Narrascope 2019 - Panel Discussion - Dissecting the BanderSnatch With a Vorpal Blade
A panel discussion from the Narrascope Conference, Boston, June 15+16 2019 - Celebrating Narrative Games “Dissecting the Bandernatch With a Vorpal Blade: What Netflix’s Choose Your Own Adventure Got Right and Got Wrong” was Narrascope’s panel discussion. Heather Albano, Mary Duffy, Jason Stevan Hill, Emily Short, and Ian Thomas discuss Netflix’s first venture into the world of interactive television with Bandersnatch, the Black Mirror episode that let viewers influence the story in a choose-your-path adventure kind of way. What was good, where did it fall flat, how would experienced game designers have tackled this kind of project? But beware, there will be spoilers!
DIFFERENT AUDIENCE REACTIONS
Reactions different wildly from those familiar with the format, and the many audience members who had never previously been introduced to it.
Familiarity was again seen to be an important design tool.
CONTROVERSIAL CHOICE DESIGN
Not all choices made sense, or appeared to have purpose
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENDINGS
Viewing experiences were very different according to the endings reached
Too often the reality of a context was undermined, when a more interesting solution could have been found.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTENTIONALITY
The writers could have done more to explore intentional participation through choices
GIVE PLAYERS TIME TO CONSIDER CHOICES
The decision to freeze action and give players time to make choices was generally received well.
The option to step back in time was innovative, handled well
Whilst branching narratives are complicated, production load can be minimised by techniques to group potential responses thematically
UNCOMFORTABLE SOCIAL MESSAGES
A number of panel members questioned social assumptions within the game
DETAILED DISCUSSION TRANSCRIPT
As a gamer, what did you learn? And what did you hate?
DIFFERENT AUDIENCE REACTIONS
By the time `I watched it there were already a whole lot of game designers who had seen it and panned it. Where's the innovation they asked? … and yet at the same time there was a whole bunch of consumers saying, Wow, this is exciting. We've never seen anything like this before… is a really interesting disjunction, I think. And so my first real reaction to it was that it introduced a lot of new people to interactivity, and that's a pretty major plus.
They clearly built this to feel familiar for television viewers, the way it handles recaps, the way it handles changing audio and those kinds of elements. There was a lot of television craft that went into it. And that's part of what makes it accessible to those kinds of people. As a result I found myself a little bit more sort of forgiving of some of those elements.
CONTROVERSIAL CHOICE DESIGN
But also, I got very frustrated really early on with the first few choices that just didn't seem to do anything very much, with no immediate consequences that just railroaded you straight back in to the narrative.
I felt sympathetic to the possible design reasons for those choices because it felt like …We've got a TV audience, we need to get them used to the idea, they might even need to pick something. And if they miss and they fail to make a choice early on, we don't want their first experience with this style to be …oh, I missed out on doing something interesting because I didn't really understand the controls.
It’s interesting to think about it in terms of a product that has to teach its players how to play. It reminds me of something I encountered when I did customer support for Choice of Games. When I first started working for them, I would get emails from people basically saying “Please put a back button to your games, I picked the wrong choice, and I have to do the whole thing over again”. And I would diligently respond that there was no wrong options. But there are arguably many points during Bandersnatch where viewers can make the wrong choice. In fact audiences proceed directly into what seems to be the most important choice right off the bat in Bandersnatch, namely… Should I work in the Office of Tucker soft games? Or should I work on this at home? And everything about the way the scene is constructed, says, work at the office, you're going to have all this support that you don't have as an independent game designer, and that's the wrong choice. So I'm so frustrated by that particular moment. It seems to be teaching audiences that their choices don't matter. Because what seems obvious to you is wrong. And so, you know, in a game that's trying to do all this layered metaphorical stuff about control…That's the first real choice. And it's tricking the audience. And that was such a turn off to me.
I agree 100% . When I hit that first choice, and went into the office and died, it's like…really? So I recognize the cultural impact that it has. Introducing lay people to interactivity is cool, but in many ways they’re replicating what I consider to be bad habits that I want to move away from as a design culture. So, as a designer and as a player, I myself did not care for it.
