'Inanimate Alice' newly animated: Kate Pullinger's digital novel is still young

'Inanimate Alice' newly animated: Kate Pullinger's digital novel is still young

May we all age at the rate Kate Pullinger's Alice does

When last we saw Alice -- of Pullinger's transmedial tale Inanimate Alice -- she was 14. That was six years ago.

Now, she has reappeared. But she's not 20. She's 16, as stated in the opening of Episode Five.

This enviably slow maturation, it turns out, wasn't intentional.

"A long hiatus," Pullinger agrees with me, occasioned "as the producer, Ian Harper, did two things: One, he built on the audience base, and, two, searched for ways to fund or finance the rest of the episodes."

In an interview with Yvette Chin at Digital Book World, in 2011, Harper described what tends to get lost when a collaborative project is rolled out in episodic increments over many years: the story. It's a yarn that might make you feel that Alice is anything but inanimate. He told Chin:

Alice is a 21st century girl, growing up with aspirations of becoming a computer game designer one day. She has had a lonely, unsettled, childhood travelling the world with her itinerant parents. Homeschooled by her mother in a yurt in Northern China...and in a Soviet era tenement in Moscow, she goes to school for the first time at the age of 14.
This is Alice’s story, told by her when she is in her mid-twenties looking back over her life and reflecting on the circumstances...Over a series of increasingly interactive and complex episodes, Alice demonstrates her improving skills in writing, art and design. The words selected, the typefaces, music and imagery changing from episode to episode, are all age appropriate.

So what does the title mean, I ask Pullinger? How is Alice inanimate?

"It's how she feels about herself," Pullinger says, "compared to the world of games and animations and stories she inhabits online."

Pullinger and Ian Harper's new release: Episode Five of Inanimate Alice

In the previous four episodes, Alice was 8, 10, 13, and 14. 

The new Episode Five, in which she is 16, is made in Unity 2D with added 3D effects, Pullinger says.

Separately, there are Gap Year travel journals made in HTML5 by Andy Campbell and Lorri Hopping. In those, Alice is already 18.

Episode Six, to be released in the summer, will be made in full Unity 3D, Pullinger says. In it, Alice will be 19.

"One of the most interesting things about the project now," Pullinger says, "is its longevity and that, despite the fact that the first four episodes were built using the now-outmoded Flash, it has remained current."

As it turns out, the work may be allowing its earliest followers to pace Alice pretty well as she ages toward the mid-twenties from which she's supposedly looking back at all this. The audience, Pullinger says, "remains a broad mix of kids and adults."

Not book-to-film but film-to-digital-book

Inanimate Alice "came about when Ian Harper was looking for ways to  create interest in a feature-length film screenplay he had written," Pullinger says. "An early attempt at a kind of viral marketing.

"The film has not been made but the episodes rapidly took on a life of their own and became the main focus of the project."

The life of those episodes, in fact, has a highly educational character now. Surprisingly, that wasn't the original intention, either. Pullinger talks of that key component as a kind of afterthought:

In 2009 I came across a set of new Episode Fives online. A teacher in the US was using the stories to teach her class of ‘hard to reach’ 17-year-olds, and they had created their own episodes. She'd uploaded them to her class blog. This was a kind of eureka moment for us all. Up 'til then, we’d thought that what we meant by interactivity was the use of games in the stories -- games that are meant to have been created by Alice herself, hence their incremental increase in sophistication).
Finding these reader-created episodes showed us that interactivity can mean enabling or inspiring creativity. And this is something we have tried to support and encourage ever since. Now the new Web site has a gallery of reader-created episodes on it. So, yes, Inanimate Alice has become a "slow media" title and this has worked in our favour in a number of ways.

Among educational -- née "interactive" -- elements you'll find with Episode Five: "a highly visual development journal" of Alice's progress, supposedly kept by the character, herself.

Each episode opens with "My name is Alice" and the character's age at the time of that part of the story. One or both of Alice's parents, the Fields, seems or seem to go missing at times. Her father, who was in the oil industry in China, seems to have connections with the underworld. Mum is an artist. And Alice -- identifying herself in Episode Five as "disaffected youth," gets into trouble quite a bit, encountering the kinds of conflicting revelations most teens do.

For example, having lived in China, Italy, and Russia, she now finds that living in the UK for an extended period is less happy than she'd expected.

Transmedia storytelling loves a good situation

In generous rebellion now, Alice announces to us that she's "rubbish at school" because "there's too much other stuff out there -- there's a big wide world calling me."

Amid cool, colourful, video effects and an appropriately rackety soundtrack from Joseph, the story gets us to art & tech class, in which Alice is "the best" ... and then Alice goes on to skateboard her way into a situation. We'll come back to that situational thing shortly.

No sooner does Alice Field roll to the town's canal, but you're put into motion playing "Canal Chase," in which you "skate away from the baddies along the side of the canal" and "try not to fall in!" This is fun -- you steer the skateboard, in designer and Web artist Campbell's work, using the cursor arrows on your keyboard. Somehow, I don't think Alice ever avoids falling into the you-know-what, though. That's how she meets...you'll see.

The piece ends with an offer to see it again or to play "Canal Chase" again. I did play again, and I'm afraid I ran into two handsome ducks along the way. And a cat. And a rusty barrel. I'm celebrated for my skateboarding artistry, you know.

As with many transmedial efforts, the attempt to use multimedia -- and this is a very good example -- can seem to focus on devolving a story line into something situational.

If the user/reader/player can be brought into a real-time situation that's part of the story line, then, the theory goes, the entry point is available for that user/reader/player to act on the plot, engage in the narrative, drive something of the action: behold interactivity, the currency of the transmedial realm.

