Created by Dreaming Methods authors Andy Campbell and Judi Alston (whose previous collaborations include Inside: A Journal of Dreams), Nightingale’s Playground is an ambitious new work of digital fiction divided into four interlinked parts: an atmospheric browser based experience; an interactive virtual book with pages you can turn with the mouse; a short eBook download; and an immersive realtime 3D walk-through that takes the written word into strange new dimensions.
Nightingale’s Playground was partly inspired by an old 8-bit computer game called The Sentinel – a unique and haunting strategy game devised by genius programmer Geoff Crammond that baffled magazine reviewers when it was originally released back in the 1980s. Hailed by some as proof that even computers like the Commodore 64 and Spectrum can achieve a sense of ‘virtual reality’, The Sentinel revolved around a one-on-one battle between the player and an unknown life-form that was slowly but surely taking over and enslaving the universe. Although baffling to many, the game was completely compelling to players willing to embrace its diversity and brought with it a sense of frightening immediacy through the illusion of a 3D environment.
Using snippets of reviews and artwork from the original release of The Sentinel on the Commodore 64, Nightingale’s Playground follows the story of a teenage schoolboy whose best friend Alex – an oddball kid obsessed with pseudo-science and video games – mysteriously disappears leaving behind only a strange, insect-ridden journal of half-finished notes and sketches.
Told through a medley of digital media – from full-motion video to a PDF document – the second part of the story is perhaps the most unusual. A 20mb download available for PC and Mac, it takes the form of a stand-alone application that swiftly launches into a dark and brooding 3D hallway where the user/reader takes the role of the protagonist in game-like first-person perspective. In classic PC game tradition, exploration is achieved through the use of the mouse (to look around) and keyboard (to walk), but even here the written word is far from lost: fragments of prose exist in 3D space and are required to be read/walked through in order to progress through the story.
The narrative in part two of Nightingale’s Playground was carved into 3D space without having been keyed into a word processor beforehand. Sentences and paragraphs were invented and scribbled directly into – and onto – the textures and objects that they now exist alongside. This is the key to one of the fundamental principles behind Dreaming Methods: fiction can be written onto digital surfaces and, during the process, authors can embrace a completely different approach to what most might consider to be the ‘normal’ way of writing.
Working in 3D has allowed us to bring a whole new dimension to our digital fiction work. Narratives have been etched into walls, hung in the air, stretched and pulled across corridors and let roam free in a weird and atmospheric virtual space. The resulting experience is difficult to describe: it’s not a game, it’s barely interactive (more of an exploratory walk through with a few simple unlocking puzzles) and if you don’t read anything along the way, it won’t make much sense. This is writing poking into experimental new places and taking the reading experience well beyond its usual comfort zones.
When The Sentinel was reviewed by the UK computing press back in 1986, Zzap 64! Magazine notoriously refused to give it a score out of 100%. “This game defies rating,” they concluded. “The critical appraisals here are intended only as a guideline. The decision to indulge in this unique experience is entirely in your hands.”
As a work of digital fiction, Nightingale’s Playground offers up a similarly challenging message.