Okay, that's fair, but I actually had a different reaction to that first choice and the shortness of the path. I thought it was an interesting design choice because if you have players who have never seen anything like this before it teaches them right up front that this genre involves replaying the same scenes and making different choices. In that context I thought the confronting delivery of the need to reply choices was forgivable.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENDINGS
I also found that personally, I had a different reaction to the experience as a whole depending on what ending I got. And I feel like that's something that might be interesting to delve into.
Me too. I enjoyed the piece more than a number of my friends because the ending that I got was the one in which he winds up being reunited with his mother and sharing in her death on the train. And that, to me was much more thematically resonant than many of the other options because I was much less interested in sort of gotcha endings where, you know, he fails to make a good game for some silly reason, or, you know, the whole thing devolves into this weird murder plot. I felt like the business about what has happened to him in the past and how he can revisit that trauma was a story that was less obvious to tell based on the form.
So what I mean by that is, I felt like a number of the paths through Bandersnatch were basically things where Rooker was asking questions about freewill or about you know, what does it mean if you have somebody, a player controlling the protagonist, which basically have been asked and re-asked by one interactive narrative designer after another. It’s almost the first thing that people do when they realize that this form exists. So, what I found most interesting was the case where the story it actually kind of gone beyond that set of probes into something different.
I agree. I got the same ending and I think it was an extremely poignant ending… choosing to go and die with your mom on the train. That was like a good Black Mirror episode to me. But when I was looking at the different endings that ending did not appear to be common.
Each ending almost catapults you into a different universe. In some endings you are definitely controlled by a person. You’re making a movie. Actually, you step out of it, and you're the actor or the Stefan that you are controlling is an actor on set, which is a totally different universe from the other universes where you die, or you're the mother. So there's Something really strange about different roles stepping out beyond the original fictional frame and ending the story outside of itself. Great for the cognition of the player, because the player has built an idea of the world that they're in, and then suddenly you shift that from under them.
That kind of universe switching approach can be something where you're kind of asking the player, what kind of story do they even want out of this? What are they interested in? But the trick I feel in the case of Bandersnatch, is that it's, it's hard to actually articulate that agency As a player, although I had ideas about what I wanted to explore, there are only a few points where I really felt like I had the agency to articulate that to the system.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTENTIONALITY
Not me, one of the things with choice games that we really tried to focus on is the idea of intentionality, that you have some idea of the possible consequences of your decisions. And you're in there with the therapist and you get into the fight and then it's like, jump on your dad or jump out the window. But if it turns out that you're just an actor that's forgotten the fact that you're an actor… that complete lack of intentionality was frustrating for me.
Also, if you have X number of options, and the player is failing a number of hidden tests, so that only one option appears instead of all 10, there's something wrong. And I question what that's supposed to do for you as a player in Bandersnatch.
Yeah, there were a couple of choices that seemed to duplicate each other. I mean, throw the jewels at the computer or destroy the computer. I don't want to do either of those.
And there are some that are explicitly the wrong choice where if you decide to throw the towel on the computer, it immediately brings you to try this again or go back or something like that, which I hated. I thought that was a cop out if you're going to give the player choice, it should be a choice that goes somewhere.
GIVE PLAYERS TIME TO CONSIDER CHOICES
That said, there are some interesting things in those choices just from an execution point of view. We've all seen all the FMV games where you hit a choice and everything stops while you make a decision. So it was quite nice that they had the kind of live feed happening in the background and that during that the character you were responding to would generally prompt you and put a bit more pressure on which is interesting. But there's also a flaw in that which is, it's like the choices out of walking dead where you have three choices actually left to right or fail to act. Bandersnatch had that as well but didn't really seem to do anything with the fail to act option, other than auto-choose on your behalf, which was just a bit strange because it meant that you could just sit through it and sit back and watch the whole thing and it kind of loses the point a little to me because then you're not in control of anything.
