Friday, 30 March 2012

Those academics and their literature

My upcoming Frankenstein interactive book now has its own Facebook page. In case you've missed the posts on this, or have been frozen in the Arctic for the last two centuries, Frankenstein is a digital book that allows you to befriend Victor Frankenstein and offer him advice. If you've given him reason to trust you, he might even take it. Actually, that's not the whole story - you also get to play the part of... but no, that'd be a spoiler too far.

Frankenstein isn't much like the gamebooks of old, but there's no denying that the structure is basically the same, and coincidentally the BBC this week had a very brief item about gamebooks (the 1980s UK variety, anyway) on their World at One programme. "Will there ever be a literary gamebook?" wondered the BBC reporter, deciding in the end that, no, "gamebooks aren't seen as academic enough".

If you too feel that literature is something that academics read, then you will surely want to know that Fifty Shades of Grey has just sold to Universal Pictures. Otherwise, pop over to Inkle Studios (who built the app) and read all about this "impossible" book, due out on April 26. And, of course, be sure to follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Can we really call Frankenstein science fiction?

In his Guardian column recently, Damien Walter lamented the scarcity of interesting new weird fiction. Buy me a coffee and you’ll hear me saying the same thing, but Mr Walter went further. He invited readers of the column to send in their own self- or independently-published novels.

While people like me cower at the thought of a million genre novels being published every year, there’s Damien Walter throwing open the floodgates and standing smack in the way of the oncoming torrent. I can only salute such bravery (a tricky manoeuvre to carry off, incidentally, while simultaneously scurrying for the safety of high ground). He will be remembered.

Personally I’d push the Dalai Lama under a bus rather than read a single trilogy of the G’nar’gh empire or the steampunk adventures of Algernon Blackwood, wendigo hunter. So it is my awe of Mr Walter’s fortitude that leaves me shamed and chastised by his comment in today’s
Guardian that “those writers who make a critical understanding of fantasy part of their work create better stories than those who remain […] ignorant of it.”

The irony is that I do read a fair bit of lit crit, just not in the field of fantasy. In fact, I barely even read fantasy fiction. Given that fantasy is my bread and butter, and stung by Mr Walter’s parting words as he sank beneath the deluge, I scooted over to Amazon and bought Farah Mendlesohn’s book
Rhetorics of Fantasy. At 336 pages it may take me a while, but already I’m intrigued by the core concepts. In essence, Ms Mendlesohn defines four categories of the fantastic. There are portal fantasies (Narnia, The Lost World), immersive fantasies (Game of Thrones), intrusive fantasies (War of the Worlds), and then there are liminal fantasies.

That last one is a little trickier than the rest. It’s also the most interesting. Liminal fantasies are those where the fantastic element is part of the normal universe and, though they may not like its effects, everybody seems to just accept it: Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis”, for example. It’s the kind of fantasy you find in dreams and fairytales. A movie example would be Guy Maddin’s
Careful; in novels, Steven Sherill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break; in short stories, W F Harvey’s “The Beast With Five Fingers”.

All of magic realism could arguably fit into the liminal category. There, of course, we are supposed to recognize the fabulosity and artifice of what we’re being told. I don’t think it’s intrinsic to liminal fantasies that they need to recognize their own fictionality in that way, simply that when literary fiction does include fantasy, it is most likely to be liminal fantasy.

Most fantasy stories belong to more than one category. Harry Potter begins as a portal fantasy but later becomes intrusive fantasy. The Lost World (what is the plateau if not a portal?) has its little bit of intrusive fantasy in the form of the pterodactyl egg that Challenger brings back to London. Raymond E Feist even wrote an immersive fantasy with a portal fantasy element, in the form of a rift leading through to Tsolyanu. I mean Tsuranu.

In Mirabilis, the fantasy at first is intrusive; but, as the green comet draws nearer to Earth, people first begin to accept the reality of previously imaginary things and later, by midsummer, to treat them as though they have always been there. (I even wrote exactly that, in my first draft of the Mirabilis storyline ten years ago. For the month of June: “Liminality; it is as if magic has always been part of everyday life.”)