Alice, torn between knuckling down at school and gallivanting around town on her skateboard, tells us that two "baddies" are following her and she ends up being "chased" along the canal. You jump onto her skateboard and skate her away to safety. At which point, we're set up for Episode Six.

Clever, quick, and slickly produced, Inanimate Alice has one more major component going for it: in Pullinger's capable authorial hands, it shows you almost no one. It doesn't even show you Alice. A glimpse here, a glimpse there -- usually as much a stylistic element as something story-related -- and the rest is up to the imagination.

"It makes the story more like reading a book, in a way," Pullinger tells a classroom of students -- after conceding that the initial decision not to show characters was financial: "We didn't have the money to buy photographs of actors" or to commission drawings...But it actually seemed to become a good idea and quite a useful thing for the stories."

This is the give-and-take of so many efforts in digitised storytelling, of course. Can we take something from the immersive text of centuries, give it video and audio life ...without cheating the user/reader/player's imagination of its right to experience a story as we understand it?

The highly animate Kate

Kate Pullinger, a Canadian based in London and professor of creative writing and digital media at Bath Spa University, is the author most recently of Landing Gear, published by Random House Canada Doubleday and Simon & Schuster's Touchstone in the US.

Landing Gear is an extension of yet another multimedia work with her Alice collaborator, Chris Joseph, titled Flight Paths: A Networked Novel.

Landing Gear is highly representative of Pullinger's worldview as an author. Keyed on stories of wheel-well international stowaways on planes -- and their bodies falling into a supermarket car park in West London -- she imagines a rare survivor of such an ordeal and the aftermath of the descent grocery-ward, as it were. Yacub, from Pakistan, has been driven home by Harriet -- on whose car he crashed when he fell from the plane approaching Heathrow:

Despite the lovely warm bath and the thick soft towels and the clean, perfect bed, Yacub could not sleep. Each time he closed his eyes, it would happen again: with an enormous clunk and whirr, the landing gear began to unfold itself in front of him, the great pistons and wheels moving into place, the stink of fuel and oil and machinery. Caught off-guard, off-balance, dizzy, frozen, only half-conscious, afraid, he toppled from the shelf where he'd been trapped, crouching for hours and hours, and was cast out into the limitless sky, the ground rushing toward him much too quickly.

The US and Canadian paperback editions of Landing Gear are the next stages of release. (Pictured above from left: the Canadian, American hardback covers, and the American paperback cover.)

The Mistress of Nothing, winner of Canada's Governor General Literary Award for Fiction, is published by Serpent's Tail in the UK and McArthur & Company in Canada. (Canadian readers may want  to know that Penguin Random House there is running a $4.99 promotion on the ebook editions of both Landing Gear and The Mistress of Nothing until 5th January.)

This year, Pullinger also has self-published a selection of novels from her backlist, and they're selling at "a steady drip-rate," she tells me. She was notably forthright, in an interview with BBC Radio 4's "Front Row" about how difficult self-publishing is to do well. Her self-produced ebooks have specially created covers with coordinated designs. Weird Sister, she says, "a novel about a woman who might be a witch, has proved to be the one that sells most steadily."

Her well-received libretto for the Slovak National Theatre's new The Picture of Dorian Grey from composer Lubica Cekovska was given its premiere in Bratislava late last year and is to be staged in May 2015 at the Prague Spring Festival.

And her leadership of the Letter to an Unknown Soldier campaign with author-director Neil Bartlett has produced a book that reflects the outpouring of 21,349 messages. Pullinger and Bartlett have edited the book, selecting more than 130 of the letters for inclusion. It is published by HarperCollins.

Pullinger in 2015 is working on a new novel, commissioned by Penguin Random House Doubleday Canada.

Educational Alice

"When we first started creating the episodes" of Inanimate Alice, digital artist "Chris Joseph and I had no idea about audience -- we were interested in looking at new ways of telling stories using the new technologies and digital platforms.

"However, early on in the process, during the 2006-2008 period when we were creating and releasing the first four episodes, it became apparent that we did in fact have an audience: kids and teachers and academics. We had strong interest in the stories from teachers from the beginning and we have had amazing support from teacher and librarian advocates for many years now."

You can see the influence of this audience, perhaps, on the extensive explication of the content found in those journals that Alice is to have created for Episode Five. At another point under the Education offerings on the top-bar navigation of the site, you find gateways for both teachers and students in a Language Learning Space (Australia) section, and Episodes One through Four now are available in multiple languages. A huge range of digital assets are made available at the site, and its "Teach With Alice" section talks of "the traditional literacy skills of reading, writing, talking and listening, [and] also the development of the digital and information literacies so vital for progress and prosperity in the 21st Century.

In a way similar to the mission of the Cato and Macro video game set up by author Simon Scarrow to draw boys toward reading, Alice works to draw in student imaginations and focus them in the ways and means of the digital dynamic.

"Amazingly," Pullinger says, "even now, there is a dearth of interesting digital multimedia fiction that is suitable for use in the classroom. So Inanimate Alice has become an education title, with investment from Education Services Australia for a variety of new stories that exist outside of the five episodes.

"It's used in classrooms around the world, helped of course by the fact that the episodes are in seven languages, including Japanese and Indonesian."

Inanimate Alice, it would seem is inanimate only in her own mind. It has, as Harper told Chin in his 2011 interview, " something for everyone who wishes to understand more of the world of digital literacy." And, he said, it has 10 episodes. If a six-year pause hasn't derailed it, chances look good for that skateboard to keep rolling.

"You can't really have a book with a character called Alice without thinking of Alice in Wonderland," Pullinger is telling the students of Bailey Road School, Room 13, on a video feed as they interview her.

Imagine what Lewis Carroll might have done with a digital Looking Glass Alice.