I think there is a different emotional effect since you have as much time as you want to sit there and think about what you want. And so it's, you know, fail to act means something different than if you've been able to think about being inactive, and that's my choice, right? Whereas if, you know, you're sort of sitting there and and you're troubled by the question, and you're having a hard time making up your mind, or you somehow don't really want to commit and your time is running out that feels different. Yeah. So I'm a little bit more patient with it in a timed context, and I think it's more expressive actually. So it wasn't so much that I wanted a third option to press. Yeah, it was more. I want there to be a consequence of failure, like an unexpected ending, or something….
And I guess we should talk about flashbacks as well, because they were effective. Going back through the loop, and shortcutting all the sequences and seeing the results of some of your choices worked really well, brought it into a TV form really well. But, but there was never any attempt to explain in the fiction how that happened. I mean, you can look at something I like that the strange reversal of going back through choices is very explicitly laid out in the world. How are we repeating this however? Do the things I did last time apply to this loop? That's cool, but it lost me as a player. What is the friction? What's the infectious reason for this strangeness?
I'm struck by how differently I reacted to this emotionally depending on which of the endings I happened to strike. I didn't get death first, although it's my favourite because I agree with the emotionally resonant. I got, history repeats itself, where pearl ends up finishing the game, which I actually thought also worked as a black mirror episode in a very different way that it was very intellectually clever rather than emotionally resonant. I'm good with either ending, the one that annoyed me to death was the Netflix one that just struck me as the kind of thing you write at three o'clock in the morning when you're a bit blocked and it seems funny at the time.
I was listening to Charlie Brooker the other night talking about that, and that wasn't supposed to be a main choice, it was supposed to be a bit of an Easter egg. And they went through testing and decided to put it in.
And then I found the government control paths, which Stefan mentioned and the whole thing If that path felt to me, like they'd hacked it in that weekend, and that was when I started to wonder how deliberately the creators were commenting on different types of interactive fiction. I suspect that they haven't read that too deeply enough into the various types of interactive fiction to be that explicit about it. I think a lot of the impression I got was they wrote a huge tree in twine and then chopped lots of bits off when they realized it wouldn't fit into production.
When I was replaying it this week, I wanted to follow through all the leaves have an individual branch, if you will, and I was frustrated to that degree where it would take me farther back than I wanted to go and not let me explore all of those leaves. That said, I thought that the recap in particular was the best part. Like that was a really an innovation. It's not something that I'd seen before that I think will probably become a gold standard for this type of format in the future.
THINK ABOUT WHAT CHOICES MEAN
One choice context that I found particularly effective was the kind of locked, safe situation where the story presents you with the protagonist’s father's safe. And there are different storylines that could lead you to think that different things might be inside. You might think that it's about this government control program. You might think that it contains something that's quite personal. And you're offered options about what combination to use to unlock the safe. And it presents the task as though it's a puzzle and as though you're supposed to solve it by knowing what the combination ought to be based on what's happened previously. But actually, all of the combinations are words that connect somehow to what's been going on in the story. So the choice that you're really making is what do I think is important enough to be the thing that might be in the safe at this moment? And so, although it disguises itself as a puzzle, it's actually asking what do you as a player care about, and that I thought was quite cool.
It actually works better than it would have done if there was a parser type answer, because it's making it really clear there are potentially multiple right answers. And if you revisit that choice point, having come through different avenues in the store, you're actually offered different combinations solutions, which lead then on to different discoveries in the safe.
I think that's what the fight sequence is about as well…what type of game are we playing?
Yeah. I managed to miss enter that code through clumsiness and get it wrong in playtesting. Just not enough people were getting the number. I also had to be much more explicit about it and retire that as the main puzzle from what I gathered from the script,
Okay. But the question I got about the whole thing, actually, in the podcast. They interviewed Charlie Brooker about Black Mirror in general. And the impression I get from that was that Netflix said, Would you like to do this interactive fiction? They went, No, we don't want to. That's really nice. But we want to leave that. And then came up with an idea about a Black Mirror episode involving control and agency, and then did it the other way around, and went, Oh, no, this has to be interactive. Which at first involved trying to build this massive, massive branching tree narrative, and then production reality hit that massive tree. And so, what we've got left is really a very sparse impression of what the original structure was supposed to be. Because, as we all know, having again been through this loop over 30 years or whatever, the combinatorial explosion just doesn't work for filmed content really well.