Frankenstein could have been an intrusive fantasy. If Mary Shelley had treated the story in that way, it would have read more like something written by H G Wells. Instead, in the original Frankenstein novel, almost nothing is made of the science fictional element. The monster’s existence doesn’t impact the world at large, only Victor Frankenstein’s own life. If not for Captain Walton’s encounter with the monster right at the end, the whole book could be read as the imaginings of a highly unreliable narrator. And even Walton’s tacked-on testimony doesn’t quite banish the suspicion that what we have been reading is not an SF tale about creating life, but that immemorially potent fable, the Return of the Repressed. Like the best kind of fantasy, Frankenstein finally reveals itself as a disturbing conjuring trick in which the question, “Is it supposed to have really happened?” is the least interesting of all.
Dave Morris's interactive retelling of Frankenstein is published by Profile Books. Buy it here in the App Store.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Frankenstein book trailer

It's gone live! The
Frankenstein trailer, beautifully put together by awesome design/code maestros Inkle Studios, is now on YouTube. And in less than a month you can buy the book itself - for iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. If you think you know "gamebooks", think again, 'cause this is a whole new species.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Have a little (poetic) faith

Nobody any longer reads poetry, apparently, so it is now relegated to the role of design feature to make a book look swish. Actually I quite like poetry myself, but that hasn’t stopped me doing my own little act of Philistine vandalism (if that’s not mixing cultures) by plundering some fragments to serve as chapter headings in my interactive retelling of Frankenstein.

If I write out the list of poems I drew on, you can tell the criminal brain of the bunch right away:
  • Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Dryden et al (1717)
  • Auguries of Innocence by William Blake (1803, published 1863)
  • Despair by Shelley (early 1800s?)
  • Mont Blanc by Shelley (1817)
  • Fear in Solitude by Coleridge (1798)
  • Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Byron (1812-1818)
Five of those could have been read by Mary Shelley during her stay at the Villa Diodati, where the original Frankenstein novella was written. It’s highly likely she did read three of them there, at least, seeing as both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were present too. Coleridge and Dryden she would have read as a child. And then… there’s that Blake snippet:
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
It’s the one that begins, “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” You see, you did know it already. Quite a modern poem, when you put it alongside the Byron and Shelley, and I think it unlikely that Mary Shelley ever read it, even though Blake knew her mother, having illustrated her book Original Stories from Real Life. It’s a small world, especially if you’re an 18th century London intellectual.

So what if the Muse inconsiderately didn’t introduce those two lines into the domain of artistic culture till a half-century after Frankenstein was published? They seem so perfect as a description as the monster’s fate, and at the same time expressive of the whole idea of fateful choices in an interactive novel, that nothing else would do to open the second part of the book (my version, that is) which tells the monster’s story. Even the original novel is sprinkled with quotations from recent poems by Percy Shelley – contemporary works when Mary wrote the book, no more egregious than lines from Pete Doherty appearing in a videogame. Yet, of course, they could not be there, because the ostensible author is Victor Frankenstein, who died in 1798 or ’99. Since he probably didn’t find a bookshop selling Coleridge’s works near the North Pole, the only one of my choices he could conceivably have been able to quote is the Ovid. And Victor would probably have known it better in the original Latin, the language he falls back on (again, in my version of the novel) when he needs to have a conversation with a doctor in Athens.

Emerson warns us about foolish consistencies. I haven’t had Victor and his friends speak like characters in a Regency novel – mainly because people in the early 1800s didn’t talk that way either, but also with the excuse that it’s mostly a translation from French anyway. You won’t see any wristwatches. The current affairs that occupy their interest are those of the 1790s. The poems, though - those we must see as outside the framework of Victor’s narrative, just like the illustrations and the iOS code in which the app is compiled.

Now, if you really want to take me to task for wilful anachronism, how about Victor’s conversation with an Oxford chemistry professor about the effect of ethyl methanesulphonate on human tissue cultures? Over to you, Dr Tyrell.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Only connect!

