Ebook reviews: Blackbar and Dictionary Stories

Censorship and the dictionary are the inspirations for interactive text-based games

 

Literary censorship is back in the news in Ireland this month, as the State’s Censorship of Publications Board announced that it had banned a book on the grounds of obscenity for the first time in 18 years. The controversy has not surrounded the book in question (The Raped Little Runaway), however, but the fact that the State still sees a role for itself in policing literature for private consumption. Last year an American app called Clean Reader attempted to give digital readers the opportunity to censor books on an individual basis, removing profanities from digital editions of classic literature according to varying degrees of offence. The app was eventually withdrawn after writers protested about their creative integrity being compromised, although the makers plan to release an updated edition in the future.

Elsewhere in the digital sphere, however, censorship has become the fuel for an imaginative interactive text-based game. In Blackbar (iOs, €2.99), writer and designers Neven Mrgan (sic) and James Moore invite the reader to fill in the black bars that obscure the narrative in a series of letters between a young civil servant, Kenty, and her friend, Vi. The digital wordgame begins on the very first page with a letter to Vi. Kenty has just started a new job, and she wants to let Vi know about her exciting new venture as well as find out how her ailing mother is coping in her absence. Kenty warns Vi, however, that all their correspondence will have to go through the Department of Communication, which is monitoring all messages for potentially subversive material. The epistolary format creates an immediate sense of suspense, as the reader is by necessity excluded from the shared context of the women’s relationship and has to work just to insert herself into the story. References to uniforms, salutations and, of course, censorship create a sinister Orwellian atmosphere; 1984 comes to mind in more than one way in the opening sections of the text.

Although Blackbar is being officially marketed as a game, the text-based purity is attractive from a literary perspective. The text is presented crisply as basic black font on white, the typewriterly style mirroring the format of communication between Kenty and Vi. Furthermore, there is no soundtrack or multimedia element, so the emphasis of Blackbar is on the words, their power and potential deceit.

The interactive element gives the reader an active part in telling the story. The task is to fill in the black bars that litter the pages: until you get the right word, you are unable to proceed with the story. The clue to interpretation is in the context and things develop quite quickly. After a short time, you get a handle on how the size of the black bars represents different word lengths and this helps with the decoding.

As you get into the flow of interpreting the redacted text, however, the mystery shifts. Why is this correspondence being monitored at all? Why are such anodyne words being erased from the letters? Why is it necessary to be “blANd and SuNny AND MilQUEToast”, as an anonymous correspondent warns Vi? The word-puzzle element becomes more challenging as the mystery develops, too, and crossword enthusiasts in particular will enjoy piecing together the more allusive redacted references. It is difficult to elaborate upon the plot without giving it away but suffice to say that things are not what they seem in this uncanny, word-policed universe.

Dictionary definitions

If Blackbar has you turning to your dictionary to unlock its secrets, Dictionary Stories (Free), a digital project by designer and illustrator Jez Burrows, uses the dictionary as source material for a collection of diverse, very short stories all shaped by a similar constraint: the stories must be composed entirely of the “example sentences . . . that lexicographers use to demonstrate the most probable usage” of a defined word. In Dictionary Stories, Burrows began by using the New Oxford American Dictionary as source material, adding nothing but punctuation to piece the sentences together, with the words that spawned each sentence underlined for the user. The effect is surprisingly fluid, as showcased in some of the best stories, such as Portrait of the Artist or Eulogy.

Considering the formal nature of dictionaries, the evolution of Dictionary Stories to include the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms allows for a more varied tone to develop within the expanding collection. As in Ruthie, which opens with the conversational proclamation that the writer has “a sick cousin over Fayetteville way. Her sight’s none too good. I rang her this morning; she said she missed me something fierce.” Or New Message, which takes the form of a message on an answering machine: “Please leave a message after the beep. Listen to me, I haven’t got much time; my flight leaves in less than an hour. You are in a very dangerous situation. Do as I say or else I won’t help you.”

The stories unfold in flash fiction style, easily building suggestive plots that provide just enough information to piece together a potential version of unfolding events, while short sentences manage to give a clear impression of character despite their brevity.

Dictionary Stories spans genres. There are noir mysteries, impressionistic literary scenes, and experimental texts, such as Instructions for Assembly, which infuses a DIY project with dread as details of an accident and a long-standing grudge are revealed over a 10-line set of instructions for assembling and hanging a picture frame. Hamlet? is another effective experimental contribution, which satirises the project’s own postmodern beginnings by patching together a student’s version of Hamlet snatched from dubious internet sources.

New stories are being added to Dictionary Stories all the time, and the open forum of the internet means that Burrows won’t have to worry about censorship, even if the project expands to include dictionaries of a more dubious nature.

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