Tell Me a Story…
My new novel, Fluid is a “digital novel.” That is, it’s impossible for the book to exist in a classic print version. There isn’t really a “core” document or a best pathway, which causes the reading experience to truly be dependent on reader-driven choices. My forward-thinking publisher, Coliloquy, is interested in discovering new ways for readers to interact with longform text – from books with single choice points to fully interactive novels to serialized novellas whose sequels are based around user analytics. There are a multitude of ways to bring expansive storytelling into the modern age but the same question inevitably arises, regardless of the specific medium: What is the best ratio of choice to story? I, for one, like to have conversations, but I also like to be told stories. I like to play video games, but I also like to watch films. There are pros and cons to each type of media engagement, but the consistent thread through all successful storytelling is that the platform suits the story. Coliloquy is devoted to developing books that need their unique platform to reach total fruition, but many of the production entities scrambling to join the herd are clearly putting presentation over ingredients. Since we can now see that the endgame here is nothing short of total connectivity and complete untethered access to everything in the world, I figure it’s a good time to see how the novel has fared (and will fare) against another increasingly popular method of longform storytelling – the Alternate Reality Gaming and transmedia world.
Let’s talk about books first. The rise of sophisticated portable electronics has made it inevitable that we would see a merging of text, internet, film and music. They’re all, y’know, there… on the same device, so… why not? Now, this makes perfect sense for some genres: videos in a cooking, workout, or travel book? Duh. Music in a musician’s biography or music history book? Sure. Interactive maps in a PoliSci textbook? Yup. Novels though, are different. Do readers want to see a video of the verdant field where the characters first met? No. They don’t. (pay attention Simon & Schuster) Anthony E. Zuiker (of CSI fame) demonstrated a failed integration of video and text back in 2009 with his book “Level 26,” which he labeled the first ever “digi-novel.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the reading experience is as terrible as the term “digi-novel.” At the end of most chapters, Zuiker includes a link to a three or four minute video clip that is (usually) glancingly referenced in the preceding text. (Like, “Wanna see that home video the characters were talking about? Then go to level26.com, log-in, give us all your personal information and you can WATCH it!”) Question: Who wants to put down a poorly written book to go watch a dopey three-minute video that is only tangentially relevant to the plot? Answer: A few people who don’t know any better, I guess, as the third book in the trilogy just came out. This is what I call “an unsuccessful use of narrative and platform.” There is no need to watch the videos, they don’t add to the experience, and leaving the book to watch them is annoying. Now, a better version of an “expanded content novel” actually came out three years prior to Level 26, from a guy named Sean Stewart (who understands everything – watch this video). It was called “Cathy’s Book” and, unlike Level 26, every technological addition made sense. The book purports to be an actual document left behind by the titular character as a clue for her friends. The “if found, please call” phone number on the front page of the book? You can dial it and you’ll reach Cathy’s voicemail. The e-mail addresses in the book? You can use them and get responses from the characters. And so on. It was certainly a book and it was certainly interactive, but not in a dumb way, and the iPhone/iPod adaptation only made it better. You could doodle on the book, press the hyperlinked numbers and call from your phone, etc. Genius, right? Back in 2006. And then three years go by and we get a dumb novel with shitty videos attached to shitty chapters. To be fair, a more successful version of this concept was put out that same year (2009) by a guy named Steve Tomasula in a book called “TOC” which he named a “new media novel” (naming is obviously part of the problem here). This thing is described as:
“a new media hybrid, [and] re-imagines what the book is, and can be. Produced as a DVD for playback on personal computers (both Macs and PCs), TOC retains the intimate, one-on-one experience that a reader can have with a book even as it draws on the power of other art forms to immerse readers in an altogether new multimedia story.”
So Tomasula is fighting the good fight – working to maintain the artistic cohesion of the novel and the singular reader experience while using new technology to expand it. We’re talking music, art, text, videos, all woven into the fabric of the story itself. Since then, we’ve seen a number of attempts at longform narrative experimentation in the guise of novels (texts, websites, virtual character interaction, e-mails, videos, etc.), but nothing that exciting and little that worked (until Coliloquy, obviously – right?).
Meanwhile, there was a sort-of parallel development track along the Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) front. Many of the elements of an ARG – puzzles, a sense of game play, interaction with outside elements in the primary narrative – can be seen as far back as Cathy’s Book, but the concept got big… fast. Utilizing the power of the internet, previously niche storytelling began to involve thousands of people. Now, as with books, the initial salvo of ideas didn’t quite work. In 2001, an ARG called “Majestic” was launched to great hype and little reward. The game utilized phone calls, emails, faxes, AIM chats and participating websites, but was not nearly as open-source as the players wanted/needed it to be. That is, the creators of the game didn’t want anyone to blow through all of the designed content in a single day, so they restricted the experience. Players literally had to wait for the game to catch up with them and, not surprisingly, quickly lost interest. As a result, the game was cancelled much sooner than expected. This control/interactivity problem was magnificently addressed a few years later in an INSANE experience called Perplex City (get it?). It ran from 2004-2007, a THREE YEAR storytelling experience, and here’s how it worked (in the words of Naomi Alderman, who headed the story department for the project):
“The players solved clues, which directed them to blogs, emails, phone calls, and SMS messages, originating from Perplex City. Some of the cool stuff we did included:
- asking the players to write a book together, to enable one of our characters to become a ‘published author’ and gain access to an archive. They did it in under three weeks.
