The latest app for the discerning reader is “Clean Reader”, a handy little bit of software that goes through your favourite literature and removes all that unpleasant blue language. The consequences of this app are nothing short of spectacular. You will finally be able to show the works of Chuck Palahniuk to your mum. Biology students will find their work much easier as now the only body parts that exist between people’s knees and their bellybuttons are the “bottom” and in extreme cases, the “groin”. The New Testament will now star the brilliantly named Geez Gosh, because what the Bible’s been lacking all this time is a character who sounds like he’s from the Beano.
And yes, some say that this is ruining great works of literature, taking words that were precisely chosen by an artist for a specific reason and letting a not very bright robot cram the vocabulary of Just William in their place (Does Just William survive the Clean Reader intact? I haven’t checked). (more…)
The time has come to draw our zombie season to a close but for apocalypse enthusiast and author Chris Farnell, crouching in his basement with a stash of guns, these narratives aren’t over yet…
You know, I said I was done. I said I was too old for this shit. My blog about apocalyptic fiction has sat gathering dust for a couple of months now while I worked on other things, and there hasn’t been anything vaguely zombie-related posted there since January. In February I wrote about the role of women in zombie movies, because that’s a rant I’d been waiting to have for a while. But that was it, I’ve talked a lot about zombie movies, stories, games and bible passages over the last few years, and I was ready to move onto other things.
But then they had to pull me back for one last job. (more…)
Collaborations between writers and fans are nothing new, but a new wave of projects are revisiting the concept with modern technology – and compelling results for both parties. Chris Farnell explains.
“Anyone who tells you they know what’s coming, what things will be like in 10 years’ time, is simply lying to you. None of the experts know – nobody knows, which is great. When the rules are gone you can make up your own rules. You can fail, you can fail more interestingly, you can try things, and you can succeed in ways nobody would have thought of, because you’re pushing through a door marked no entrance, you’re walking in through it.”
That quote was from a keynote speech Neil Gaiman gave at the Digital Minds conference and the London Book Fair. If you frequent this site, you don’t need me to tell you the truth in it. Perhaps one of the most crucial areas that writers have changed has been the ways that writers and readers interact.
While as recently as 15 years ago the writer was simply handing words down from the mountain top, now, through blogging and twitter, writers are in constant conversation with their readers and each other. The next twist in the tale may be writers actually collaborating with their audience. (more…)
A vibrant new app presents an in-depth guide to the most famous city in Discworld. Pratchett aficionado Chris Farnell tried it out, and caught up with its creators…
The Discworld is one of the few fictional works that can take on the behemoths of Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who in terms of sheer depth. But while the Doctor Who and Star Trek universes are the result of hundreds of creators working together and separately, and most fans now agree that the Star Wars universe is better the further it is from George Lucas’ “vision”, the Discworld has so far been almost entirely the brainchild of one man, Terry Pratchett. And unlike other fantasy authors who have sat down to create maps, languages and ancient histories for their worlds, Pratchett has done his world building properly – by making it all up as he goes along. This means the Discworld has changed and evolved in ways most fictional universes can only dream of, organically moving from a setting that was little more than a parodic reflection of the worst sword and sorcery tropes to a complex world undergoing its own industrial revolution while dealing with all the awkward implications of the fact that their barbaric trolls, gruff dwarves and creepy vampires are all basically people, with everything that entails. (more…)
Launched this month, Amazon’s Kindle Serials will release stories in episodes. Chris Farnell looks at serialisation, past and present, and wonders if a new medium will be enough to bring an old format back into fashion.
More than a century before we were all standing around water coolers voicing our disappointment about the ending of Lost, our ancestors were doing the same about the weekly twists and turns in the likes of Wilkie Collins’ The Moon Stone, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and almost everything Charles Dickens ever wrote. They didn’t have water coolers back then, so they mostly stood around warm buckets of water, but the point is the same. It’s a format Amazon is currently attempting to bring back with its Kindle Serials – and like most brilliant revival ideas, it never really went away.
Tales of the City, the series of books that made millions of young gays realise they wanted to live in San Francisco in the 70s, started life as a series of installments in the San Francisco Chronicle, and later the San Francisco Examiner. As recently as 2008, Alexander McCall Smith serialised his book Corduroy Mansions in The Telegraph. The truth is, one way or another we’ve never really got over our love of being told a story a little bit at a time.
And yet, much the like the renaissance in choose your own adventure books, the current return to serial novels seems to have its roots in the way the Internet has been changing the way we read. Robert Brockway has recently put out his own serial e-book independently of Kindle’s “serials” idea, and he sees the format as uniquely suited to the way we read:
“I put Rx out as a serial novel because I saw the impending rise of eBooks starting up, and serial novels seem like such a natural fit for the format. It’s actually weird to me that there’s not more serial fiction and short stories in prominent places on the market today. Everything on the internet is primarily bite-sized text so people can consume pieces quickly; why on earth is that confined to stuff like non-fiction, reporting, and comedy? Shouldn’t fiction be following the same trend?”
