INANIMATE ALICE

An ongoing born-digital story told in narrated episodes, interactive journals, social media, and other platforms.

Alice, age 19, works at The Last Gas Station in episode 6.

Let me share a bit of my four-year Inanimate Alice journey, a ride full of mostly ups with a small and geographically diverse creative team....



In 2010, while plunging enthusiastically into the newly emerging transmedia scene, I discovered episodes 1-4 of Alice online, a short "born-digital novel" told in installments. They were co-created by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph based on what I later learned was an unproduced screenplay by Ian Harper and originally intended to be back story for Alice's movie adventure (along with a marketing push for an "e-missions" tech product.... but that's another story).

Though simple in story and bootstrapped in production on an indie budget, I saw glimmers of innovation and felt a pull to this mysterious girl named Alice who, while remaining unseen, narrated her adventures with an edge.

I contacted Ian and freely shared some thoughts, strategies, and professional contacts, looking for an opportunity to help grow and elevate the property or perhaps attract a publisher who would invest in it.

Though I saw Alice as an entertainment, Ian told me that education is a market that emerged unexpectedly for Alice... a passionate one, with wonderful fan fiction (episodes and art created by students) and a small but dedicated corps of teachers who love Alice and share her adventures with their students. Alice is also studied in some academic programs as an example of the emerging new media and digital storytelling fields.

Making fun stuff that works in the classroom and meets curricular needs is a core specialty I learned at Scholastic, my first and longest employer and publisher of most of my books. I've made a good living at that for many commercial clients, but at that time, I was moving out of the school market and into informal education and games, books, and other products for adults.

Besides, the quirky, indie Alice was budget-challenged and, with no revenue stream or business plan, the producer was swimming in sharky, digital disruption waters. Still, there was something attractive about Alice.

Here's where I pause to thank the enthusiastic, can-do school librarian Laura Fleming. Laura and I met for the first time at a transmedia workshop at Digital Book World (thanks, Alison Norrington! ) and we became fast friends, our values and stars aligned.

You couldn't talk to Laura and not love Alice, too. Impossible! I was hooked by the creative concept ("born-digital storytelling"), but Laura's passion and zeal reeled me in.

My first assignment for Alice, in early 2011, was to write activities based on episode 1 for Promethean Planet, a smartboard platform for classrooms. Fun and easy.

From there, I established "Alice on Everloop," a presence for the character and her virtual friend Brad on a startup social media site for tweens. Though the site has since folded, for more than a year, I adopted the voice of Alice and engaged directly with her young audience. I wrote four interactive digital journals, narratives, mini-games, and other content to share on her Loop (that's like a personal page or wall).

At Everloop, I learned a boatload about audience engagement, social media strategy, transmedia storytelling, and the 24/​7 cycle that is digital publishing. (And about tween idols. ;-)

In 2014, I conceived and crafted a proposal for Education Services Australia to create five Alice Travel Journals to teach Indonesian and Japanese languages and culture. The successful funding bid set me and Andy Campbell (art design and code) to work—very challenging work—much of that year and into spring 2015.

This project was my baby. I played editorial director, writer, and more:


  • gathered all the assets (hundreds of images, sounds, video clips)


  • crafted the narratives for Alice's Gap Year journeys, while remaining consistent with the greater story world


  • wrote and edited the copy (some of it in Indonesian and Japanese!)


  • worked with the client and domain experts (several wonderful and dedicated language teachers)


  • brought in volunteers and editorial assistants


  • designed and tested the 22 language games


  • processed audio clips in Japanese and Indonesian (!)


  • managed the project.



  • I am super proud of these unique, complex, multi-layered beasts, a blend of fiction (Alice's adventures abroad during her Gap Year) and nonfiction (cultural information about the target countries).

    On Episode 5: Hometown 2, I helped with the beta testing and launch (taking over Alice's social media strategy and presence) in November 2015, which I have since relinquished to the producer. Though created in Unity 2D (you'll need a web player plug-in), this episode, like the four prior to it, was created on a very low budget (the lead developer worked for free), and kept simple and short as a result. It has a linear narrative with a few built-in interactives, including a mini-game called Canal Chase, that flow with the story.

    What would Alice look like with more money behind it, a deeper and more complex story and characters, and a more robust tech platform?

    In April 2014, Alice won a grant from the Arts Council of England. Producer Ian named me as narrative designer for Episode 6: The Last Gas Station, along with Andy Campbell (lead developer), Kate Pullinger (lead writer), and Chris Joseph (music/​audio).

    I spent much of last summer analyzing and synthesizing the entire Alice story world (episodes, journals, crossmedia outreach, educational materials) and crafting a dynamic and flexible fifty-page design document, with an eye toward building a proper story bible for the brand. My aim was to help shape the property as a whole, with a mainstream audience in mind, and to figure out how the Episode 6 narrative would fit neatly with what came before and what might come ahead for Alice. (Episodes 7-10 were very roughly mapped out with lots of room for expansion and development.)

    The role of narrative designer is a sweet spot between story-game. It's about taking all the bits—the interactives and text and sound and images and game mechanics and aesthetics and so on—and shaping them as a whole to deliver a cohesive and immersive user experience that serves a theme, a universal truth, and hits emotional beats.

    The challenge with Alice, traditionally a linear narrative, has been to build up her storytelling strengths (add more emotional arcs and depth, create three-dimensional characters) while responding to the user's actions with a greater measure of agency (meaning, your choices have real consequences). The episode is in Unity 3D, which introduced a range of new interfaces and a free-roam environment with a first-person point of view.

    The new choice became do you "play as Alice" or (my idea) play as a "friend of Alice"—going along on her adventures, interacting with her, and occasionally making choices and taking actions that she might not like.

    Alice is a strong character who has dynamic relationships (with her parents and, in episode 6, with her boyfriend Hari), and I believe that keeping her personality and values strong (and consistent) would make for a more narratively immersive episode. The relationship between player and the mysterious Alice is at the core of the franchise, and that's what should change, not Alice herself, based on the choices that the player makes.

    Interactive storytelling and narrative design are what I know, what I can do, and where I best shine. That's the messy, complex sandbox that I most love playing in.

    My career dovetails with a very rare place and time when it was possible to explore and experiment with this brand new medium freely. I wrote my first digital narrative and video game scripts in the 1980s for Scholastic and then moved onto CD-Roms in the 1990s.

    My appetite for the form has only grown.

    I am a writer-game designer, melded.



Alice's Kalimantan travel journal appears in episode 6.

Stories & Games

Digital Products
An ongoing born-digital story told in narrated episodes, interactive journals, social media, and other platforms.
A narrative video game (Dig-It Games) in which students join archaeological adventures, solve puzzles, and discover an ancient culture.
Children's Books
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The true science adventures of Diane France, forensic anthropologist. NSTA Selector's Choice, AAAS/SB&F Subaru finalist, starred reviews!
Adriana Ocampo found her path to science adventure through space-traveling robots and crashing asteroids! (FREEBIE science quizzes.)
The Body as Evidence (Autopsies) and Crime Scene Investigation!
Outdoor fun for 6 to 8 year olds.
Tornadoes! and Hurricanes! are my two best-selling books with 1.6 million sold!
Games
A must-have card game set for English language (ESL/EFL) and language arts teachers and tutors. (FREEBIE ESL materials.)
My top selling game book!
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Race from Earth to Mars, an orbiting target, by fixing malfunctions and answering intriguing science questions. Endorsed by astronaut Jack Lousma.