- creating improvised live fiction, responding in real time online to what the players did and said.
- flying a banner plane across Manchester with a keyword that gave access to a new area of the game.
- creating an in-game event in which players searched for clues only for one of their own to be revealed as a mole and escape in a black helicopter.
I planned the arc of the story, created main characters, invented and wrote websites for in-game organisations including this fictional city’s university, their record label, police department, bank and even a religious cult. I helped plan live events and live-online events, created puzzles, wrote video scripts and comics and devised puzzles. And, one hot summer afternoon, I was part of the group of three people who buried a steel cube in the woods so players could dig it up to claim the £100,000 prize.”
Radical, right? Heart-pounding, community-building, fully-immersive storytelling on a massive scale. This, to me, is an example of smart people binding together to use the medium – and they did it by shitting on the golden rules of storytelling. From the beginning, they intended their story to be hijacked and they watched gleefully as it happened. They created their characters to live online, knowing they would lose control of their content. They filled their opening story lines with plot points they knew wouldn’t go anywhere which, just ask Chekov, is a HUGE no-no. It was a transition from “game” to “story” and these initial “transmedia storytellers” (mostly composed of novelists) were abandoning all the rules in order to create long-running narrative experiments that felt new. This multi-platform storytelling involved large groups of people and they were interested in world building as much as traditional narrative. Andrea Phillips said this:
“Part of the juggling act that is telling a transmedia story involves creating depth and richness. You need to signal that there are more and deeper stories going on in your world than the single narrative at hand — your world has to seem bigger than your characters. That means introducing elements that provide color and flavor to your transmedia world, even if they won’t be immediately relevant to the story you’re telling.”
And more massive campaigns erupted, some nearly blurring the lines between art and advertising, between story and game. (Read this. And this.) Today, transmedia/ARG storytelling has taken firm root, with thousands of new attempts springing up daily, from Jay Bushman (Purveyor of Platform-Agnostic Fictions and member of Fourth Wall Studios under Sean Stewart) and his new media adaptations of classic fiction to Yomi Ayeni (British DJ/TV Producer) and his just-starting-you-better-get-on-board-now “Clockwork Watch” which is to be played out across two graphic novels, interactive promenade theatre, role-playing, online adventures, an interactive book and a feature film. This type of storytelling, though starting from a similar mission and a similar set of rules, has almost wholly diverged from novels and has embraced its own logic, structures and motifs. Of course, transmedia isn’t immune to the problems of the modern novelist. As Alison Norrington says:
“A good transmedia project should not be focused primarily on ‘transmedia’ – ‘transmedia’ is an approach toward a story/project and perhaps to begin with an idea for ‘a transmedia project’ suggests that it’s platform-centric, which is a flimsy way to kick-off…The focus should begin and end with the development and scope for a fabulous, engaging, and robust story.”
And that brings us back to our central question – the attempt to find that ineffable line between what gets created (ie, what do the storytellers “tell”) and what gets left to the crowds (ie, what parts are “choices”). This is the line we will continually push up against in the coming years – mark my words. You’ll see gimmicked stories falling out of every technological crevice: iPhone games that interweave film and music, choose-your-own adventure videos, mash-up programs, iPad virtual reality games, spy missions that take over your phone… you name it, it’s in development. But the core question consumers need to ask themselves doesn’t change: do the choices and options add to the narrative experience, or detract from it? I don’t want to be forced to color in a picture before unlocking the next chapter of an engrossing novel. I don’t want neat-o graphics to be a substitute for adequate character development. I don’t want to be forced to dig through a hundred inane tweets in order to find the one relevant to the story I’m following. Every day, new tools arise that can be used by artists of all stripes – novelists, transmedia producers, painters, filmmakers – and many of them may provide a whole new spectrum of storytelling possibilities. But the tools aren’t the thing, you see. It’s the product. Fancy hammers are great, but ultimately, we want our houses to withstand the rain. Fluid is a novel exploring the nature of love and free will and I truly believe I was able to add to the reader experience by providing actual, meaningful choices. It’s a small, niche step forward. But that’s what all the cool projects will be for the next few years – interesting stories, told in interesting new ways. Right now, it’s a wide-open field and where it goes is, ultimately, a market-driven decision. So choose wisely, because the future really is up to us. Let’s make it good.