ZeIFgeist: “Expats” by Hala Alyan

A series in which I muse about projects that label themselves “interactive fiction” on Twitter, and how the term continues to evolve as a label and a conversation.

“INTERACTIVE FICTION :: EXPATS” by Hala Alyan (available online; in Thrush Poetry Journal, March 2019) is a one-page poem presented as PDF. There are no instructions but the layout suggests an intended reading where a short introduction frames a choice between three possible passages; these then rejoin to another short text and another choice of three passages, then rejoin again for a final shared closing line.

The form effectively complements the content, mirroring the way alternate possibilities or interpretations can linger after pivotal choices or moments: a “choice” between identities, or the conflicting feelings about an emigration. Because the alternate texts appear alongside the one you chose to read, they are constant reminders of opposing interpretations and possibilities. The vertical lines around each column suggest a reading constraint but imply subversion: should you read a column straight through, or let your eye wander?

This piece made me think about the disservice many IF environments do in concealing the structure of a project. I’ve written before about how difficult it is to come to an understanding of the form of most interactive fictions: playing a Twine is being lost in a maze, unless the author happens to share the node map. Authors often use this to specific effect, of course, but it can also be an accidental or deliberate misdirection, disguising what and how much variability is really present.

Though “Expats” has, from an IF theory perspective, an extremely straightforward structure — a minimalist Branch and Bottleneck — it’s more effective than it would be in a form where only one node was visible at a time. Understanding the structure aids understanding the piece, and that’s shown here quite effectively.

(It’s a little unclear on the page itself, but it’s also interesting to note that the words “INTERACTIVE FICTION” are presented elsewhere as part of the title, not simply a category label. I’m thinking of the Spring Thing festival I run, where authors are encouraged to be a little provocative in submitting things that challenge traditional definitions of “interactive fiction.” How does self-identifying as IF change the way we think about a poem, or a game?)