I can’t remember when I first heard about Echo Bazaar, otherwise known as Fallen London. It is a world you explore through text, specifically chunks of text called storylets. It has a familiar air about it – steampunk tropes, Lovecraftian flourishes, rich fin de siècle detail. But it draws you in as an esoteric shadow world that recalls the nightmare vision of London in Alan Moore’s From Hell or the decadence of The City of Dreadful Night, the 19th century poem by James Thomson. It feels like entering an underground network facilitated by the web.
When I arrived at Random House at the start of the year one of the first books I was asked to read was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. To describe it as a lead title for the autumn would be to undercook it massively. It’s going to be a literary event and there was a strong sense that something should be done with it digitally and a budget set aside. As is the way with publishing at the moment, exactly what had to be determined.
Its story – and I’m not going to go into lots of details here – revolves around a mysterious circus (the Cirque des Rêves) and the rivalry of two young magicians within it, set in the late nineteenth century onwards. Its denizens are known as rêveurs, the dreamers, and are demarcated by the red scarves they wear. This sense of a secret and a community bond recalled for me another Moore title, V for Vendetta, and the mask that the anarchist figure V wears, which as a symbol of anti-establishment resistance ripped through the fabric of reality as it was adopted at the recent student protests.
This clandestine, shared identity, whose members rallied around one another, brought me back to Echo Bazaar and how this platform might be used to create a community around The Night Circus. There were clearly shared aesthetics. Echo Bazaar even has a dark carnival.
Most importantly, Echo Bazaar is a game predicated on narrative, specifically text narrative that is manipulated, and in turn manipulates its users. Failbetter Games, the people behind Echo Bazaar, are in the business of storytelling. When I met Alexis Kennedy, the co-founder of Failbetter, I gave him a proof of the book and the hairs stood up on the back of his neck, literally. I figured this was a good fit.
I’m going to be honest here, this is part of a marketing campaign that uses Failbetter’s platform (albeit specifically tailored for this project) and plays to a captured audience of the 80,000 + registered users of Echo Bazaar. But this is an honest undertaking in that we genuinely feel that the users of Echo Bazaar will get a kick out of the Night Circus proposition – the Venn diagram looks good.
But it’s more interesting than that. I’m responsible for commissioning digital works and it’s the creation of the text that will fuel this game, working in and around the book, which is most compelling. The storylets are the kindling for the narrative. Already Failbetter have shown a grasp and appreciation of the text which I have rarely seen in other creative agencies I have come across. They are shading and adding colour (literally, because the world of the Night Circus is black and white) and already developing storylines that incorporate and depart from points in the text. But be in no doubt that Erin is the author and everything will be overseen by her and her editor at Harvill, Rebecca Carter. Erin will also be involved with ‘generating content’ – she’s already supplied notes and supporting text around the novel which are proving an important framework.
So what’s starting to occur is collaboration on her text, an opening out of the storyworld, which I think is a great thing when there is debate raging about access to texts and the restrictions of copyright. This will blossom to its fullest when the third party enters the process – the users, the gamers, the readers, when the site goes live on 1st September.
The way that this is constructed, by chunks of text, these storylets, I think explores the possibilities of ‘granular’ text narratives in a thorough way. It is fluid, it is non-linear and multi-stranded. The fact that the book is published on 15th September, two weeks after launch, means that the book will add resonance and new understanding to that narrative when the allusions and story strands can be traced back to a referent in the original text, which for those initial two weeks is unknown.
There has been much talk of the ‘gamification’ of books, and it has been pointed out that this is largely a meaningless term if it’s taken to imply that novels are somehow converted into platform shoot-em-ups (though why not try?!). Instead the most useful interpretation of this is that we can employ gaming strategies to create an audience – reward-based, pyramidal recruitment (cool rewards and story will be unlocked if you invite someone to become a rêveur and if they in turn invite someone etc.) which is consonant with the game-like narrative paths that the site will lay out.
Now all we have to do is create this world. But be in no doubt, the circus is coming.