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Inanimate Alice: Not a Videogame

The name "Alice" is strongly associated with Lewis Carroll's children’s book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, originally published in 1866. Alice is the girl who loses herself in a world of nonsense, much of which she has no control over and tries at times desperately to figure out. According to Krystina Madej, Carroll’s story was one of the first written to appeal to a child’s imagination, rather than to teach them lessons (2-4). Today’s version of Carroll’s Alice is Inanimate Alice, a work of digital fiction. Her adventures involve growing up amidst the wonders of technology, and like Carroll’s work, Inanimate Alice represents a genre based on the new definitions of children’s narrative. However, unlike Carroll’s work, Inanimate Alice attempts to educate by merging education and entertainment, taking advantage of the engaging quality of videogames but without diluting meaningful content.

Madej explains that beginning in the 1400s and until the mid 1800s children’s narrative served as a means of instruction. After John Locke introduced the idea of childhood in the late 1600s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggest that children should have stories that appeal to their imaginations and allow them control over how they experience the medium (6), i.e., “While Locke felt children should be led in their search for knowledge, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed children should merely be accompanied” (6). Throughout the 1800 and 1900s many literary works were written to encourage children to learn, interpret, and engage. With the development of the offset press in the 1930s, distribution of books became relatively inexpensive and widespread. The 1950’s and 60’s, brought on a preoccupation with technological advancement and the need to inform. This reinstated the need to use narrative as educative (8). By the 1970s the late 60’s children’s series Sesame Street had helped to popularize the mix of education and modern entertainment, giving rise to shows like The Reading Rainbow, and eventually Blues Clues (8-10). In the 1980s teachers were using television to educate their students. When interactive CD-ROM software became popular in the 1990s, children could simultaneously read and play a special version of their favorite animated movies. Videogames were immensely popular, even more so than digital fiction in terms of sustaining the attention of children; however, in creating videogames “only narrative that generates action is used, so that the narrative element, often promoted vociferously, is often so negligible as to be irrelevant” (12-13). The narrative used in children’s media (e.g., picture books, movies and video games) all combine to draw the user into the story, sometimes to the detriment of meaningful stories. (1-17). Kate Pullinger, the author of Inanimate Alice says that she tries “to make sure the story hooks people in…” She uses interactive game play as a way to “enhance” the story (The Guardian). Inanimate Alice doesn’t rely on constant action to engage the reader like videogames do. It uses both medium and content to engage the imagination and self-direction of children.

Inanimate Alice is rich in multimedia. In episode one, China, the interface is familiar. It uses a Flash platform, the navigation is fairly straightforward, the images are comparable to those in print, and the interactive quality resembles other educational flash games that mimic videogame play. The images in Inanimate Alice resemble those of Ezra Jack Keats children’s book, The Snowy Day, whose pictures have a sketchy quality to them and contrast sharp lines and colorful cutout shapes with stenciled drawings, crayon marks, and sponged on paint. The looping animations in Inanimate Alice are photorealistic but grainy. They are pixilated, yet have a sketchy feel to them that contrasts with sharp lines and shapes, and when the text of Inanimate Alice pauses and disappears on its own, it evokes the opening credits of a movie. Inanimate Alice as a whole is comparable to the educational flash game, Questionnaut (AmanitaDesign.com) that uses surreal, sketchy animations and intricate music to encourage the user to reach the end of the story. Both are contained in one URL, and like many flash sites we cannot refresh the page without reloading to the beginning. Similar to playing a videogame, we turn the digital pages of Inanimate Alice by clicking on white arrows, interacting with the player, taking pictures, and acting based on specific requirements. We cannot progress without performing the correct action. We can recognize the linearity of text, a style of illustration, the interaction of videogames, and the Flash platform, and it appeals to the reader because of the ease of use, and engaging media.

Inanimate Alice combines music, text, images, animation, and games to convey a specific mood and encourage us to proceed in whatever form is demanded us. Cartoons and comicbook-like outlines juxtaposed with photo realistic images create an attractive platform for interaction. The story is familiar because it is linear. Our actions are inconsequential to the outcome, but are vital to the story. As readers we share Alice’s vantage point when we read her first person narrative and engage at a personal level. Most of the time we are allowed to click on the arrows to continue the story. Other times the sentences move off the screen on their own, pressuring us to keep up with the pace so as not to miss anything. There are nineteen squares on the right, in a column top-down that appear one by one as we complete the pages that correspond to specific sections. We cannot skip forward in the story unless we’ve read it first. This forces us to read patiently. We can go back to previous sections in order to reread, but cannot pick the specific page we want within the section. Ultimately it requires that we stay engaged with the story so that we don’t have to go back to read what we missed. Inanimate Alice behaves like a book in its linearity and need for patience, but plays like a videogame in its demand for attentiveness and action.

