8-Bit Bewitchment: The Strange Tale of “Nightingale’s Playground”

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“Nightingale’s Playground,” a three-part free-to-play piece of IF created by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston (available at http://www.nightingalesplayground.com/), is an interesting find. The first part of the story is told through lexiae which the reader/player finds by mousing around and examining objects. The second allows the reader/player to freely roam about a house, reading lexiae which float in the air and collecting them like keys in order to open locked doors. The final chapter is a virtual science notebook kept by the two main charcters of the story, who were partners in their school’s science lab. The story itself follows a man named Carl Robertson as he attempts to find an old classmate of his, Alex Nightingale. The one thing that seems to stand in the way of this quest is that nobody seems to remember Alex having ever existed. Carl questions whether or not he invented Alex, before traveling to the house where Alex used to live, and finding a mind-warping secret (cue Twilight Zone music).

The piece reminds me a lot of “Inkubus,” which makes a lot of sense, seeing as Andy Campbell was one of the authors of that project as well. Both pieces make similar use of darkness and music to create an unsettling atmosphere. Another interesting parallel is the piece’s interest in exploring the computer-mediated world in which we live. In “Inkubus,” the concepts of chat-based messaging, online anonymity, and omnipresent, sexualized advertising are examined. “Nightingale’s Playground” is a piece concerned with obsession, namely an obsession with a video game.

The game is an 8-bit Commodore 64 title called “The Sentinel.” In this game, the player basically attempts to reclaim 10,000 worlds (levels) from a dominating being called The Sentinel. To win, the player must absorb The Sentinel’s energy by reaching each level’s highest geographic point. This is accomplished not by walking or climbing, but by creating a new body at a higher point, then transferring consciousness to that new body before absorbing the old body’s energy. In the story, Alex becomes obsessed with “The Sentinel,” to the point that he reclaims 9999 of the 10,000 worlds in the game, before losing the eight-digit passcode to attempt the 10,000th. Alex becomes convinced that Earth has actually been claimed by The Sentinel, and that he and Carl are both bodies created by a player in order to reclaim the world. In order to get more energy to progress closer to The Sentinel, then, one of them, Alex or Carl, would have to be absorbed by the other. Alex decides to make the selfless choice, and kills himself by swallowing a concoction he brewed in a test tube in Science class. It is never fully addressed whether or not Alex was right. If Alex were simply another body, and Carl absorbed that body’s energy, it might make sense that the memory of Alex simply disappeared from everyone’s minds. On the other hand, the entire surreal experience may have just been Carl’s guilt-induced nightmare, his attempt to make sense of his confused friend’s sudden suicide, performed right before his own eyes. Either way, the piece is very disturbing, and I appreciate that. I greatly appreciate that someone took an innocuous, sci-fi-themed, 8-bit video game, and turn it into the inspiration for a harrowing, thought-provoking experience. I know that this is nowhere near the first case of somebody basing a serious work of literature around a video game, but it has, as of yet, been the most deeply-affecting example for me. How do other people feel about the use of video games for inspiration? More than that, is it more appropriate to be inspired by video games when creating digital-born literature than when creating more traditional forms?

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