The piece of electronic literature I explored is Nightingale’s Playground by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston that I found through the Electronic Literature Directory. It is a work of digital fiction that follows the story of the main character, Carl Robertson, who is trying to decipher the vanishing of his friend from high school, Alex Nightingale. The story begins as Carl has returned to his hometown for his high school reunion after splitting with his girlfriend. He reconnects with his old classmates who he has seemingly lost touch with, but strangely, none of them remember his old best friend, Alex. In order to quiet his own doubt, Carl becomes determined to prove that Alex did in fact exist and to uncover where he is now. This is where the reader becomes involved in the story.
Nightingale’s Playground allows the reader to uncover the mystery surrounding Alex along with the main character, Carl, by scrolling around different locations in order to discover text extracts. It is told in four parts, “Consensus Trance”, a browser-based experience, then “Consensus Trance II”, which is in the format of a 3-D game, followed by “The Fieldwork Notebook”, in the format of an online notebook, and then the conclusion, a PDF file. The locations in “Consensus Trance” are creepy, opening in a dark, dilapidated bedroom, moving to different dreary locations like an abandoned house and a forest. Text extracts are spread throughout locations that the reader must uncover to be able to unlock the next locations. At the end on this part the reader runs through a forest being chased by “the Sentinel”, which is a computer game that Alex and Carl used to play. This then opens to “Consensus Trance II”, the 3-D game. The reader navigates as Carl through his dark and scary childhood home looking for Alex’s school fieldwork notebook, in hopes that it will prove Alex’s existence and his sanity. In this second chapter the reader begins to see more of Carl questioning Alex’s existence with text switching from words like “Alex’s” to “mine” or “Alex” to “me”. Again, texts are throughout this location, however, this time they are visible and the reader must walk through them in order to unlock doors and navigate through the house. There is no order that texts must be read in in either Consensus Trance or Consensus Trance II as long as all the texts are found in each location. The following part “The Fieldwork Notebook” looks like a regular notebook, but is handled and manipulated online. This chapter of the story provides more questioning of what is real and what is imagined. Text switches again— like from Alex’s name to Carl’s— and the writing in the notebook becomes more and more tangled as Carl wrote conversations with Alex in it and random numeric codes. The final chapter is the PDF file. In this streamlined conclusion, the reader learns that Alex never existed and he was an extension of Carl. The Sentinel computer game took over Carl’s life and suspended his reality so he could not tell what was actually going on and what was in his head.
The different parts of this piece of digital literature provide the reading with a stronger sense of understanding with the narrator. The first part makes the reader find hidden texts at a point when Carl is very confused about what is going on and must find clues himself. The second part, walking through the house, is more like a stream of consciousness, which emphasizes Carl piecing his past together and realizing Alex does not exist. The fieldwork notebook seems to be a bit redundant because the reader, at this point, should already realize that Alex is Carl. However, it shows more of the deterioration of Carl’s grasp of reality. The beginning of the notebook is very conscious, but then the writing becomes random and obsessive. Then the final part, the PDF file, is neat and organized and not interactive. This is an appropriate conclusion because Carl has finally become aware of what was an invented past and that everything “Alex” did or said was really him. The reader no longer needs to discover anything or piece it together because Carl does not.
The theme of the piece is the suspension of reality that exists within technology. The Sentinel game that Carl and “Alex” play on the computer starts to blur the lines of his reality and his imagination, just as it does with the reader. I looked up The Sentinel, which was a real 3-D computer game from 1986, and it is considered the first virtual reality game. To play the game, the player absorbs energy in different landscapes. The reader of Nightingale’s Playground is the Sentinel. The reading requires the reader to navigate different landscapes in order to absorb text. According to the story the Sentinel cannot move, but can manipulate, is universal, and not from this world. The reader, navigating the story from their computer, also does not move, is manipulating the reading, and not from that world. So, I saw Nightingale’s Playground as a commentary on technology users being too involved in technology. Carl loses all sense of reality and invents his past with manipulated memories because he plays this Sentinel game. In real life, The Sentinel computer game transports players into the game. Then with Nightingale’s Playground, the reader is put into the story being just as lost and confused as Carl until the PDF file explains the truth and makes sense of Carl’s past. What brings reality to the story is the typically formatted literature in the PDF file; it is the only non-interactive part. To me, Nightingale’s Playground, shows that sometimes the interactivity with a story in electronic literature gives the reader too much power and involves the reader too much within the narrator. Like the Sentinel, the reader can manipulate Carl and the story, but like Carl, the reader cannot distinguish from what is real and what is imagined.