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