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Storyplay: how publishers are making stories playful

To launch our new ‘Games and Stories’ season here on The Literary Platform, Trevor Klein, Somethin’ Elses Head of Development, outlines some of the ways publishers are working with agencies to make stories more playful.

Making really good video games is difficult, and can feel very ‘out of your comfort zone’ if you’ve never done it before. And yet, traditional book publishers are launching growing numbers of games for desktopmobile and consoles. It’s great because, well, why shouldn’t they? And also because publishers’ perspectives and skills lead to a very interesting take on game development, especially when collaborating with an existing games studio.

At Somethin’ Else we work with publishers, as well as broadcasters, brands, record labels and cultural institutions, making all kinds of content, including lots of games. For publishers in particular, many of our conversations start with a printed book (“What can we do with X?”), and there is always a tendency when games are mooted to think of them as a ‘story game’. This makes sense – it plays to the strength of publishers (telling great stories) and should, if done properly, thematically link the game with the book in a way that feels right to audiences.

‘Story game’, though, is a very, very broad church.

For a start, what do we mean by story? There’s the story-as-broadcast model: bits of objective narrative given to the player by the game. Things like cutscenes between levels (as in the early Command & Conquer titles, or Angry Birds), conversation trees (common in action-adventure titles and role-playing games) and ‘found objects’ like notes or diaries that advance the story (done particularly well most recently in The Room for iOS). This is what most would assume is meant by a game’s ‘story’ and is also the bit on wikipedia that would be covered under the subheading ‘Plot’.

There’s also the personal story that every game has, as experienced by the player by interacting with the system. This is the subjective, emergent story of what happened to them. I don’t care that the pigs have stolen the eggs YET AGAIN when I’m playing through level 79 of Angry Birds. I care that FINALLY on my SEVENTH try I’ve managed to explode the blue bird at just the right point to smash through the ice walls and get three stars. Did you see me do it? I was brilliant.

If it’s not handled well, the ‘story as broadcast’ can interrupt the personal story that a gamer is experiencing (“What? I have to watch another unskippable three minute cutscene?”). It can even contradict it completely (“Why are you telling me I’m a good person? I’m playing this shoot-em-up as a psychopath!”) There has been a lot of experimentation into how to balance both, for instance the high-tech cinematic approach in detective mystery L.A. Noire, the elegant use of narration in Bastion, and our own 3D audio games Papa Sangre and The Nightjar (returning to the App Store very soon!).

Now, what do we mean by game?

Game theorists and academics usually define games as taking place in a system governed by rules, within which players make decisions to achieve goals. They’re interactive and there’s some kind of challenge.

This isn’t always massively helpful though, especially as the edges very quickly blur. For instance, the early Sim City games were more like a sandbox than a game, unless you gave yourself specific goals. They’re no less fun for it, and it’s clear that you can create playful and interactive experiences that are more games with a small g, than capital-G Games. There’s no reason why publishers shouldn’t or couldn’t create capital-G Games as well, by the way!

We’ve just launched a project with Canongate to support their Wildwood series of children’s books for ages 9-12. It needed to work as marketing, as well as have value for those who’ve already bought the book.

It’s half an interactive story map, with the main characters plotted to locations over time (“where was Prue in Chapter 7?”). Readers swipe a Chapter Ribbon and see the diverging paths the main characters take as they travel throughout the book. This isn’t really a game, but it does convey story. It’s a tool, or even a toy; an aide to deeper understanding of the book to those who’ve read it and a compelling tease for those who haven’t.

The other half is a Pac-Man-esque ‘search and rescue’ game, and it’s definitely on the casually playful end of the spectrum. Together, both halves form a fun experience that, we believe, appeals to our target audience and meets Canongate’s objectives.

Indeed, we think some of the most interesting digital publishing work has come out of collaborations at this intersection of story and small-g-game. Things like Wildwood, Frankenstein, the Discworld Ankh-Morpok Map, Wonderbook: Book of Spells – they’re not traditional Games, but they are storyplay.

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