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A story by any other name: books versus games

I have a confession to make: I really like computer games.

Wait, come back – I like books too! See, not a complete oxygen thief.

It really bugs me when books and games are treated as antithetical, even adversarial mediums. OK, they’re very different animals, but they share common ground as vehicles for conveying narrative. During my misspent (mostly in front of a PC or behind a paperback, yes I was and am that sad) youth, some of the most compelling stories I experienced were told through games. Given half a chance I’ll wax lyrical about Gabriel Knight and Day of the Tentacle in the same breath as Good Omens and My Family and Other Animals.

At this year’s London Book Fair it was nice to see the book and games industries cautiously sidling closer. Yet there’s still an implicit assumption within book publishing that games are The Enemy. Not content with being trivial, brain-rotting tripe, games have the nerve to be massively successful, so much so they’re stealing eyeballs, not to mention sales, from good honest books. The cheek of it! This feeling is perhaps most pervasive in children’s book publishing, given Generation Snapchat’s ubiquitous relationship with technology.

If you find your lips pursing in disapproval at the mere mention of Counter-Strike, you may be surprised to learn that a large section of the games industry is equally sniffy about books and writers. During a Q&A at LBF 14, Rhianna Pratchett talked about the difficulty of working with developers who consider professional writers a luxury at best. Anyone can write a story, right? Pratchett has coined the term ‘narrative paramedic’ to describe her role on gaming projects that require last-minute resuscitation of a story in distress.

And yet, thanks to the talent and persistence of narrative designers like Pratchett, narrative-driven games are having a moment, and not just among indie titles. In the last couple of years we’ve seen a succession of AAA games (the flagship titles of major studios) that trumpet strong storytelling as a key feature – Tomb Raider, Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto and Last of Us are all good examples. Their critical and commercial success runs contrary to the theory that narrative-heavy games are too ‘cerebral’ to connect with a broad audience.

Books and games will always have a somewhat antagonistic relationship, if only because thumbing your nose at a perceived rival from time to time is life affirming. It’s a headline-friendly struggle between high culture and lowbrow, old and young, paper and LCD. No wonder the feeling of being under siege from digital armies of darkness persists when we’re constantly told that page is losing out to screen and kids avoid reading because it’s not cool to be seen with your head in a book.

There’s no easy solution to the challenges faced by the book publishing industry, but competition from new formats is nothing new. Books have withstood photography, radio, cinema and TV, and learned to co-exist with them very lucratively. “We are, as a species, addicted to stories” and there’s no format that hasn’t been harnessed to serve our addiction, often in innovative, exciting, thoughtful ways. In a game, I own my characters’ decisions and their consequences, and that gives me an incredibly deep connection with the story. When I play a really good narrative-driven game, I feel a sense of immersion and engagement as powerful as that generated by my favourite books. I started Freed Fiction in 2013 with the aim of finding ways to harness that power within read experiences for children and young adults.

We can feel threatened by gaming, or we can see the potential for a productive new storytelling space between books and games. Exploring that space isn’t straightforward, not least because reading is (arguably) passive while play demands interactivity, but unpicking those tensions is part of what makes it so rich. The scary/exciting bit is that we’re only going to understand the opportunity by experimenting, testing, accepting failure, learning and doing things better when we rinse and repeat. Luckily, that’s what start-ups are for.

We have a chance to tell amazing stories in new ways that yield new business models. What are they? Be brave, get your game on and let’s find out.

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