Sunday, 13 May 2012

How I made my monster - Part 2

Thus it was all change on my next project, an animated drama called Dilemmas in which the lead character narrated her life and occasionally turned to look out of the fourth wall to ask your advice. You could earn her trust (by showing that you understood her and knew which suggestions would work for her) and her friendship (by showing you were in tune with her). The overall plotline didn’t alter drastically, but the subtle variations were what mattered. Did Cathy get a lost gold pen back by standing up for herself or by lying? She’d walk away from that with very different feelings – about herself and about you – depending on the advice you gave.

But who are “you” in an interactive story like that? I deliberately didn’t want to define it. You’re Cathy’s imaginary friend? Her conscience? It doesn’t matter. You’re you, the viewer, the same you that Michael Caine addresses in Alfie, or John Cusack in High Fidelity. The effect is to draw you right alongside the character, with the added benefit that you don’t have to know any Crimean marching songs. You are most emphatically not a “player-character”.

I applied this model of interactivity in various other projects, including the Sims-type PC game I designed for Microsoft at Elixir Studios, and in a Law and Order Xbox game for the American Film Institute’s digital content lab in 2006:
Characters learn whether to trust the player. This occurs in the context of adventure-type gameplay, either when advising the character what to do or when interrogating a character. Advice that goes against a character’s nature or that turns out to have a bad effect will cost you trust. You might get to a point where Detective Stabler has found some evidence but he won’t show it to you. So if that happened you’d have to find a way to earn back Stabler’s trust.
Around 2009, Jamie Thomson and I started thinking about what we could do with our old gamebooks as apps. Pretty quickly, we realized that apps were a game-changer because we could pack all the nerdy stuff like hit points and inventory under the hood. A few minutes later, we realized that meant that the most interesting things we could do would be all-new gamebooks, where the variables wouldn't be hit points at all, but things like trust and compassion. We could write gamebooks that weren’t games any more but could now legitimately be called interactive literature.

(As an aside: why “interactive literature” not “interactive fiction”? Because I’m talking about books, while fiction includes TV, movies, comics, plays.)

Okay, so all that remained was to get a publisher interested. Read that last sentence as dripping with irony – I had about two years’ worth of publisher meetings with Spark Furnace’s long-suffering but indefatigable agent, Piers Blofeld. We pitched the idea of ghostwriting digital books for brand name authors, of interactive nonfiction, and original interactive novels to be released in serial form. Finally, in July 2011, I met with Michael Bhaskar at Profile Books and unveiled my plan for rewriting classic novels in interactive form:
There are two options for handling the interactivity. The traditional gamebook style is second person: “Tongues of flame dart round the bed: the curtains are on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lies stretched motionless, in deep sleep. Do you try to wake him ●, call for help ●, or attempt to extinguish the flames ●?” Alternatively there’s a first person approach, which I favour, in which the narrator asks the reader for advice. This lends itself especially to epistolary novels: “‘Can it be that the count sleeps when others wake, that he may be awake while they sleep? If I could only get into his room! But there is no possible way. The door is always locked. Unless – Mina, dare I attempt to climb the castle wall, as I have seen him do, and enter by his window?’ Yes ● or no ● ?”
The concluding part of the making of the Frankenstein book app is on Wednesday.

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