The narrative, music, movement, and lack of speech and images of the characters involved, make us feel that we are literally reading Alice’s thoughts. We also imagine what the characters might look like. We do not see Alice and that makes us, in a sense, Alice herself. The abrupt shifts in music evoke the same feelings that Alice experiences. At times we do not know how to move the story forward and, like her, we figure out what to do next. There is always something moving on the screen. Nothing is static. We do not have control over what occurs, and this quality is reinforced by the inconsistency of choices that we’re given to move the story forward. The differing and unexpected activities keep the audience interested and engaged. Rather than simply turning the page or watching animated clips, the actions we take are varied and dependent on the overall story. We want to see if she and her mother find her father and what might happen if they don’t. In terms of imagery, there is a lot of movement, mostly of the car. The few still photos either slide across the screen or serve as background for other moving images. Straight, defined lines appear in the more technical illustrations (e.g., satellite transmitter on the roof of a jeep, maps, images on a portable electronic device called a player, Alice’s handwriting, the lines separating different shots in each frame). We do not hear Alice speak, but the shakiness of the text suggests her mood. Most of the text appears in short segments; however, after Alice finds her father, half the screen fills with text. This allows us to rest, to experience the resolution of the story. We are encouraged not only to put ourselves in Alice’s shoes, but also to keep up with the fast pace, and wonder what she (or we) will encounter next. These narrative conventions bridge the gap between the urgency of videogame play and the patience required of reading, in a way that appeals to children’s need for engaging media while also providing them with a meaningful story.

When Alice introduces herself to us, white letters appear on a black screen. We read that she is eight years old while we hear buzzing sounds, and the white letters convulse. At the third screen music starts to play. Three looping animations of her father’s jeep moving along the road play simultaneously at the bottom half of the screen, shifting to the right like a reel. The music is a mixture of fast moving electronic, Spanish guitar, a capella, and low base humming in the background that creates a sense of urgency. The music slows as Alice describes her mother, Ming. Then her player appears and she introduces Brad, her electronic friend. The fast paced music returns along with more animations. Alice and her mother are looking for her father. He is lost. We take pictures of flowers on the side of the road by moving her player over images set over a rapidly moving background that creates the illusion of riding inside a moving car. We “mail” the photos to her father by clicking on a button on her player. Alice then uses her player to write what she would rather be doing at that moment. By simply passing the curser over the arrow on the player, it turns off, and the music stops. The nervous buzzing sounds return, and Alice hears Brad tell her where to turn. They find her father and the buzzing sounds fade into the background. The music playing is reassuring, marking the resolution of the story. Alice asks if she can have a pet. A white outlined animated cartoon dog runs back and forth across the screen.

Alice is a girl whose father is lost. She makes sense of what’s going on by using her player—talking to Brad, taking photos, sending them to her father. She distracts herself by typing a list of things she wants to do, and telling us what she would be doing if she lived in a town. Although she has no control over the situation she figures out how to cope, and ultimately that’s what leads her to her father. Madej states that "[i]n today's fast-paced environment parents are often overly busy, and self-direction becomes important in ways Rousseau had not envisioned" (6). While Rousseau suggested that children be in charge of the way they learn, the youth of his time did not grow up with and use digital media the way we do today. Today's Alice uses technology to aid her, while the Alice of Wonderland wanders the wilds of her imagination. Not only do these characters embody different media, they represent the evolution of science and its affect on society. Madej says that "[a]n era that brought the industrial revolution and child labor also created a need for escapism (7).” For this reason, Carroll’s story demonstrates Alice’s distraction from reality. Certain of today's advancements have many children using technology at a young age in a much different way than before. Today's Alice represents the child that merges with technology, the child whose life experiences channel through such technologies in positive ways. Videogames will provide a sense of accomplishment by showing the direct and immediate consequence of actions during gameplay, however, unlike most videogames, Inanimate Alice gives us a narrative that speaks to a generation of children growing up in the digital world. It depicts technology as a relevant and important part of children’s lives, a story and format unlike most works of literature.

Works Consulted

  • Back to the Future – Episode 1: It’s About Time. Playstation 3. Demo file.
  • Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Books of Wonder, 1992. Print
  • Hocks, Mary E. “Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments.” College Composition and Communication. Vol. 54, No. 4 (Jun., 2003): pp. 629-656. PDF file
  • Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. Puffin Books. Print.
  • LEGO® Pirates of the Caribbean The Video Game DEMO. Playstation 3. Demo file.
  • Madej, Krystina. “Towards Digital Narrative for Children: From Education to Entertainment: A Historical Perspective.” ACM Computer in Entertainment. Vol. 1, No. 1 (October, 2003): Article 03. California Digital Library UC Berkeley. Web. 23 October 2011.
  • Pullinger, Kate, Chris Joseph, and Inanimate Alice, Episode 1:China. The Bradfield Company. 2005. Web. 29 September 2011. http://www.inanimatealice.com/episode1/.
  • AmanitaDesign.com. Questionnaut. BBC. Casual Gameplay@jayisgames.com. Web. 25 October 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/ks2bitesize/games/questionaut/pop.shtml.
  • The Guardian. Down With Alice. Guardian News and Media. 7 December 2006. Web. 29 September 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/dec/07/technology.internet.