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

Sentinel-cover

“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?

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

  1. asanixay
    March 31, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Nightingale’s Playground sounds like a interesting game. I like how it gives a “Twilight Zone”-like feel to it, leaving the player/reader confused about what is actually happening in the story. Alex and Carl’s question on of reality reminds me a little bit of Inception, where the main character’s wife believes that the real world is just a dream, and commits suicide, believing that she will wake up. Alex’s suicide is a little bit like that, but there is no way of telling if he was delusional or not. A while ago, I posted a blog about a downloadable video game called Ib. Like Nightingale’s Playground, it is a rather suspenseful video game, in which the the in-game characters have their own perception of the world around them. Alex believes that the Earth is taken over by The Sentinel, but is never revealed if he was right. In Ib, when two of the main characters (Ib and Gary) enter a world within an art museum, they have different points of view. Ib is a nine-year-old girl, and does not see anything wrong with the mysterious world. Gary is a grown man that knows that the world is not normal, which makes him cautious about it while Ib is rather curious. Ib has multiple endings, which leads to various speculations, just like Alex’s fate in Nightingale’s Playground. I think the two games are able to get the attention of the player by making them curious about what is the truth in the story’s game. They have an aura of mystery to them, and players would want to know more. It also tests how the player speculates what’s actually going on in the games, giving them the chance to decide for themselves what happens after the game is over.

  2. Steve Rechter
    March 31, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    This is an interesting find. I like the comparison’s to Inkubus and the Twilight Zone music. You pose some interesting questions at the end of the piece too, though I’m not entirely sure what you mean by using video games “for inspiration”, because I don’t think you mean exactly what it sounds like. The real question there seems to be a pretty simple one, but one always worthy of discussion: are video games art?
    The second question is quite interesting, however. Does working with electronic art naturally promote the inclusion of video-game aspects? I think for those of us with a strong background in video games, especially as modes for more than simple fun, will inevitably produce work that is more “gamey.”

  3. Steve
    March 31, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    This is an interesting find. I like the comparison’s to Inkubus and the Twilight Zone music. You pose some interesting questions at the end of the piece too, though I’m not entirely sure what you mean by using video games “for inspiration”, because I don’t think you mean exactly what it sounds like. The real question there seems to be a pretty simple one, but one always worthy of discussion: are video games art?
    The second question is quite interesting, however. Does working with electronic art naturally promote the inclusion of video-game aspects? I think for those of us with a strong background in video games, especially as modes for more than simple fun, will inevitably produce work that is more “gamey.”

  4. mstange
    April 6, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    To respond to your question about whether it is more appropriate to use video games as inspiration for digital literature as opposed to traditional literature, I would have to say yes, but mainly because the sort of audience one is catering to in the filed of E-Lit is likely to have more experience and knowledge with video games than those who are used to only short stories and novels and the like. That being said I do think that this story would transfer well to traditional mediums of literature, as it isn’t very “techy” in the way the story is explained. The thing I actually find most interesting about this story is that the game they reference is real and that you can go and find out about it, where as at first I would have just assumed that the game was made up for the story. It sort of makes the game more meaningful when played after reading this.

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