And it made me wonder, like, why didn't they structurally do more with what we call failing forward (trial and error)? For example, you might have a choice with three options. Each option is testing a certain stat or maybe a certain Boolean for the past thing that you've already chosen, and it tests it, and then you have six different possible outcomes that involve either success, or failure. Why not just make two films for six different outcomes? Sure, it's expensive as hell to shoot a bunch of different outcomes. But if you can write something that either fails forward, or succeeds forward, and just elaborate on little moments here and there, then you could you could have something that feels a little more meaningful,
The production team were also saying that they tried to record a scene, and then a bunch of different lines to plug into that scene, and found that they just completely lost the emotion of the scene because they didn't know where it was going. So they actually had to record the scene six times, with six different line deliveries. An experienced game actor, will know how to do that and to be able to authenticate themselves, but they're not using game actors for filming.
I think they were banking on the fact that 90% of the players are not going to turn it down for a variety of reasons. It's the most interesting choice in the scene. Let's do it and see what happens right again, that's the problem with their intentionality. And their design strategy is to make one much more attractive than the other. And then they either reward you or punish you for picking the most attractive one and I'm not interested in being punished and I'm not even really that interested in being rewarded.
The first time I got the take your meds or don't take your meds I got to it from the path where Colin has ranted about people controlling you by putting stuff in your food in the context of the government control path, which is not well executed and is not believable. But in that context, deciding to throw your pills away makes a lot of sense. It's a story
The second time I got to it. I did not have the context of the common explanation. It was just I'd come from my psychiatrist office. And so I took the meds and then I failed to finish the game and the game that Stefan created was not well received. And so explicitly connecting antidepressants to creativity is incredibly irresponsible. So yeah, I was pretty disappointed by that.
What are the social messages of this piece?
I found the mental illness aspects troubling. I also think there was a missed opportunity to go as far as they could have done with the friendship with Collin because it felt like he was a really interesting character and the possibility of comradeship in a difficult emotional space and different creative space is really important. And it is a possible resolution for a lot of the things that are afflicting the character. And the fact that they take you partway down that road and then they say, Oh, he drugs you, or you accept his drugs and then things go haywire. And there's this weird force jumping off a balcony scene. I felt like that was there was something false about that. It felt like we got to this point because they thought it would be shocking or because they felt like they had to show you having a bad result for taking drugs. It feels like it's an opening to emotional intimacy and connection and you want to say yes to that, and it really bothered me that the story was like a hard no, and not for a good reason.
I was genuinely emotionally affected by the death ending. There's a bit at the very beginning where, where you're talking about your mother's death, and the psychiatrist says he didn't know. And so being back there and picking …No, I'm not getting on the train, knowing what's going to happen is also a very interesting emotional moment. I would have liked to have seen them do more of that.
Heather Albano, Mary Duffy, Jason Stevan Hill, Emily Short, and Ian Thomas. 2019. Narrascope 2019 - Panel Discussion - Dissecting the Bandernatch With a Vorpal Blade. In Narrascope 2019: YouTube.
How interactive narratives can be used to enhance traditional publishing and exploit intellectual property by Joanna Eloise Ross-Barrett (2017)
This dissertation analyses various types of interactive narratives, with a particular focus on digital storytelling and its potential to enhance the fiction market.
DEFINES ‘interactive narrative’ as any product that deliberately invites interaction over the course of the narrative, where ‘interaction’ means a nontrivial effort by the reader/player, such as shuffling pages, rolling dice, making choices, or successfully completing parts of gameplay (p. 14).
DESPITE ONGOING DEFINITION CONFUSION - As genre boundaries blur, legal definitions of e-books versus games are unclear.
- In the UK books and book formats zero rated for VAT. Despite arguments to include e-books in this exemption for now 20% VAT is still charged in the UK.
