Life in a Northern Town (People + Places, Spring Thing 2018)

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From Spring Thing 2018, Life in a Northern Town is what sometimes gets called dynamic fiction as a subset of interactive fiction: a piece in which, for most characters, you’re never making a single choice that changes an outcome or modifies the shape of a narrative. (Brianna’s chapter, in inklewriter, is an exception: she has actual agency over who she chooses to engage with. But the vast, vast majority of this story is about people making dangerous decisions while the player has no opportunity to intervene or prevent them from doing so.)

For most of the elements, a majority of the clicks are click-to-continue options, and some of the sub-stories in the piece are presented in formats such as groups of images on Instagram, where branching would be very hard to arrange. Other elements are told in Twine or on WordPress, eight different people’s perspectives on the same story — though it’s not really trying for a mimetic effect here. It’s not ARG-ishly pretending to actually be the blogs of all these people. Here and there, images are included, especially on the Instagram segments, but elsewhere it’s almost all text, including the largest chunk of the story which is presented in unstyled Twine.

Still, it’s not the same story it would have been if it had been written into a book. The work of reading it is part of the point, for one thing. This is a story about labor, and the labor is recaptured in the way of reading.

For another, the dynamic-fiction presentation fractures the temporal sequence of scenes, especially in the Twine segments. Often there will be a short scene of dialogue between characters, and then clicking through a link will reveal another beat in the same conversation, another interaction, which might be chronologically before or after the first. It doesn’t really matter how they’re joined up, temporally. I never found this to be confusing. Rather, it gave me a sense that I was getting the overall impression of the interaction and then a couple of other key moments from that interaction, in the same way I might when going over a memory in my head. A handful of times the revealed secondary beat actually overturns the sense of the initial interaction.

So I can see reasons for the way it’s presented, but this is a long piece of work — took me some hours to read, and I’m a pretty fast reader — and by the end I would really have appreciated a more comfortable, less laborious reading experience. Other markers are missing, too: there aren’t chapter breaks, so sometimes the story ratchets forward to a new scene or location without an explicit division. There’s no progress indicator, either, which I really miss when I’ve got a multi-hour work on my hands.

Something like this stands or falls on the quality of its writing. In my initial encounter with the first of its linked stories, “Dangerous Work”, I was a little discouraged by the styling and structure — of course it’s not always the case, but standard, unformatted blue-and-white-on-black Twine sometimes goes with low-effort authoring. But I found myself continuing to read screen after screen, connecting with the luckless protagonist and her precarious life in and around Minneapolis.

I’ve lived in that area myself, some years back, and I have relatives who farm in North Dakota. It felt familiar in places, and truthful when unfamiliar.

Eventually, the plot kicks up a notch, and we have a story that feels like it owes a lot to Fargo, especially if by Fargo you mean not just the original movie but Fargo as a TV series and a Fiasco-inspiration, Fargo the genre, a genre of single-story towns and grey-brown plains and blood on snow, a genre in which incompetent, venal criminality leads to shocking amounts of violence. Crime is really best left to the professionals: that’s one of the core principles of a Fargo story. Meanwhile, there’s a virtuous police officer, typically female, who understands that for society’s fabric to hold, we all have to be kind to each other, and follow the rules.

And Fargo the genre is also a black comedy genre, a farce in which characters desperately try to distract each other because, say, the dead man’s severed thumb has rolled into a corner and the unsuspecting janitor has just arrived for work.

Life in a Northern Town is not mostly all that funny, or not funny in that way: farce, even sinister farce, needs a fast pace, and neither the writing nor the interaction style are particularly hurried here. But many of the other elements are present: people who mean well-ish; who aren’t so much bad people as insufficiently motivated to be lawful, who start things they can’t finish and get out of control.

