Monday, October 28, 2013

Is this the future of the book?

We all have those moments of collision with a new idea that can transform our futures if we let them. For me, I think it happened when I discovered Plundered Hearts by Amy Briggs. It was a very old interactive fiction game, a romance. Briggs mastered the art of the tease. Sexy hero would arrive, save the heroine from disaster and disappear. Heroine would outsmart pirates, save ship from blowing up, and all manner of things in her effort to get back to the hero. After averting disasters and overcoming obstacles there'd be a brief reward, a moonlight dance, a steamy kiss, and then he'd have to dash off. She'd have to find her way back to him again and again.

The thing that was new and different about Plundered Hearts was that I was not reading about what someone else would do to get the hero. I didn't have to suffer through reading about silliness like pinching my cheeks to make them rosy or visits to the dressmaker. I was solving problems, saving lives along the way. She may have done some dressing up--I believe I drowned once right after dressing up. But it was still a rip-roaring adventure and the whole thing was text--what we now call "old-school" text adventure games.

Shortly after I discovered Plundered Hearts (which was after that style of game was obsolete) I read Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of Narrative in Cyberspace. The author, Janet Murray, pointed to three essential elements of pleasure that computers can bring to stories: immersion, agency, and transformation. I'd agree that this is exactly what I found satisfying--despite the frustration of repeatedly dying--when I first played Plundered Hearts.

When a reader begins to interact with a story, when they touch a door knob and the door opens, when they smile at a hero and he winks, the world around them disappears and they are part of that story world to an even deeper degree than happens in reading a novel. The continual response of story world to reader makes it real--which leads to the sense of agency, which gives the reader the power to make change in a situation, which leads to a transformation in who that reader is by the end of the story. Yes, I am happy at the end of a traditional novel when I see a character transformed in a satisfying way. But when it is me who won the hero's heart, me who saved the ship, the village, the world... Well that's a sense of power and accomplishment that carries over into real life on a subconscious level. You can read more about that sort of impact in this article.

I've been waiting for an evolved version of Plundered Hearts since the late eighties. I haven't found it. I may have to write one.

This week I downloaded two "games" that won awards and attention for their narrative. The first one I'm playing/reading, Dear Esther, created a lengthy discussion about whether it was really a game. There is no true game play. It's a story you discover. You're an an island where the main character washed ashore after a shipwreck. As you traverse the landscape you discover letters he wrote to the woman he loves. This is delivered as text and narration. The narration is excellent.

The prose in Dear Esther, is as beautiful and  compelling as the landscape. As you walk along the coast the constant sound of surf goes with you. Particles of sand are tossed in the air on occasional bursts of wind. You may need to click these images to see the larger version and read the text.

The segments are written so that they can be delivered randomly as you cross certain trigger points in the landscape. I haven't played to the end, but I know how it ends and even knowing that, I will take this full journey. Experiencing that ending will make all the work of discovering this story worth it. 

Dear Esther is the price of a regular book.Some might say it should have been a book, but there are elements to this story that can't be communicated without this platform. Others might argue that it should have included puzzles like a true game. I think the beauty and power of this story is that while my journey happens inside boundaries set by the game designer,  it is my path taking me through the story. The landscape is etched with symbols and debris that contribute meaning. Narrative can change somewhat each time I revisit it. The plot won't change, but how I experience the plot can. I am not distracted by frustrating puzzles. Elements like that would pull me out of the emotional flow of this narrative.

So I recommend Dear Esther as a look at what the future of fiction may be. It costs no more than an ebook and will run on  Windows or Mac computer. The graphics are impressive but not a resource hog so you don't need a gaming machine to run it. 

Those of you who have found their way to the Greyville Writer's Colony will recognize how easy it would be for you to create a story like this. You'll probably already be saying to yourself, but we can add characters and this and that. Yes, the tools we have will let us take transmedia narrative to a new level. If what I have seen authors like Siobhan Muir, Shara Lanel, and Tina Glasneck doing in Greyville these past few weeks is any indication, the future of fiction will be amazing.The experiments of authors like these will ultimately shape the future of fiction.

I'm participating in the Future of Storytelling MOOC at iVersity. In our first week we discussed what makes a story. One professor pointed out that a transmedia mix -- poetry, images, and music could be elements of a good story. A reviewer from The Telegraph had this to say about Dear Esther , "It is oil painting, poetry, eulogy and video game all at once. And it's never less than fascinating." 

That's what I think the future of fiction will be. All of that and little more...

~Nara Malone

You can find out more about Nara Malone and her books at her author blog.

You can find out more about the Greyville Writer's Colony, including how to get to our corner of cyberspace, at NarasNook.


  1. As I've come to expect from you, Nara, this blog has expanded my horizons that much more. I wish I had the time to pursue more of these tantalizing vistas, but I feel fortunate that I have you to grant me precious glimpses. Perhaps I'll be able to spend more time in Greyville after the new year. I'm looking forward to see what you all do there and elsewhere! The future IS that and so MUCH more!

    1. Yes, the future of fiction will be exciting. We're looking forward to having you with us.

  2. What a cool direction to take fiction. It reminds me a lot of those old Choose-You-Own-Adventure books where you could find new ways to make the story end. Thanks so much for mentioning me, Nara. :)

    1. It's very similar to that, Siobhan. Those are making a comeback because tablets make them so much easier to read. Carina Press just released their first erotic CYOA last month.

  3. Ooooh, I love "Dear Esther". We are definitely gamers in this house and my favorites are those with meaty plot-lines! Great Article.

    1. Gone Home is up next. Curious to hear what you think of that.

  4. 'Fascinating concept, Nara. Like Denise, I'm hoping to some day have time to immerse myself in these worlds.

  5. Great post, Nara! I'm not a gamer, much to my hubby's dismay, but I love the idea using different mediums to tell our stories. I may have to try "Dear Esther." :-)