- To get a 13 digit ISBN number (essential for bookseller distribution, and tracked by the Nielsen sales database) the artefact must include fixed text content (as opposed to modifiable digital text) and as a general rule buyers must be purchasing content, rather than experiences.
AUDIENCE - citing (on p. 15) Levi (2013) states that 80% of under 35 yr olds want to engage with stories and brands and "Thrive on creation, connection, curation and community"
5 types of physical book (pbooks) interaction
1) Choose the order of the content (loose bound, modular sections, expendable chapters) e.g. a crossword in Landscape Painted with Tea (Pavić, 1988, 1992 in English), partially determines the order of reading, and the final chapters are left blank for the audience imagination to fill in.
2) Recombine a set of pieces e.g. The Amazing Story Generator (2012) uses a split page mechanics to create a random story prompt generator with thousands of possible outcomes, from which the reader may choose to write a longer piece
3) Decide whether to engage with or ignore paratextual materials such as illustrations, maps, footnotes, editor’s notes, appendices or even external websites e.g. image based navigation which contain hidden visual clues (Captive, 2016).
- Or joke footnote devices such as a 'footnerphone' which disrupts character conversations, so that one talks in text, and the other only in footnotes, without managing to communicate with the other in The Jurisdiction Chronicles (2001- present).
- Other playful structures include Lanark (1981) which starts with Book 3 (followed by Books 1, 2 and 4), features a Prologue between Chapters 11 and 12, plus a representation of the author appears in an Epilogue (which contains lots of wry footnotes about the text’s inconsistencies and weaknesses, plus an Index of Plagiarisms) between Chapters 40 and 41.
- Some pbooks rely on paratextual materials that are external to the physical book itself. Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman’s Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233 (2006) combined a YA novel with alternative reality game (ARG)32 features, inviting readers/players to piece together the mystery of where Cathy has gone using a physical ‘evidence pack’ that came with the hardback; facsimiles of its contents were provided in the trade paperback edition (Running Press). There were also ARG elements such as phone numbers with voicemail content and various websites to discover and use.
4) Gamebooks, where the reader affects the narrative through their choices or actions
e.g. Choose Your Own Adventure Games may include false leads (Cup of Death, 2017), hidden endings revealed by solving a puzzle (Escape from the Haunted Warehouse, 2015), ignoring instructions and flicking at random to a separate page (UFO 54-40’s 1979 - 1998), or cheating (Analogue: A Hate Story 2012)
5) Tabletop roleplaying provide a framework for a similar process in group settings, which usually require significant improvisation by participants. (p50). Popular genres include fantasy, science fiction and horror. Tabletop roleplaying materials provide everything from fully prewritten adventures and lore to raw materials and mechanics for developing original content.
DEVELOPING DIGITAL FICTION CONVENTIONS
- To share agency (a sense of being able to influence outcomes) players are given the option to defy narrator suggestions (p. 29) e.g. For example, in ICEY (2013) the player may enter a forbidden area or refuse to wake up and move around. In The Stanley Parable (2016) the player may enter a door to the right rather than the left or repeatedly throw themself off a platform in a suicide attempt even as the narrator begs them not to.
- To emphasise constraints offer meaningless choices e.g. For example, in Analogue: A Hate Story (2012), the communication system hascharacters offer the player binary responses to give when asked a question. This is used to build upon the themes of the game, as when *Mute cannot conceive of an unmarried female protagonist – to her, the only possible explanations are ‘I’m underage’ and ‘I’m an old lady’. This reflects the misogynistic society *Mute existed in, while building resentment in the player that they cannot accurately express their own perspective with the dialogue options available. Similarly, in Creatures Such As We (2014), a broad range of age ranges, gender identity options and ethnicity options are provided for the reader/player’s in-game persona, but when the narrative shows that character playing another game, only two gender identity options and three ethnicity options for their avatar are offered, along with a futile option to complain.
- These constraints can become meaningful in social situations however. For example, Rust (early access 2013-present),randomly assigns each player a permanent, unchangeable sex and race – despite having no mechanical effects. Nevertheless, this ‘has had a profound effect on the way players play’, with some taking to message boards to discuss the fact that this was the first time they’d suffered racial discrimination – from other players, not preprogrammed characters (Extra Credits, 2015).