Having written a couple of dozen choose-your-own type books in my career, but only one of those in the last year (and that one, Frankenstein, very different from all the ones that came before) I’ve been musing on the dos and don’ts of interactive storytelling. My tolerance for rules, theories, and patterns doesn’t go very far – not when it comes to creativity, anyway; science is another matter. But here are three rules that are kind of pinned up above my computer screen, metaphorically speaking:

1. First do no harm.

It’s easy to make people interact. You could lock each chapter so that the reader has to solve a sudoku before they can read on. But you haven’t made them
want to interact, and they’re not interacting with the story, just with the medium that allows them to read it.

Consider what fiction is trying to achieve: to tempt us into clothing ourselves in another life, a different reality. That’s if it works. If you want to make your story interactive, your first hurdle is not to break that.

2. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
Even if an option to interact doesn’t harm the work, if it isn’t going to enhance what you’re doing, why put it in? Decide who this is for. Have a clear vision of what the work is. That way you’ll roll out a clean design, uncluttered by bells and whistles that add nothing to the experience.

3. Think about who the reader is in all this.
All right, so you can interact with this story – but as whom? This is the big interactivity question. (Well, one of them.) I don’t mean that you have to make the reader one of the principal characters. You certainly can do it that way, but it’s just one solution that suits one type of story. More generally, consider the role that you are giving the reader, whether overtly or tacitly, because that role will inform all their interaction.

One kind of interactivity we’ve been seeing in (digital) books is the playroom model. Your sweep your hand to blow characters’ hats off. You shake the iPad to get the characters to open up about themselves, or just to fall about. The reader’s role here is god – or author – and it works okay for kids, who are perfectly able to look down on and toy with characters in a story at the same time as putting themselves in their shoes. Adults don’t have the same mental flexibility, so for them this kind of interactivity is likely to have a distancing effect. It’s hard to empathize with characters when I’m treating them like bugs in a jar.

More alienating still are those book apps where you click on text to rearrange words. You might represent a character’s amnesia by having letters drop virus-like off the screen, or unconsciousness by having a rising black blot that obscures the text. Now it’s just a puzzle, a trick, an executive toy. The reader’s role is reduced to that of a person looking at words arranged on a page. And if you think that’s what a novel is, you’re in the wrong class.

Forget those tricks. Remember rule #1: a good story already goes way beyond that kind of hotch-potch interactivity. If you want to create interesting ways to interact, look at how a regular, non-interactive story engages the reader and play to that.

If I were writing an interactive spy thriller, I could give you the role of the hero’s controller. You’re advising him on his mission. Maybe he’s reluctant, so you have to coax him. And now, see, there’s conflict – which is good, because if you’re in conflict with the hero then you’re
definitely engaged.

I could develop that in another way in an Arabian Nights fantasy, where your role is as the genie that the hero calls upon to get him out of scrapes. His wish is your command – but there’s obeying and then there’s service, two different things. So you’ll develop a relationship, either Chewie and Han or Captain Jack and Will Turner, up to you.

Those examples are quite overt and gamey, placing the reader distinctly in the story, even though in a supporting role. In
Frankenstein, the reader’s role is only implied. You’re Victor’s confidant, the alter ego from whom he has only those secrets he also keeps from himself. That allows you to step back into the shadows, which is where the reader of a novel normally watches from. But it’s never that simple, is it? Am I only observing Bond when I read Casino Royale, say? Not at all. Another part of me is Bond, raking in the chips, sipping the martini, chatting up the girl.

That’s books, but the same applies to videogames. You have a role (in fact more than one) implied in the way you interact with a game character like Lara Croft or Max Payne. That sets up expectations – a contract between creator and reader/viewer/player. Break that contract, violate the rules of the role(s) you’ve put the user in, and you’ve got the fatal flaw of something like
Heavy Rain, a flaw explained very insightfully here by Emily Short.

Rules are only useful as reminders of what you know already. To create good interactive entertainment, first understand non-interactive entertainment. You want to write an interactive novel? Look at literature, see what it is that makes that so powerful. Want to make a kids’ book app? Study the best picture- and popup-books. A narrative game? Soak up what’s effective in cinematic storytelling. That way, when you add interactivity, you won’t be fixing what ain’t broke.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

"I have kept faithful to childhood passion"

To Mirabilis readers he's our cover artist, but Martin McKenna is more widely known in the world of books, games and movies as a brilliant painter and conceptualizer with a special flair for fantasy and the macabre.

