In The Pause Between The Ringing is a set of stories nestling within one another. An interplay of text and built environments, it falls within the intersection of literary fiction and gaming. Bright visuals, featuring a big fat red phone, a maze of alleys and fantastical vistas, are interspersed with detailed text. The ringing of the phone often becomes an indicator of a new encounter waiting around the corner.
Released on 8 April, it belongs to the niche category of Interactive Fiction (IF)—a concept of text-driven digital games that is still at a nascent stage in India. Created by Studio Oleomingus, a game design studio co-founded by Dhruv Jani and Sushant Chakraborty, the stories are set in the 1840s, and revolve around the search for a fictitious town called Kayamgadh. For 30-year-old Jani, IF has allowed him to create links between postcolonial literature, speculative architecture and games. By embedding various narratives within the work, the team has given viewers/readers the freedom to tailor the story according to their sensibilities. “The author of any Interactive Fiction is always, at least in part, the player himself or herself. It is they who embody characters and roles,” says Jani.
The idea of IF has some interesting antecedents. Take, for instance, the Choose Your Own Adventure series of game books for children, based on a concept by Edward Packard. Extremely popular in the 1980s-1990s, the books allowed the reader to don the mantle of the protagonist and make choices that would determine the plot’s outcome. Around the same time, with the advent of home computers, one saw this concept inch into the gaming space as well, with text-based interfaces emerging in adventure, mystery and role-playing categories. The earliest example of IF on the computer was Zork, written between 1977-79 using the MDL programming language.
Internationally, a strong community exists today within the IF genre, with even an Interactive Fiction Competition, or IFComp, in existence. The 2018 edition was won by Alias ‘The Magpie’, about a gentleman thief who has to impersonate a psychiatrist, “infiltrate a country house, steal a priceless Egyptian scarab and make it back to London in time for cocktails”. What caught the imagination, however, was the fifth-place winner, by Maddie Fialla and Marijke Perry, in which you, as a player, keel over and die during a Thanksgiving party, and, as a ghost, begin your search for the killer. Text-based cues offer a glimpse into people’s memories to help you piece the story together.
In India, though, Oleomingus’ work is one-of-a-kind. The team has been creating stories as part of a wider anthology called Somewhere. According to Shubham Roy Choudhury, programme officer, the India Foundation for the Arts, which has supported Jani’s project, Somewhere pushes the boundaries of both literature and gaming. “Usually, in games, you have certain goals to achieve by following certain rules. But this project challenges the conventions of gaming, as the pace is slow and you need time to introspect and read the text. There are no levels to be crossed,” he says. The structure of the narrative challenges the traditional idea of reading as well—the multiple stories within the Somewhere universe call out to each other. “At some point, the story comes back to where it had started from, and you start speaking to different characters and spaces,” says Choudhury. In the age of e-books and digital environments, immersive texts such as this can be an interesting way forward.
Jani, who studied exhibition and spatial design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, calls himself a self-taught game designer. The intimidating nature of actual exhibition spaces led him to imagine virtual interactive spaces, allowing players the agency not just to move through them but to reorder their own experience of this movement. He found IF a good medium for telling barbed and broken tales in a remarkably coherent form. “One of our recent works, A Museum Of Dubious Splendors, is a good example of this. The work is structured in part as a labyrinth and in part as a picture book, and both together attempt to probe how museums acquire authenticity,” says Jani, who is influenced by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Lewis Carroll, Sukumar Ray and Rudyard Kipling.
For him, this genre is best suited to tell local stories that can accommodate an interlocutor in the form of the player. “It is great to tell stories that would otherwise not be told in the presence of some overwhelming hegemony like colonial appropriation or nationalistic fervour. These are stories that benefit from being told in an irreverent manner,” says Jani.
Available free on various platforms such as Steam and Itch.io, the stories from Somewhere have elicited some interesting responses from players. “Perhaps, because we release games across long intervals and work slowly, most people approach each individual game as a stand-alone story or experience. However, the patient journey most players undertake rewards them with access to literature from a source otherwise alien to them,” says Jani.
The team deems it critical to straddle the balance between showing IF work on the internet, where interactions tend to be anonymous and distant, and showing it at specific centres such as museums, exhibitions and conferences. For instance, a new work from Somewhere, titled A Diagram Of Leaving, will be shown at the Wandering Games Conference at Bangor University, Wales, in July. Kiln, the IF authoring software, will be released in public beta as a stand-alone build, in late April. Yet another story, Under A Porcelain Sun, will be released on Steam, Humble Bundle and Itch.io later this year.