- The removal of meaningful choice can also be played for character-building and comedic effect, as in Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (2017) where the protagonist tells himself to say something cool or not get over-competitive, but the dialogue options that follow each admonition are all uncool or competitive. In contrast, the final lack of choice in Emily Is Away (2015) is a moment of grim realisation and character growth. As the protagonist comes to realise that there is noway to save their relationship with Emily, they can attempt to make conversation with her but every attempt at heartfelt communication is ‘self-censored’ by the game to become smalltalk, until the player gradually runs out of options, finally leaving three instances of the dialogue option ‘Goodbye.’
- Night In The Woods (2017) frequently blends the effect of comedy, relationship difficulties and character development in the protagonist’s dialogue options – most notably when in stressful conversations, the player can only choose between a range of inappropriate dialogue options. Thus, the protagonist blurts out unhelpful responses that upset or infuriate the person she is talking to.
Cites Zheng (2016, pp.59-60) who notes that there has been a considerable range of academic research on both digital and non-digital children’s literature texts in recent years. Her list of relevant papers, quoted in Appendix 9, demonstrates the breadth of topics that have been analysed so far.
- Digital fictions are a growing market, with strong appeal for younger audience.
The UK Literacy Association has introduced a Digital Book Award.
- In addition, The Literacy Trust provides resources encouraging parents to share literacy-focused apps with their children, which are readily available online (The Literacy Trust).
- Once dominant, text only interactions which boomed in the 1970s and 1980s are now a niche market. Now, visual novels (which spread from Japan and Korea) are booming, with some like Cinders (2014) incorporating Western art styles whilst story apps, educational materials and self-help resources demonstrate potential growth area. (p. 18).
- The considerable (but often dismissed) market for visual novels, and the divisive issues of whether book-like products are to be considered as ‘real games’ among gamers demonstrate the need for publishers to understand the context and perception of releases.
e.g. Visual novels also come with strong cultural connotations of ‘geekiness’ and are heavily associated with their commercially successful subgenre, dating sims, although in fact there are many visual novels that are unrelated to this subgenre (p. 42).
- Those which include game-like elements such as Long Live The Queen (2013) (which includes a statistical life management simulator) and the Ace Attorney series (2001 - present), (which includes point and click crime scenes, and court-room cross investigation opportunities) - tend to receive more attention from the gaming press.
- While often perceived as something of a niche hobby by outsiders, tabletop roleplaying books and related products are not to be underestimated from a commercial standpoint – Drout notes that after its inception it quickly became a booming industry (2007: 229).
Use of existing IP
A relatively low-risk strategy for developing interactive narratives involves building upon successful stories that are now in the public domain. e.g. Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries (Lientz, Ryan and Creighton 1987-1989), or the Agatha Christie video game series and Jane Austen’s work: Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure (Campbell Webster, 2007) and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) where pages with interactive animations also had a bloody fingerprint icon that led to further interactive elements (such as game levels where the reader/player takes on the role of Elizabeth Bennet on a zombie-killing spree). The app also featured an option where readers could tilt the device 180 degrees to read the original Jane Austen novel, or tilt it 90 degrees to see the original and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies side by side, making use of interaction to facilitate parody in a whole new way by providing instant comparison between the texts.
More recently, Shakespeare’s work has been adapted to gamebook format in texts that blend the classic stories with a wide range of new content. Romeo And/Or Juliet (North 2016) includes gamebooks-within-gamebooks, a pastiche of text-parsing games,and even choose-your-own sex scenes. The follow up project To Be or Not To Be (North, 2013), a self-published book became the most-funded publishing project on Kickstarter ever, raising more than half a million dollars. Both books are written in modern, informal language with some extracts provided in the original Shakespearean.
Create tie-ins with existing brands - for cross promotion
The Walking Dead (a zombie adventure CYOA game inspired by the comic series with moral choices) has between 2,296,192 and 2,379,230 owners and its retail price is £18.99 (or $24.99 in the USA), which works out as estimated sales figures between £43,604,700 and £45,181,600 (Steam Spy).
