Black Crown

Jim Pope

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Production credits: Random House Group, Aimer Media
Launch date: 29th May 2013

Random House explore the world of interactive narrative

Random House hope this project will launch a new era of interactive storytelling, one which will attract new readers as well as pick up on existing fans of interactive fiction. Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Random House told us that, with Black Crown, he’s sent off ‘a Viking ship to explore new lands.’ How apt, as the experience of ‘playing’ Black Crown is an exploration of a land you’ve certainly never been to before.

Created by debut author Rob Sherman, Black Crown is a highly literary, densely written, text-based game/narrative. As Franklin says, this is ‘a reading experience with game mechanics behind it,’ and the word is certainly central here – you can feel ‘literature’ running all the way through the nightmarish realm that Rob Sherman invites you to enter.

You play this narrative as a clerk for the shadowy Widsith Institute, “whose work is managed through the application of bespoke diseases, to facilitate the task of categorising and analysing the Institute’s archive of diaries and journals, belonging to the world’s greatest explorers, those who travel beyond the edge of the world”. Once you have answered some simple questions, for example about the state of your gametes, you are plunged into a surreal dimension of seeming dreams and imaginings, strange landscapes and creatures (you are playing a clerk at your desk, but think I became a pig at one point….). It might all be an hallucination…

On screen you see panels of text and images which progress the narrative as you answer questions by choosing ‘actions’. These actions are running out though, and when you’ve used up 20/20, you must wait for your actions to ‘refresh’, unless you want to buy some more, with ‘Nex’, the currency of this world. Some actions are locked, and players will be offered options of actions which can “unlock story strands, expedite the narrative and acquire items and status within the world.” To acquire these you need to pay: these micropayments are the way Random  House hope to monetize such narratives. It remains to be seen how much cash this model will generate, but as everyone is used to paying small amounts for apps, it might well work, especially if the story is grabbing enough for users to really want more of it. Dan Franklin reports that four and a half thousand players have signed up since the game was launched, and some have already finished phase one of the game (phase two will be released soon), so it looks promising.

I applaud Random House for the way the author is being positioned at the hub of this venture. Rob Sherman’s prose is imaginative, articulate, highly detailed, and crazily original. Here’s an example from the place called ‘The Beach’: ‘The corpses of something primeval curl over the last of the boulders through which the river squeezes. It spills out onto a thick pebble beach, and massages its way down to the saltwater in flirtatious little courses. You can see the rest of the hill from here. Its length ends abruptly at the sea with a crooked pile of boulders which have tumbled into the pebbles and made a headland, of sorts.’

By putting their resources behind a strong author, Random House may well be the first big publisher to connect lovers of fiction with lovers of games. For interactive literary narrative to really take off, these audiences both have to come on board. Rob Sherman is a great writer, and the potential to cross over the media with Black Crown is already obvious. This is a fascinating new entry into the arena of new-media writing.

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