first of penguin's interactive fictions up 03.21.2008, 1:04 PM
posted by sebastian mary
Ben posted a few weeks back about an intriguing new interactive project in the pipeline from Penguin. WeTellStories, produced for Penguin by ARG studio SixToStart is now out in the open. Comprising six stories based on Penguin Classics, released one a week for the next six weeks, WeTellStories aims to create born-digital riffs on classic books.
I played through ('read' doesn't quite describe it) the first of these earlier today: The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming, based on Buchan's classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 21 Steps is told through narrative bubbles that pop up as the story picks its way across a Google Earth-like satellite map, and describes the experience of a man suddenly caught up in sinister events that he can't seem to escape.
Overall the experience works. The writing is spare enough to keep the pacing high, vital when the other umpteen billion pages I could possibly be surfing are all clamoring for my attention. The dot moving across the map creates a sense of movement forward (as well as some frustration as it crawls between narrative points), and the Google Earth styling is familiar enough as a reading environment for me to focus on enjoying the story rather than diverting too much energy to decoding peripheral material. The interface is simple and tactile in ways that advance the story without distracting from its development, either by offering diverging routes through it or overloading the central 'chase' narrative with multimedia clutter. And the satnav pictures add a pleasurable feeling of recognition ('Look! There's my house!') to offset an essentially far-fetched story.
For a single-visit online story experience, it was nearly too long: I found myself checking how many instalments I still had to get through. The ending was somewhat anticlimactic. And though WeTellStories has been rumored to have ARG elements, and is produced by an ARG studio, I did a hunt around for potential ARG-style 'further reading' rabbit holes and found nothing. So either it's too subtle for a journeywoman ARG fan like me, or the overarching 'game' element really is just the invitation to follow all six stories and then answer some questions to win a prize.
If so, I'll be disappointed. But it's early days still, and there may be more up SixToStart's sleeve than I've seen so far. It's encouraging to see 'traditional' publishers exploring inventive ways of riffing on their swollen backlists' cachet and immeasurably rich narrative wealth. And The 21 Steps comes closer than most 'authored' digital fictions I've encountered to achieving some harmony between narrative and delivery mechanism. So though I'm being nitpicky, the project so far hints at the possiblity that we're beginning to see online creative work that's finding ways of marrying the Web's fragmented, kinetic megalomania with the discipline needed for a gripping story.
jeremy ettinghausen on March 21, 2008 4:17 PM:
Glad you enjoyed the first story - the others are going to be all completely different! The game elements are there, and have been found by others. I could give you a clue, but that might spoil the fun ;-)
Lee on March 25, 2008 3:15 PM:
I like the potential, but found the first story lame. Perhaps I lay too much emphasis on the text rather than the gaming aspect, but I'll be keeping an eye on things.
The first episode of the Toby Litt story is now up - so far, not much better. The teenage voice is bland cookie-cutter stuff, but let's see how it goes.
Humberto on April 8, 2008 8:20 AM:
I've started today and I find it very interesting... I'd like to start writing and "routing" maps right now! I love this combination... with game elements it'd be perfect! Another possibility is offering different options for the reader to decide...
cheapsuits on February 2, 2009 1:54 PM:
I, for one , would like to see them get into the iPhone/iTouch platform space with this stuff.