Notes on The Pickle Index

The Pickle Index is a story app by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn with art by Ian Huebert:

In a glum nation ruled by a stylish dictator, all citizens are required by law to participate in the Pickle Index, a fermentation-based recipe exchange. From within this network, an incompetent circus attempts an unlikely uprising.

Thrills, chills, spills, & dills!

The writing combines George Saunders-style bureaucratic verbosity with some Tom Robbins absurd flair. You can get it in print, too, but you’d be missing some groundbreaking experiments in using software to tell a story.

When you open the app, it doesn’t present itself as a novel. It presents itself as the Pickle Index from the story. Rather than having a page 1 to start on, there are several different places to dive in: the recipe index, the Q&A section, bulletins from the dystopian administration, an animated map of the story world.

Notification badges—little red circles with numbers in them that people are used to seeing on their email app—keep you from feeling unmoored: There are several places you can go, but you never have to wonder where need to go to take the next step in the story. It’s a smart way to keep readers from getting lost.

The app isn’t just a framing device; it is itself story content. For example, rather than being told by a third-person narrator “Flora’s missives became more and more popular as time wore on,” you see yourself that the share count keeps going up. And when you reach the end of the story, the animated map of the story world shows that for the first time people are traveling between two formerly blockaded areas. That could have been a written epilogue: “Following the downfall of the administration…” But instead the app silently shows it.

The app makes playful use of its platform in other ways too: You can shake your phone or iPad to make certain things go faster, and there are title treatments that transform as you tilt your device. One thing I’m ambivalent about: It forces you to read the story over at least ten days—once you finish a section, you have to wait until the next day for a notification to alert you that the next section is available. This makes sense: The app is supposed to be the app from the story, which sends daily bulletins. But as a reader with a tight schedule it’s frustrating to have the time and desire to read something and be prevented, especially if you know you’re not going to have time the next day. I understand the desire on the part of the authors to immerse people in the story world by making story time line up with reading time, and the appeal of having an excuse to send notifications as another way to use the platform, but I think a useful rule of thumb would be “Don’t prevent people from reading your story.”

I’m a couple years late to this party: The Pickle Index was published in late 2015, and right after it came out there was a fascinating back-and-forth among Eli Horowitz, Russell Quinn, Robin Sloan, and Craig Mod. Required reading if you’re interested in this stuff.

Notes on PRY, part 2

I just finished the second and final installment of the app-novella PRY, which I first wrote about a few months ago. Looking back, I mostly still agree with what I wrote in that post. Some additional notes:

  • It’s an exciting idea to present different parts of a story in different ways, e.g., give readers more of a lean-back cinema experience when the story calls for it, then make them dig with their hands when the atmosphere changes or a plot point is better illustrated that way. Authors do this already by, for example, modifying their syntax to slow down a reader when it serves; film editors modify rhythm over the course of a scene and an entire film. Doing a more exaggerated version of this with software is a leap, but it’s a leap along a path we have already been following.
  • I’m amazed that the word “palimpsest” did not appear in my first post.
  • Letting readers cut between different angles of a filmed scene is an engaging middle ground between traditional cinema and virtual reality.
  • Since remarking on PRY’s “completion indicators” the first time around, I noticed a very similar feature in another piece of electronic literature, The Truth About Cats & Dogs by Sam Riviere and Joe Dunthorne. I wonder if this will become common practice, or if we will begin to abandon the idea of “finishing” certain types of electronic literature as they begin to adopt the less-bounded character of the web.

 

Notes on PRY, the book app

From the art collective Tender Claws comes the app-novella PRY.

Six years ago, James – a demolition expert – returned from the Gulf War. Explore James’ mind as his vision fails and his past collides with his present. PRY is a book without borders: a hybrid of cinema, gaming, and text. At any point, pinch James’ eyes open to witness his external world or pry apart the text of his thoughts to dive deeper into his subconscious. Through these and other unique reading interactions, unravel the fabric of memory and discover a story shaped by the lies we tell ourselves: lies revealed when you pull apart the narrative and read between the lines.

In the app, there is one part where you pry apart lines to reveal new text, literally reading between the lines. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but also hints at the promise of “a hybrid of cinema…and text”: the written words’ gift for abstraction and introspection can be complemented with the metaphors of cinema, which are much more immediate, concrete, and visceral than figurative language — and even moreso than literal language, because, of course, for something to be literal it must be frozen as a written word. In a book, one might figuratively “pry” into someone else’s affairs, or one might literally “pry” into a locked drawer, but only cinema allows you to see someone’s hands in all of their visual excess physically work apart a blockage to reveal a secret…and only with an app can those hands be yours.

I have more fun thinking about what PRY means for the future of the book than I do actually reading it. Each chapter is read in a different way — sometimes by using multitouch to open or close the main character’s eyes while you’re “inside his head,” sometimes by dragging your finger along braille that is read aloud to you while video plays as a palimpsest beneath, sometimes with scrolling through text that loops infinitely. It’s more clever than rewarding. In one chapter I had to escape to the help menu to figure out how to read it.

But what bothered me more than the tricky mechanics were the ones in which I felt a loss of control — with a book, you can easily go back and reread a sentence, and with a movie, you might miss details of plot or staging but you can be confident that everything you need to pay attention to is either between the four corners of the screen or is hitting your ears. With this app, there were chapters that played along like a movie, complete with a play/pause button, but that also had several layers going on so that it wasn’t clear (to me, anyway) whether you did or even could catch all the story material there was on offer. In other words, there were several times when I didn’t know where to look — which is never a problem in a purely textual novel and only comes up in a well-directed movie for rare, specific effects.

The app seems to know that this is an issue, and gives you a graphical representation of how throughly you have read each chapter, on a scale of one to four. I suppose this is to encourage you to go back and reread, but that’s asking a lot: most of the best books I’ve ever read I haven’t read four times.

That is my critique of the experience so far — one of the most promising affordances on display in PRY is the fact it’s being rolled out in stages: apps make a very convenient distribution system for serializing stories.

It also occurs to me that the discomfort I feel while reading might be necessary: If we are going to push the boundaries of what books can be, will that mean learning how to read all over again?

Karen, the story app

Karen is a “life-coaching” app that is actually a story app. Or, as the New York Times would have it, “a software-driven experiential art piece…part story, part game.”

It was released last year, but I just got around to playing it. It’s very good. Some craft-focused thoughts:

  • I can’t tell having just played through it once how much the story adapts to the responses you choose. My sense, based in part on what that NYT article describes, is that your choices influence tone: you see different scenes based on what you say, but every combination of scenes adds up to the same basic story. (Again, this is my guess and gut feeling after one time through.)
  • It was an interesting decision to enforce breaks in the experience. Karen hangs up, and you can’t call back until some time later. The length of time you have to wait before calling her back varies. Sometimes I found this annoying, but sometimes I found it unsettling in the way I imagine the creators intended: sometimes those gaps were suspenseful.
  • Even though it’s fiction, it offers you a “data report” at the end that purports to give you psychological insights based on how you answered questions within the story/game. In doing so, it gives you a peek behind the curtain as to how it tailored itself to you.
  • Is this actually “part game”? It feels like all story to me. You can’t win or lose it, at least as far as I can tell. I think if I were trying to achieve as certain outcome it would be a game. But I wasn’t—I was just answering questions honestly and enjoying the ride.