At the same time, there’s another strand here: Life in a Northern Town is darker than the average Fargo-story about the underlying systems of life. Our heroes do stupid things and get in trouble because they don’t have enough money: so far, so standard. But the reason they don’t have enough money is that they’ve been screwed over by the previous generation, both generally and specifically. The economy is bad, and also their parents, specifically, were bad managers and left them in a state. People are in pain, physically and emotionally, and they resort to various methods to dull that pain because society as a whole isn’t providing much by way of mental or physical health care. They all have to make moral compromises to have enough to live on, and even before things go really wrong, our main protagonist is supporting a fracking camp, which in theory she doesn’t approve of, but what choice does she have?

Meanwhile, there’s no good police officer here, no one who represents Lawful Good as a successful way to lead a civilized life.

So it’s grim and long, like a midwestern winter. More editing might help. It’s not in bad shape, and I only noted a few typos in all its plentiful text. But segments of Amina’s story drag out, revisiting similar conversation scenes over and over before anything happens; Brianna’s story occasionally shifts without warning or explanation between first and third person narration. And I wouldn’t have minded a stronger distinction of voice between the characters, who sometimes seem a bit alike in the way they talk and the cadence of their narration. New character perspectives typically bring some new information, but for the most part they’re reiterating a story we already know, perhaps a story we’ve already been through half a dozen times. To keep this vibrant needs either a tight, thriller-like construction, each character bringing something new to the story that snaps the meaning of the plot into new perspective — or else a much looser one, more an anthology of lives with greater divergence in their experiences.

Then, too, I feel like the segments of the story that are presented last on the contents page are not necessarily the strongest. So it’s possible — indeed, likely — to work through this in a way that lands the whole experience with a whimper rather than a bang. Life in a Northern Town is more of a novel as hypertext pieces go, but it’s relying on structures of interactivity and forms of navigation suited to short stories.

Chapters are nodes in Arcadia‘s content map; each thread is a viewpoint character

I do wonder what this would have been like presented with a map like the one in Iain Pears’ Arcadia, the ability to slide sideways from one timeline to another, to follow one character or another away from a given encounter, to pick whether we wanted to read next about events in South Dakota or about contemporary happenings in Finland, or even back up a step in another character’s storyline and find out what brought that character to this particular impasse.

Because I felt that the piece intends the readers to be comparing and contrasting scenes from different angles, but it’s not actually easy to do that, to jump back and forth between places in a markerless expanse of Twine text.

In any case, the overall idea — exploring a narrative space from multiple character viewpoints and with the ability to swap between characters at different times — reminded me not only of Arcadia and Common Ground but also of Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre productions — where you cannot go backward in time, but where the events of a plot may repeat several times over and evening in order to make the plot space explorable.

2 thoughts on “Life in a Northern Town (People + Places, Spring Thing 2018)”

  1. Have you had a chance to watch Steven Soderbergh’s non-linear drama (or whatever he calls it—he just insists you don’t call it a game, which it’s not), Mosaic? Your comments toward the end about a visualization for the different plot threads reminded me of my experience watching Mosaic, which *does* have a map like that, although I didn’t find it of much use.

    The threads loosely correlate to the story of each character, but since each node represents an entire 30- or 40-odd-minute video episode rather than particular scenes or moments (which actually get repeated sometimes with very little variation across multiple episodes), there’s still really no smooth way to perspective-hop within a particular event or scene. In fact, I don’t think you can even do the backtracking you describe, since I believe the nodes in each thread get unlocked from the top. If you want to find out what character X was up to in the previous node on their thread, you’ll have to proceed downward from the earliest episode in their thread that you already watched (I could be wrong on this, though). They’re all taking place circling around the same locations and events anyway, so you don’t get that sense of very different but parallel stories stretching out next to each other. And the videos are so long that I only got through one or two in a session, so I didn’t get to do much playing around other than selecting what to watch today.

    I found it a flawed but interesting experiment. I suspect it will work much better when it’s all chopped up and mashed into a more traditional linear episodic drama for HBO, which is kind of a shame. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it if you have seen it, or if you do check it out in the future.

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