Columbia Int Fic has found a solution to the isolation of social distancing—specifically, through an art form called interactive fiction. Ideal for an online format, interactive fiction allows readers to engage with stories by making decisions for the protagonist, similar to “choose your own adventure” books.
The new project was launched by thirteen students under the University’s Global Columbia Collaboratory program. The name “Columbia Int Fic” not only refers to the interactive fiction component of the project, but also the fact that its members hail from nine different countries, adding an international component to the stories they seek to tell. In particular, the group aims to inspire empathy for different cultures across the globe through its art.
“We converged on the idea of capturing our respective global communities' struggles during the pandemic to cultivate a sense of cross-cultural empathy,” member Rishi Chhapolia, CC ’22, said. “So through this series, we aim to portray the different kinds of life being lived around the world during the pandemic, in a time when we all feel more disconnected from each other than ever.”
According to Chhapolia, the creative process comprises three parts: writing the story, developing the software, and creating the various visual elements of the website. The students collaborate on work in small, specialized teams. This approach culminates in a form of interactive fiction that is unique in its use of visual elements to supplement each story .
The first series of stories, which was released with the launch of their website, is titled “What If” and focuses on different social experiences related to the pandemic in various locations across the world. There are “day in the life” features of an Asian American healthcare worker grappling with rising anti-Asian racism and an ICU surgeon who must navigate the new challenges of her job. There is also a story that follows the relationship between two young girls who are struggling to adjust to virtual learning at home.
The visual techniques used in the CIF narratives include digital illustrations, watercolor paintings, and even GIFs as photos, which all serve to create a unique aesthetic for each story. The interactive elements range from choosing the surgeon’s COVID-19 symptoms to selecting phrases for the girls' letters, with each decision leading to a different outcome.
“By leaving the choice of how the story evolves and is shaped to the reader, we thought that we could better achieve our goal of cultivating empathy. During a time when the production of theater and film is slowed by the pandemic, we thought of using the interactive fiction medium to come together and experiment with something new,” Chhapolia said.
Though initially launched as a closed, independent project, Columbia Int Fic plans to welcome outside writers to submit stories, and perhaps to establish themselves as an official group on campus. In the meantime though, the team hopes to share its stories with a global audience in an effort to inspire connection with one another during this troubling time.
“I think the goal for us is really just to spread stories that are going to help people understand different viewpoints and different experiences,” Lauren Alcindor, CC ’21, the leader of the team, said. “And do it in a way, in a medium, that reaches audiences that might not be reached in other ways.”