Having said that, you're going to be surprised by his upcoming project for Omnibus Books. It'll be out in time for Christmas and, so I am reliably informed, there's not a ghoul or werewolf in sight. It will nonetheless bear the McKenna mark of genius, so be ready to place your pre-order on Amazon in good time.

Recently Martin gave an interview to World of Fantasy, a Russian magazine. Actually, it was in 2010, but he only recently blogged about it, and I don't keep up with Russian periodicals as much as I should. Is your Cyrillic a bit rusty too? Well, you can read the interview here thanks to the miracle of Google Translate. The quote that heads this post is one I'd like to frame and put on my wall - it absolutely sums up Martin's creative ethic, and it's the reason his work stands out. His comment about the hurdles an artist must face applies just as much to writing too:
"Sometimes I have an interesting idea and I cannot realize it as I would like. This is perhaps the most unpleasant thing that can happen to an artist. But if you feel that you did not have the skill, this only spurs you to work harder in hopes of success next time."

Friday, 9 March 2012

Interacting with stories

Outside the games industry, interactivity is often met with fascination and fear, and it’s never long before somebody asks, “Will the reader be able to choose the ending?”

Would you want to? A good story is meant to surprise and delight. If you could bring yourself to pause the action just before Holmes grapples Moriarty, and decide who will go off the ledge, you can’t have been that enthralled. And how would that kind of interactivity enhance your enjoyment anyway? If complete control of the plot is what you’re looking for, the solution is simple: become a writer.

Instead of choosing the ending, then, maybe good interactivity should allow you to influence the ending. There’s something to be said for that. Literary academics are fond of psychoanalysing characters, and it’s a small step from there to giving them advice. “Hamlet, get off your arse, mate.” Of course, characters in a story – just like your friends – don’t have to take your advice. Or how about this: they could misapply your advice and then blame you. Now it’s getting interesting.

The kids’ gamebooks of thirty-odd years ago all followed the obvious model of an omniscient narrator presenting you, in the role of protagonist, with limited information: “Here are three caskets, of lead, silver and gold.” Characterization of the main character is difficult because hearing your avatar talk about things that you as reader know nothing about can really mess with suspension of disbelief. The interactivity inevitably reduces to problem-solving. And I like problem-solving, but it’s not really what’s interesting about fiction.

A more fruitful kind of interactivity is to have a first person narrator with whom the reader can have a dialogue. You’re his Hopkirk, his Harvey, his Tyler Durden. That’s the approach I’ve taken with Frankenstein. In five of the book’s six parts, you are the voice of Victor Frankenstein’s conscience – or ambition, or reason, as you prefer. The effect is very different from a game. It’s like reading the novel. But where, in the original, Victor’s self-pitying introspection can become wearying, here you have the opportunity to challenge him. In striking up a dialogue – a relationship, in fact – you become more invested in his fate. You’re not solving the problems of the plot so much as exploring the crannies of character.

For that reason, perhaps, Michael Bhaskar, my editor at Profile Books, said he found that reconfiguring the text to make it explorable like this makes for a more engaging read than the original. Modern readers, some of whom even struggle with the genius of Dickens, can certainly be forgiven for not wanting to wade through the teenaged Mrs Shelley's stodgy prose. I certainly feel making Frankenstein interactive is a worthwhile experiment, and it opens up other rewarding forms of interactive fiction that are a far cry from, “You see a bloodthirsty ogre at the end of the passage.”

I don’t think this is the future of books, though. The novel as a form does not require fixing. Never, when reading War and Peace, did I wish I could break out of the story to call up a map of a battlefield or research 19th century Russian etiquette. Sometimes I might grudgingly refer to the notes at the back, resenting the interruption of the narrative flow even as I did. If it’s a good novel, I don’t want it to have pictures or sound effects or 3D. It doesn’t need them. A great story holds you spellbound in the world of your imagination. Or rather, and better, in the fusion of your imagination with the author’s.

Which is, when you think about it, a truly rewarding form of interactivity. And it’s been there all along.
Frankenstein is coded for iPad and iPhone by Inkle and published by Profile Books.