Inanimate Alice (2004)

The fourth episode of Inanimate Alice by Chris Joseph and Kate Pullinger is entitled Hometown. In this thirty-minute interactive story the user assumes the first person perspective of fourteen-year-old Alice. In the course of fourteen chapters s/he explores and experiences various stages and intricacies of life and media: in content and form transition is indeed the story’s guiding theme. The recipient reenacts the intersubjective uncertainties between childhood and adulthood that teenagers such as Alice have to deal with, shares varying intercultural perspectives on the clash of cultural backgrounds that a new hometown in a new country evokes and tracks intermedial tensions in a virtual space that intertwines image, text and sound with media specific effects from a modem’s sound to 3D environments.

The story is told and played in a linear fashion though it allows the recipient to go back in narrative time: each chapter is represented by an individual icon and title on the right hand side of the screen that can be used to enter the respective level of narration time and again. The user mainly navigates through the chapters using indexical signs such as arrows and hands.

The story’s frame narrative is structured by an initiation rite that “Alice” (such the first chapter’s title) and the recipient as her her alter ego experience: “The Dare” to climb to the rooftop of a deserted factory building where the view over town is said to be unparalleled. The first chapters follow Alice’s way to the top that almost leads her and the recipient into death: an allegory of the story of life and the life of storytelling alike both of which are challenged by the ‘second life stories’ that the digital space creates. For the “Collapse” of a stairway leaves Alice dangling in mid-air for her and the recipient to await for more chapters to explain “What happend” and how “My friends” at the ground reacted. While Alice is eventually “Stuck” and “Scared”, the recipient as her doppelgänger enters her mind’s stories and reads and plays through sequences of retardation that go back in plot duration to tell her life story: how she moved from “Moscow” to England only to wonder “Why here?”; how that average British city transformed into her “Hometown”, a place where she goes to school, has friends, lives in a nice house that she calls home and where she has a project of her own.

And it is that very project that creates a particular turn in the storyline. Presented as a computer screen within the computer screen it is a multimedial interactive program polysemously named iStories that Alice invented to compose narratives of pictures and stories of her own past: the recipient now re-enters the different places of Alice’s “Hometown” as medial (re-)constructions in the liminal space between fact and fiction and then reads in Alice’s diary – on that screen within the screen – about her parents “Ming & John”. S/he is never to know however, where the composition ends and where the truth begins.

As a mise-en-abyme iStories thus opens up a never-ending story between both the narrative and its protagonist and their respective alter egos: for while the functional identity of Alice and the recipient challenges the transition between hero-protagonist and reader the multiplication of the story-telling process in iStories at the same time challenges the transition between story and medium. Such, the story the recipient is reading and playing and Alice’s own storytelling by means of the tool converge to create a permanent mutual reflection between different levels of narration. As a means both of reality-construction and of story-construction iStories signifies fact and fiction, medium and story as codependent aspects within narratives.

Against this backdrop the frame narrative and the “Labyrinth” that Alice and the recipient ultimately navigate through in the factory building associate the story telling and reception process with Alice’s initiation process in a 3D-Jump-‘n’-Run scenario. And most characteristically, it is Alice’s (and the recipient’s) fictional friend Brad who leads the way through the story’s labyrinth of matter and meaning: a cartoon character and fictional marker represented and summoned by the letter B on the keyboard. It is by Brad’s help, that Alice and the recipient finally enjoy the panorama view over town and story, a feeling that “it all belongs to me.”

Review: Ulrike Küchler