On the Landing: A Hypertext Narrative about Insomnia, Anxiety and Self-Care

Warning: There is a flashing image in this game that might be a hazard to those who are prone to epileptic seizures. In future versions of the game this image will only be a short intro.

Prototype

On the Landing on itch.io

On the Landing started out as a short story I wrote for a creative writing class. It was chiefly concerned with how an individual dealing with anxiety finds their anxiety magnified when faced with indecision. As it is a short story that is set at night, I recently began exploring indecision and anxiety as it is related to insomnia. The piece is somewhat personal (hence the female protagonist), as I am one of many students who struggle with anxiety, but I thought it would be worthwhile to attempt to create a metaphorical representation of what individuals that suffer from insomnia go through. Unsurprisingly, a 2015 psychological study on the “inter-relationships between insomnia, perfectionism, anxiety and depression” (Akram, Ellis, and Barclay 3) revealed that not only did these toxic relationships diminish when “emotional distress in the form of anxiety and/or depression was accounted for” but that insomnia symptoms exacerbate the perfectionist tendencies (3). It is this inter-relationship between perfectionism (which is often at the root of indecisive moments), anxiety and insomnia that I wanted to illustrate with my short story. So my goal for the digital adaptation of this story was transition to a hypertext narrative centred on ways of viewing insomnia and anxiety that made it less guilt-ridden for those who are learning to cope with it and to increase the possibility for empathy in players that do not experience insomnia as often. As Eluned Summers-Bremner elucidates in her cultural study of insomnia, “there is a history of regarding insomniacs as guilty or morally suspect” (10). She also notes that as the individualism became more significant in society, people became more aware of their personal relationship with time and how they were using it (10). I wanted to ensure that my game emphasized the guilt that can sometimes wrack someone dealing with insomnia and how it affects their daily life, especially with regard to their social responsibilities. The National Film Board of Canada’s interactive documentary about insomnia and how it disrupts the lives of four different individuals also served as inspiration regarding this point of how individuals try to reconcile their social and work lives with the insomnia they experience. The documentary has the viewer schedule an appointment for a late hour, so that they are forced to embody some of the experience of being sleep-deprived. While my Twine game does not create the same embodied experience of being forced to utilize real-time hours during the night to illustrate an individual’s suffering of insomnia, I aim through hypertext passages, images and sound effects to create an oppressive atmosphere that characterizes insomnia and anxiety. Anna Anthropy’s by now infamous Dys4ia, a game which uses various recognized game genres such as puzzle games to give the player a glimpse of what gender dysphoria is like was another inspiration for using a digital story to relate a specific psychological and physical to its player/readers. The process of clicking through a hypertext narrative, whether linear or non-linear, gives the player/reader a sense of agency. I want On the Landing to eventually become a game that inspires habits of self-care in individuals.

I chose to create this project with Twine because I believe the program is a simple yet effective tool for telling a story that deals with the subject of insomnia and self-care.

Although it is a very early prototype for the game, I hope that the two test endings that are available in the game capture an open-minded view of insomnia. Ultimately, I would like to develop this into a larger Twine game about various self-care methods and mindsets. I believe Twine is a good platform for portraying the interrelations of anxiety and insomnia since, regarding its available story formats, it can offer a suspenseful reading of a text. I selected the “Jonah” story format particularly for its suspenseful quality. Interactive fiction writer Michael Lutz created a wonderful example of a suspenseful Jonah format game with his work entitled “My Father’s Long, Long Legs.” The combination of minimalist white text on a black background with the steady progression of the story’s passages downward on the screen creates a sense of urgency in the player. It also drives home a sense of hopelessness and inevitability when the player plays the story through a second or third time to try different options, as they become aware that the main thrust of the story, that of a literal and figurative descent into madness, is merely told from slightly different perspectives, with the same ending attached. Unlike the horror of Lutz’s game however, I aim for On the Landing to be suspenseful yet hopeful. Whether you continue to struggle with insomnia on one night, or are able to find a coping strategy to mediate the anxiety that can exacerbate insomnia, I want the player/reader to get a sense that like many disorders, living with insomnia is an ongoing negotiation and a process.

Now I would like to conclude with some future design goals concerning the shortcomings of this prototype that I want to iron out in future iterations. First off, the image of the stairwell I had intended to be a sort of short, atmospheric introduction to the narrative. It was to be timed at around 20-30 seconds of the image flashing on the screen before disappearing to reveal the first passage of the narrative. As I am still learning the ins and outs of Twine, I decided to have the image remain throughout the text as a sort of placeholder for when I continue perfecting the design of the game. While I am still on the subject of the image, I would like to briefly warn anyone who might have epilepsy that the flashing image might be a hazard. This is another reason for why I wanted the image to be an intro, rather than an image that stuck with the player/reader throughout the text. I would also like to have ambient noises attached to certain passages of the hypertext in the future to heighten the experience of suspense in the narrative. Finally, I am interested in the possibility of conducting anonymous interviews (most likely through e-mail or perhaps via the SIPI website) with individuals who would like part of their personal experience of insomnia and anxiety to become a branching arc of the narrative in future iterations. I want this depiction of insomnia and anxiety to be as inclusive as possible. As you might notice during your playthrough of “On the Landing,” I have not locked off any of the previous passages in the text. There is also one passage entitled hollow, which represents one of the branching narratives I was planning for a third ending of sorts. Eventually I want there to be enough branching arcs to this narrative to showcase the seemingly endless looping of thoughts that insomniacs deal with. Coupling this cyclical and fragmented narrative experience would be endings that offer a kernel of an individual’s personal truth about self-care regarding insomnia and anxiety.

Works Cited

Akram, Umair, Jason G. Ellis and Nicola L. Barclay. “Anxiety Mediates the Relationship             between Perfectionism and Insomnia Symptoms: A Longitudinal Study.” PLoS ONE        10.10 (2015) PsycINFO. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

Anthropy, Anna. “Dys4ia.Newgrounds. Newgrounds, Inc. 9 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Lutz, Michael. “My Father’s Long Long Legs.” Correlated Contents. WordPress. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

National Film Board. “A Journal of Insomnia.” ONF NFB. 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Summers-Bremner, Eluned. Insomnia: A Cultural History. London: Reaktion Books, 2008. Print.

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