To Brockway, the novel naturally fits the serial format:
“All stories naturally break down into segments. Their parts are iconic – beginnings, middles, climaxes, denouements, epilogues – why not give them to people as they come available? Why not let them read the parts in smaller pieces, because even readers are busy these days, and there are shiny things to chase.”
However, serial fiction is as much about how it’s written as how it’s published. While some of these books were written in their entirety, redrafted, put under the red pen of an editor and then redrafted again in their entirety before chapter one was allowed anywhere near the public, Charles Dickens was writing his books week to week on a deadline. Alexander McCall Smith wrote his recent serial novel at a rate of 1,000 words a day. Even Robert Brockway, who wrote and edited his book in its entirety before the first part went out, was still doing editorial passes on it right until the final part became available. For most novelists, who get to the last chapter only to realise they need a gun to go off, so nip back to put one on the mantelpiece in Chapter One, this sounds like a kind of hell.
As a legion of distraught Firefly fans will tell you, learning the story as it is created has its risks as well. The readers of The Mystery of Edwin Drood felt much the same on the 9th of June in 1870, on learning that said mystery would remain forever unsolved because the author had inconsiderately died the previous day.
Even if the author manages not to die, that’s no guarantee you’ll see the story end. Readers of Stephen King’s foray into the format, The Plant, have been waiting since December 18th, 2000 to get the next chapter.
But there’s an upside to all this. One of the worst things about writing is that in the time it takes to produce a first draft – whether it’s six months, a year or five, you are completely on your own. With social media you have an audience, an audience who’ll cheer you on, or slag you off, or if you’re really good get incredibly pissed off when something happens to a character that the audience didn’t want to happen. That may be worth sacrificing some planning for.
So is this where we’re headed next? Are we going to be sitting in pubs comparing theories as to what’s going to happen in the next chapter of a megablockbuster serial best seller? Brockway again:
“I’m not sure what the future of serial novels looks like. I think Rx was a success, for what it was, but I don’t think readers in general are fully aware of serial novels yet, much less eager to embrace them. But the only way we’re going to change that is to keep trying them; keep shoving them down reader’s faces until they learn to like the taste.”
It’s 30 years since the first mainstream interactive fiction hit our shelves. Chris Farnell explains why the ‘choose your own adventure’ format is making a comeback in this special article, in which YOU are the hero
It is a warm, sunny day, and the air is filled with the sound of birdsong and the smell of flowers and animal droppings. A brave adventurer, you have journeyed far from the Kingdom, but after many miles you approach the edge of a forest and the path branches in two directions. To the North the path falls into shadow, the trees look more jagged and menacing, and the skulls of previous adventurers litter the ground. At the end of this dark road you can see a cackling mad man with unkempt eyebrows. He seems desperate to talk to you about choose your own adventure games. The road to the South also leads into the woods, but along a high road still kissed with sunlight and lined with pretty flowers all the colours of the rainbow. At the end of this road you can see a cute white fluffy bunny rabbit.
To go NORTH, turn to 3
To head SOUTH, turn to 2
You stroll along the upward path, whistling a jaunty tune and waving to the cute little bunny rabbit. Puzzlingly, you find that walking is becoming harder the further up the path you go. Glancing down, you see your feet have sunk into the path up to your shins. To your astonishment the road has magically transformed into hot magma, and your skin and muscles are being burned away from the bone as you start screaming in agony. Looking up the path ahead you see that the bunny has started grinning at you. It has human teeth.
Your adventure ends here.
Yes, we’re here to talk about choose your own adventure games. If you grew up in the 70s, 80s or 90s you’ve probably read one of these on a rainy afternoon. As well as Choose Your Own Adventure’s own brand of books which covered space adventures, spy stories and monster hunts, for a long time you could find gamebooks for any franchise you cared to mention.
I personally enjoyed the Super Mario Bros Adventure Books and a Transformers Dinobots Find Your Fate book where a fairground ride turned out to be a time warp that sent you to aid dinosaur Transformers in prehistoric times. I still think Michael Bay missed a trick there. It’s also a format that includes this, of which the less is said, the better.
One thing all these books had in common was your tendency to die. A lot. If you ever want a glimpse of the infinite myriad of ways a person can shuffle of this mortal coil, spend a while perusing You Chose Wrong, a selection of gruesome gamebook deaths.
You can tell the man with the unkempt eyebrows has much more to say on this subject, but behind him there’s a cool looking tree you’d like to climb.
To listen further to the eyebrow man’s fascinating insights into choose your own adventures, turn to 5
To climb the tree, turn to 4
You climb the tree, hopping with ease from branch to branch. As you get to the top of the tree a twig snaps under your weight, leaving you dangling from a great height by one hand. As you flail around, trying to find a new handhold, a friendly squirrel hops out onto the branch and scurries along to your fingers. From some magical, hidden compartment it pulls out a teeny tiny chainsaw, which it revs up and proceeds to use to chop off each of your fingers one by one. You plummet to your death. As your face collides with the ground below, you hear that the man with the eyebrows hasn’t stopped talking.
