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Making Interactive Fiction Mainstream: Readers

In the first of two posts about interactive fiction, Jon Ingold explores how the form might go mainstream for readers.

inkle was founded in 2011 on the idea – controversial in some circles – that adding reader involvement to written stories could increase the engagement of someone using a digital device. Myself and inkle’s co-founder, Joseph Humfrey, had spent time working in the high budget video game industry, and we both shared the same belief that computers – from desktops to tablets – feel good to use when they’re responsive, reacting to what we do in understandable ways; and that they’re at their worst when they’re static.

We wanted to make a pattern of digital reading that would keep drawing the reader back in – but making a reading experience responsive isn’t just a matter of putting a “tap here to turn the page” button. Adding interactivity to stories has got to add depth to the experience, and we wanted to evoke the sensation (that video games achieve) of a story emerging “in real-time”.

An interactive story should feel as though the author is inside the device, writing the tale in response to your ideas – or better yet, that the reader themselves has been transported onto a stage, and are improvising a role in an unfolding drama.

Making it Mainstream

Above all, we want interactive fiction to be accessible. Gamers and geeks have enjoyed branching stories for decades now, but most readers are still puzzled by the concept – what good is a story if you have to choose what happens? The projects we’ve worked on at inkle all seek to resolve one key issue: How do we make the interactivity that we enjoy feel natural within the stories we create?

Our first project, Dave Morris’ adaptation of Frankenstein, reimagined Mary Shelley’s novel as a conversation between the reader and Victor Frankenstein; with a relationship between the two forming and colouring the narrative as the story proceeds. It’s a literary work – a single read-through is upwards of 80,000 words – that draws out the themes of Shelley’s work in new and unusual ways. Just as the Doctor tries to understand his monster empathetically, so we as readers attempt to understand Victor for ourselves.

For our second big project, we went in a different direction, creating the first part of Steve Jackson’s 1980’s Sorcery! epic as an interactive fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Journeying across a fantastical land, the player explores a weird world, full of tricks and traps and capricious creatures. The game elements are much stronger than in Frankenstein – there are items to collect and puzzles to solve – but the app is still a prose experience, with around 150,000 words of written content that describe every moment and event in the story, from start to finish. There are no videos or animations.

This insistence on making things written threw up some real challenges. The adventure includes several monsters who can be battled using a sword-fighting game, which plays a little like a cross between Poker and Rock, Scissors, Paper, Stone. To describe the action we needed text, but the game can take an unpredictable length of time, and we needed to stop it from repeating itself! So we devised an algorithm that translates the gameplay into a prose description in the style of a fantasy novel; with the prose description containing clues vital to choosing the best next attack.

Sorcery! achieved cross-over success, selling to the book market, but also getting great press in the videogame community, who, despite the heavy text content, embraced it as a new and engaging way to interact with a story.

What makes an interactive story?

Our stories tend not be about “choosing what happens” – if readers wanted to control a story, they could write one of their own! Instead, the idea is to place readers in a conversation with the narrative: they suggest something, and the story answers back. It’s the protagonist / antagonist model of story-telling, but with the reader choosing which risks to take and which leads to follow.

We’re not about multiple endings – we’re about dynamic middles. And we’re not about non-linear storytelling either: while the writing process is certainly non-linear, the reader’s experience is entirely linear, the story they encounter has a beginning, develops, and culminates.

We don’t believe that interactive stories will replace books – as with all media, some stories work better than others: journeys and mysteries suit interactivity; psychological family dramas less so. But we do think interactive fiction can be mainstream; by telling engaging stories, using appealing and friendly interfaces, and avoiding the trap of “too much newness”.

Read Jon’s second post on making interactive fiction mainstream, where he explains how the inkle studio is supporting writers with their inklewriter tool.

Jon Ingold is the Creative Director at inkle, a company that creates and publishes written content in interactive form.

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