Interactive narratives that tie in with children’s, YA and popular fiction (especially fantasy) are a powerful tool for building up existing brands when they are used correctly.
Reworked fairy tales are also popular
- Cinders (2012) was priced at £14.99 (or $19.99 in the USA) and had an estimated 51,339 to 64,501 owners, suggesting sales figures around £769,600 to £966,900 (Steam Spy).
- The Wolf Among Us (2014) a critically praised dark fairtyle was priced at £18.99 (or $24.99 in the USA), and has between 1,026,640 and 1,082,740 estimated owners (Steam Spy). This suggests its sales figures are between £19,495,900 and £20,561,200.
The education market is important
- The MindShift Guide to Digital Games and Learning provides an overview of various studies, noting that video games can have a positive cognitive, motivational, emotional and social impact (Shapiro et al., 2014, p.6, citing Granic, Lobel and Engels, 2013) and according to an SRI study (2014), can even improve student achievement and broad cognitive competencies in STEM classes by about 12% for a student in the median of academic achievement – this is a significant improvement in the world of educational attainment.
- In addition, children’s motivation to read and active engagement in the task of reading seem to increase when they use ebooks rather than traditional pbook texts – this may be especially noticeable for reluctant readers (Ciampa, 2012). (p. 63)
- Previous research studies indicate that additions such as animated images (sometimes enriched with music and sound) that match simultaneously presented story text can help integrate language and nonverbal information, thereby promoting the storage of these in the child’s memory (Bus, Takacs and Kegel, 2015). This can facilitate multimedia learning, particularly among children who are deemed to be at risk for language or reading difficulty (Bus, Takacs and Kegel, 2015). However, features like mini-games and ‘hotspots’ may be linked to poor performance on vocabulary and story comprehension tests, probably because they require task-switching, which – like multi-tasking – can cause cognitive overload (Bus, Takacs and Kegel, 2015).(p.64)
The potential for interaction as a self-help tool (p. 65)
Self-help books are a lucrative part of the publishing industry (Ackman and Bauer, 2016). e.g.
Superbetter (app released 2015) and Nerd Fitness (app released 2013) offer users the chance to create an alter ego and fulfil real-life ‘quests’ around healthy living in order to gain experience and level up in-game.
- Pbook self-help titles (such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens (Covey, 1998) often include interactive elements, such as quizzes, structured writing exercises, time management exercises and so on.
e.g. Sacrilege (Ellison, 2013) uses a nightclub setting to explore themes of sex, (hetero)sexuality, sexism and feminism. By putting the player in the role of a heterosexual woman, the creator aimed to keep the character’s voice and lived experience very intimate and stifling, making the player feel ‘suffocated by heterosexual mores and gender roles’ (Ellison, 2017, §7). As a bonus for the reader/player who perseveres to the conclusion, the protagonist receives an anonymous note which serves as a manifesto for a feminist approach to sex, focusing on consent and clarity of communication around sex. Monster Loves You! (2013) is a game targeted at a younger audience, exploring the complexities of decision-making and how our actions affect the people we become in later life and how other people think of us. The game requires the player to navigate the difficulties of childhood, including getting in disagreements with other children and adults, deciding whether to own up to their mistakes, and handling the consequences of their actions. By giving the player opportunities to improve or exacerbate the tensions between humans and monsters. Thus, interactive content can use an intuitive and entertaining format to encourage self-awareness and self-improvement, as well as greater awareness.
Capitalising on nostalgia for older interactive narratives (pp. 71 - 72)
The current nostalgia-based resurgence of interest in gamebooks is not to be underestimated, but gauging the target market’s wishes requires in-depth knowledge. e.g. Some of the Fighting Fantasy IP was used as a basis for a series of games: Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4).
Sorcery! Parts 1 and 2 has between 69,284 and 84,378 owners, with a retail price of £6.99 (or $9.99 in the USA), which works out as estimated sales figures between £484,300 and £589,800 (Steam Spy).