Your adventure ends here.
The biggest name in choose your own adventure books, however, isn’t Choose Your Own Adventure. If you’ve got nostalgic memories about these books then there’s a good chance it’s thanks to two people: Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, the brains behind the Fighting Fantasy series.
More than branching storylines, these books were closer to a game of Dungeons and Dragons for kids without any friends. In titles like Deathtrap Dungeon and The Forest of Doom you had to keep track of your inventory and statistics by writing them in pencil in the back of the book (always in pencil, so you could change it with a rubber later). Combat was resolved with a series of dice rolls.
The man with the terrible eyebrows is beginning to bore you. These Fighting Fantasy books seem to involve an awful lot of arithmetic, and pencils. You are a modern person and care only about Instagram and Nintendo Wii, you have no time for this.
Apparently you’ve been walking alongside the man deep into the woods while he has been talking. Conveniently the path is branching two ways now. It’s clear the boring eyebrow man intends to walk East. The path to the North has a sign next to it saying “Sex Pie This Way”. You do not know what sex pie is, but you do like pie, and sex.
To go NORTH, and discover what a Sex Pie is, turn to 6
To go EAST, and ask the man with the eyebrows why he should care about these old books in an age of Android phones and Justin Bieber, turn to 8
It turns out a sex pie is a bad thing. A really bad thing.
Your adventure ends here.
There isn’t actually a way to get to this page, so you must be cheating. The guilt causes your eyes to melt out of your skull.
Your adventure ends here.
This year marks 30 years since the first Fighting Fantasy book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, was released, and to celebrate the books are having something of a relaunch. A brand new contract has been signed with Australian company Tin Man Games, who’ll be rereleasing a selection of the old titles as apps for iPhone and Android. Pencils and dice will be replaced by functions built into the app, while other features such as a soundtrack will also be added to the game. (Tin Man has also been hard at work building its own range of gamebooks, including one called Vampire Boyfriend.)
Meanwhile, Ian Livingstone has brought out a brand new Fighting Fantasy book, Blood of the Zombies, which promises, alongside the zombies, a streamlined gameplay system and the inclusion of pop culture references and in-jokes.
To say “Big whoop! They’re bringing back yet another old thing nerdy 20-something’s love. What’s the point apart from milking nostalgia for the last few coins left in it? ” turn to 11.
To say “Wow, that’s really great news. Why do you think the gamebook format is enjoying such a big resurgence now?” turn to 9.
These books are worth revisiting because Fighting Fantasy books are pretty much entirely responsible for the world we live in now. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s CVs read like a list of the things you were doing in high school instead of dating. Before they even started Fighting Fantasy they’d already founded Games Workshop and begun distributing Dungeons & Dragons and TSR products.
After Fighting Fantasy they moved into videogames. Ian Livingstone ended up on the board of Eidos, the company that brought us Lara Croft. Steve Jackson went on to work with Peter Molyneux and found Lionhead Games.
The company’s most successful games to date have been the Black & White and Fable series. Both games hinge heavily on a game mechanic where your character’s moral decisions affect their appearance and the way other characters respond to them.
And the influence of these books is felt further than that. If you’re one of the many people who have lost weeks of their lives to playing Mass Effect or Skyrim, you know a huge part of the game is the navigating of dialogue trees in a way that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to someone who’s played a lot of Fighting Fantasy. Much of the architecture and mechanics that make us think of games as stories originated in Fighting Fantasy books and those like it.
I think the reason that choose your own adventures are seeing such a resurgence in popularity right now is that they mirror the way we read. For example, how many tabs do you have open right now? Five? Six? How many of those tabs are things you opened up from links in this article? How many are from Wikipedia? Or, God forbid, TV Tropes? I’m not saying we don’t enjoy straight forward prose anymore, but more and more often when we’re reading something what we do is less going from the beginning to the end of a piece of text, and is more a matter of exploring it, looking for the bits that interest us.
The choose your own adventure format maps onto this with absurd ease. The Internet is full of great examples of people who’ve tried it, from Cracked.com’s Choose Your Own Drug-Fuelled Misadventure series, to Sex: A Choose Your Own Adventure Game, from the Youtube nightmares of The Dark Room, to this game that asks you to help a drunk George Osborne survive the Leveson Inquiry. Between all those links you should be stuck clicking about for probably the rest of the afternoon.
We’re coming to the other side of the woods now and once again the path is branching to the North and the South. You’re nearly home free! Which way will you go?
To head SOUTH turn to 10
To head NORTH turn to 11
You are eaten by scorpions. Your adventure ends here.
You are eaten by slightly bigger scorpions. Your adventure ends here.