
I’m quizzed over lunch about which university I’m here to represent. “I’m not,” I reply. It doesn’t take long before Inanimate Alice pops up in conversation. “So, what’s your role on it? Are you an engineer?”
I’ve been writing short fiction for as long as I can remember. I’m fascinated with the idea of ‘digitally born’ narratives – stories written specifically for – and to be experienced on computers and devices. This obsession – and it definitely is one – has driven me to develop a lot of different skills, from web application programming through image manipulation and video editing to building complex and immersive virtual worlds.
I’m asked sometimes, “Don’t you miss just writing?” as though, as an artist involved in this kind of work – and particularly one who frequently collaborates with others – I must never just write anymore and that just writing might even be a form of therapeutic activity for me.
Whether the end results are collaborative or otherwise, I write – frequently. Not just into the projects, but also into physical journals and notebooks. Language – text – permeates everything – flows in and around and through every component of these often rich and complex digital stories. Writing cannot be avoided: it’s as much a part of the fabric of creation as anything else.
It would be easy to assume that the roles on big narrative game projects such as All the Delicate Duplicates and WALLPAPER are clearly split down the middle or into easy-to-digest chunks: script writer | coder/developer | visual artist | sound artist | etc. But no matter how things are credited, or roles assumed by reviewers, listings or summaries – that’s not the case.
Upon first installation, an early release of Adobe’s web design package Dreamweaver presented the user with an either/or dialogue box that posed the question: “Are you a coder or a designer?” There was no option to select both, or none; it was one, the other – or quit.
Back in Porto, my response falls immediately into a similar tick-box trap. “Well, not really an engineer…” I find myself saying slowly. The term ‘engineer’ simply feels too cold and removed to describe my role on projects like Inanimate Alice, where I’ve dedicated thousands of hours of genuinely heart-felt time into carefully crafting its increasingly sophisticated narrative-worlds.
In retrospect though, of course I am an engineer – at least in part. Those narrative-worlds wouldn’t ‘exist’ without some degree of ‘engineering’.