This month brings the first post of a monthly feature about electronic literature.  Our  guest blogger, Mark C. Marino, is a writer and scholar of digital literature, teaches writing at the University of Southern California.  He is also Director of Communications for the Electronic Literature Organization. More of his works can be found here.

For a while now, I’ve been wrestling with interactive narratives and systems designed for composing them, but when I saw Ian Millington’s Undum for the first time, I fell in love.  Within a few days of a friend showing it to me, I began working on two interactive narratives that helped me to see just how fun and flexible this system is.

Undum  is a free and open-source JavaScript platform for writing choice-based interactive fiction(Think of Choose your Own Adventure books.).  The system has a beautiful design that uses graceful JQuery animation to magically call forth each subsequent text passage as you click through.  Compared to early hypertext systems or even HTML pages that always bring you to a new page (and can cause a bit of readerly panic), this system is comforting because you can stay on the same page throughout (though it can be customized to do whatever you’d like).

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My first story using Undum was “Living Will,” which tells the tale of coltan magnate ER Millhouse through his interactive Last Will and Testament.  As the reader clicks through the document, she can make various choices, including selecting which heir she to embody and then stealing the inheritance from her fellow heirs.  All the while, legal and medical fees mount because Millhouse is, in the words of Monty Python, not dead yet. The reader can encounter more of the story with each click and read-through.

Using a slightly modified version of the basic Undum template, I was able to craft this story so that the reader can navigate this document in a few minutes and then read through again.  Customizing the built-in scoring system, I was able to make the Will keep a constant tally.  It has been suggested that the story continues into the code, but I have no comment on this matter.

I’m also using a more recent version of the system for a set of children’s stories I’m writing with my kids, entitled “Mrs. Wobbles & the Tangerine House.”  For this story, we’ve again modified the basic layout only slightly, but rather than offering the document as a replayable tale, we try to encourage children to catch all the text, like Pokemon of prose.  Also, we use the scoring-system to reward behavior. Reading poems, for example, will earn poetry power-ups, which can open up new paths for the story.

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In both stories, I’ve inserted some Google Analytics events, so I can study what choices readers make.  I’ve published some of my initial findings. 

The strength of Undum is that, unlike other systems, it’s really just javascript, so anything you can do on a webpage, you can do with this.  At the same time, its basic set-up out-of-the-box offers a wonderfully polished format for storytelling.  For similar systems, writers might want to examine Twine and Inkle, each of which have robust communities of writers and similarly low barriers to entry.