Discusses a case study where crowdsourcing volunteers digitised works and enabled a free website without advertisements, but as a result the digital versions were fairly simple, lacking more sophisticated or enhanced features. (p. 75).
e.g. making Sacrilege available for free online ensured the widest possible range of potential readers had the opportunity to experience the text-based game and how it promoted thoughtful consideration of approaches to sex and sexuality in the modern world. It also served as an effective form of advertisement of Ellison’s skills as a writer and video game narrative designer –
Free-to-play (FTP) models
There is a growing tendency to provide potential customers with a sample of the experience a narrative can offer them. Examples include letting users play the first episode within a series (such as Life Is Strange, 2015, and The Lion’s Song, 2016- 2017), letting them play the entire game through once (as with Glasser’s Creatures Such As We, 2014) or limiting their access to new content and offering this content and other features as an ‘upgrade’ that can be acquired with a one-off payment (DragonFable, 2006-present) or subscription (Fallen London, 2009-present; RuneScape, 2001-present). Samples can also work for older texts – Pottermore (2012- present) repackages key scenes from the original Harry Potter texts (Rowling, 1997- 2007) by adding new interactive para-textual materials, maintaining fan interest and bringing more users to its online shop.
One method of encouraging readers/players to make a payment is to limit or delay their access to content. For example, in Fallen London, there is a deck of six opportunity cards (which replenish every three minutes) and a ‘candle’ which burns down each time you use an action (one action is replenished every eight minutes); it allows you to stockpile a maximum of twenty actions, but there is the option to pay $7 per month to become an Exceptional Friend. The Fallen London in-game menu notes that ‘Exceptional Friends receive a substantial story every month, double the actions (up to 40 at once), more cards to draw in their opportunity deck (10 instead of 6) and access to the House of Chimes [a special ingame location].’ Thus, it is impossible to access all of the content available in Fallen London without paying. Creatures Such As We uses a different variation on this model. It is freely available for one full playthrough on the publisher’s website, but during this playthrough there are several break points which require the reader/player to wait for increasingly long periods to unlock the next section – first five minutes, then ten, fifteen, twenty and so on. During the wait there is a page featuring a countdown timer and links to where the reader/player can buy the product to skip the wait and have infinite replays (Choice ofGames).
The concept is that, while thriftier users can still access the entire story, the urge to know what happens next will motivate those who were on the fence to invest in the game – by the time that the twenty-minute timer is set off, an in-game crisis has begun, creating a significant cliffhanger for the (now hopefully quite invested) reader/player. Furthermore, after completing the game, the reader/player will (ideally) want to replay to see how other routes play out, and therefore be prepared to pay for the opportunity, since the website remembers their progress and is intended to prevent infinite replays.61 Overall, these models are very effective for ensuring that the reader/player can assure themself of a product’s quality and suitability before they go on to spend money on it, and this ‘taster’ provides an opportunity to get them invested in a product through compelling storytelling and/or gameplay.
Purchase-only models and bundle deals
As more and more games compete in digital marketplaces, it can be difficult for games to get the attention they need from consumers (Sinclair, 2016). Without free-toplay models, the product itself cannot serve as a form of ‘try before you buy’ promotion – but on the other hand, demos, reviews and Let’s Play videos that heavily feature the product in use can serve to fill that gap. (These are analogous to the Amazon ‘look inside’ feature, the Google Books previews of random pages, but most of all the Nielsen Book2Look promotional widget.)
There may be an easy-to-access audience if the work is adapted from another existing product (such as The Wolf Among Us 2013 having a built-in potential target audience of Fable fans). However, original IP is likely to rely on the writer, developer and/or publisher’s reputation, plus the specific product’s marketing campaign, to generate interest. In the case of Choice of Robots (£6.99) and Choice of Alexandria (2016, £1.99), there is the author-based ‘Kevin Gold Bundle’ of both products on Steam (£7.63, a saving of 15%).
Ross-Barrett, J.E., 2017. How interactive narratives can be used to enhance traditional publishing and exploit intellectual property.
The USW Audience of the Future research team is compiling a summary collection of recent research in the field of immersive, and enhanced reality media