A Tumultuous Smoke Break

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Interactive fiction has been slow to sing for me. The fault is mine; I’m picky, stuck up, and I often merely flounder when it comes to finding new texts to draw breath from. As a poet who once held fast to a belief in the superiority of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry it’s quite hypocritical to then be so reluctant to engage with other nontraditional works, which are possibly as expansive for the written word if not more so. But as many concrete or mathematical poems have shown me, all the conceptual razzmatazz can’t dress up limp, safe, un-engaging writing. 

So it went with the smattering of Twine games I’d come across. More often than not I felt I was treading the same stories, just with more colorful fonts and a need for gamer glasses to reduce eyestrain. But I wasn’t digging, I wasn’t following the cutting edge curators, and through all my disdain I’d become another dismissive snob. I hid behind my theoretical monocle, cowering away from a burgeoning and powerful textual interface that didn’t require a moo of approval from an old closed-minded luddite like me.

However, with people I trust, I’m open to anything. And despite failure and short-sightedness of the top brass at Kill Screen, the editorial chiefs brought together a fantastic crew. I was lucky to serve from the sidelines with a great many writers who to this day showcase bushels of compelling works, big and small, of digital text and storytelling. One of those writers is Emma Kidwell, who’s been killing the content game for some time. She recently dropped a new piece called Got a Light? that’s turned me around on interactive tales and has me hungry for more.

It’s a free short story that you should absolutely play through. There aren’t any major twists or surprises, instead Kidwell deftly crafts a small moment between friends hiding in a cloud of cigarette smoke, too close and too far away at the same time. The prose is precise, a knife that cuts any literary fat, striking true to the heart of an excellent story that confidently holds its pace.

Could this story exist as a standard story, black text on cream paper, tucked between a handful of others in a literary mag? No doubt. But Got a Light? is fully realized digital prose with a nimble stride directed by Kidwell. I typically read fiction haphazardly, flying through sentences until something musical hooks my ear. Kidwell manages this stage though, using the speed of the displaying text to mimic the anxiety, the eternal lifetime of a moment where desire can almost be expressed. When I wasn’t forced to wait I found myself holding on, unwilling to accept the only option I left to choose until I could accept that same conclusion on my own.

Got a Light? demands space and time from a reader in the same way that film does, by controlling that tiny cosmos for a spell. As such, I was more engaged than I would have been reading this on a static page, and better able to live in the mind of the narrator and feel the flutter of her feelings through my own heart-cooked brain. Kidwell’s writing and direction is empathetic, clear, and creates an honest tension without resorting to dramatic tropes, no pottery-crashing fights or emotional explosions. She gracefully outlines the confusing and powerful internal combustion engine of sentiment, that heavy fire that drives us all to smoking and other activities hazardous to our health, but also the rich full-bodied flavor of life.

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