New Frontiers in Digital Interactive Fiction

Becky Friedman

Introduction

Noted author Neil Gaiman once said of writing that it is a very solitary pursuit: “You can sit in a room and write the funniest joke in the world, and nobody’s gonna laugh…” (Keegan 2013). He was right; writers, as a general rule, are isolated from their readers as they write. While writers generally have a back-and-forth with editors, this is a professional relationship. It does not reflect on the writers’ interactions with their intended consumers. Writers, historically, have no way of interacting with their readership until the finished product is in somebody’s hands.

Or at least, that was the case. For a very long time, it has been the case that writers could only engage with their fans by answering fan mail, or by speaking at book talks; beyond that, the creator-consumer divide was impenetrable. New technology and new attitudes are changing that, changing the way we create culture – and changing the way we consume it. Now, opportunities are opening up for writers and readers to communicate about the work while its in progress, engaging with every stage of its development. Interest now shapes outcome.

Solitary Study to Spectator Sport: The Changing Face of Fiction

Back in Dickens’ day, his serial novels were the apex in interactive literature. After all, readers would have the opportunity, in between installments, to speculate on what might happen next. To imagine for themselves the coming developments. Perhaps they could send letters to the writer; perhaps, if he were feeling generous, he would even write back. Within this time-honored model there is, perhaps, a degree of interaction possible – but there is little, if any, agency on the part of the reader.

Chris Crawford, in his book on interactive storytelling, defines interactivity as “a cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks” (Crawford 2005, 29). Marie-Laure Ryan adds that “a genuinely interactive system involves… choice” (Ryan 2011, 35). By this definition, the traditional literature model is categorically not interactive. It is not cyclic: the book goes from the writer to the reader and stays put. It does not involve two active agents: the writer is active, but the reader only passively consumes the text.

Today, however, that model is not the only option. The advent of the internet and new media has both increased consumers’ desire for agency and provided potential vehicles for offering just that. And far from threatening the status of books, this trend of allowing agency to the consumers can improve a work, making it more engaging to the audience and thereby drawing people in to the text.

Choosing Your Adventure: Branched Storytelling and Audience Agency in Static Stories

But how to make a work interactive and still maintain its place as literature? How do we make an interactive story something distinct from a game, still rooted in text but offering agency and choice to the reader?

Michael Joyce offered one early innovative solution with the first hypertext novel in 1990 (Douglas 2000, 1). A hypertext story exists on a computer – whether online or stored on a disk – and rather than advancing in a linear fashion, readers click hyperlinks to the next step in a path or to glean extra information. Generally, there are a number of possible paths, and the readers choose which hyperlink of two or more options to click, thus selecting a particular course for the story to follow. J. Yellowlees Douglas comments that, as a result, a reader can read and re-read hypertext stories numerous times and actually see a different story, different text, each time: “It is not a matter of the river being different each time you cross it so much as it is a matter of your stepping into an entirely different river with each journey you take” (Douglas 2000, 16). The author has constructed an outwardly branching narrative, with segments of text written to accommodate a wide array of discrete plots or orders. The words are all already written – but by being sole determiner of how the story plays out each time, the reader experiences the sensation or illusion of authorship.

This idea is not new, nor is it the sole domain of the computer. In the 1970s, long before hypertext stories, the first “Choose Your Own Adventure” book was published. These paper-and-ink books, written in the second person, offered readers as much agency as hypertext stories do. After a passage of text, the reader is presented with a choice. Each option is accompanied by a page number where that branch of the story continues. All the text was written, but the story would play out according to the reader’s whims. These books are widely known but widely disregarded, dismissed as gimmicky and juvenile.

Perhaps not. In 2013, Ryan North’s To Be Or Not to Be – a choose-your-own-adventure-style retelling of Hamlet – was funded through Kickstarter and self-published. Its public appeal is demonstrated by the fact that it broke every Kickstarter publishing record at the time before factoring in further sales (Hallett 2013). Although it marks the “choices taken” in the original Shakespeare, it also allows readers to choose one of three characters to read “as” (i.e., from that character’s viewpoint) and alternate options to explore – in fact, it boasts enough possible distinct “adventures” to provide a different story on each reread, “assuming you don’t read the book 3,001,181,439,094,525 times” (North 2013, 1). North’s success speaks to the newfound popularity of his medium: he followed it up a few short years later with Romeo and/or Juliet, using the same “chooseable-path” premise. Then, in 2018, he produced William Shakespeare Punches a Friggin’ Shark – breaking away from the confines of one play to craft a new branching storyline that follows a fictionalized version of Shakespeare’s life and works.

Comment Culture: Audience Feedback and the Bilateral Nature of Online Stories

In both hypertext narratives and books with branching storylines, the text, no matter how dynamic it seems, is essentially static: it is already written, and once reaching the reader’s hands it will not change. By Crawford’s definition of interactivity, they are interactive only if one can ascribe agency to the text itself. In a manner of speaking, the text “listens” to the reader’s choices and “responds” with the hyperlinked document or the page the reader turns to. There is a back-and-forth between reader and text – but the author is silent, excluded from that exchange.

This shortcoming is resolved, once more, with the help of the internet. Today, many writers post stories serially on media such as blogs, discussion forums, and dedicated fiction sites. In Stories and Social Media, Ruth Page even makes the daring claim that “in contexts where a single teller prevails, but shapes the narrative to the anticipated demands of their audience” (Page 2011, 47), the audience members are considered to share “tellership” with the writer. Page’s statement is significant: even if the claim that the readers share authorship is rejected, the very possibility is an indication that this is exactly the type of dynamic interactivity – a process of meaningful choices shared by multiple active agents – that Crawford and Ryan touted.

In “‘Update Soon!’,” Thomas Bronwen presents a case study of fanfiction to examine this dialogic quality between creator and consumer. He writes that in these online narratives, “authors frequently reply directly to the comments posted by their readers, their replies sometimes appearing alongside the original comment” (Bronwen 2011, 208). Bronwen’s study shows that on digital media that allow commenting, interactivity in narratives isn’t merely possible but likely. Even though these stories are almost universally linear (unlike the examples of hypertext and choose-your-own-adventure), the linearity does not in any way detract from the audience’s agency. Here, rather than conversing with the text, readers can converse with the writer. They can present their own thoughts directly as comments on the piece, confident that the writer will read, consider, and possibly even respond to those comments. With such a promise of influence, it is no wonder that online fiction sites have such vibrant communities.

Fanfiction is not the sole domain for reader‒writer interplay. Neil Gaiman himself decided to try to break the empty-room model with his “Calendar of Tales” project in 2013. He tweeted twelve questions over the course of twelve hours, encouraging his nearly-two-million Twitter followers to answer the questions. He then selected his favourite responses for each question and used those as prompts to write twelve short stories, tweeting his thoughts on writing them all the while.

When the stories were all written, Gaiman published them for free online, and encouraged his readers to create art based on any inspiration they took from his words. The questions and the chosen answers, the short stories and the curated art, together, all formed a dazzling finished product on a website dedicated to this Calendar of Tales.

Nor is Neil Gaiman the only professional author whose readers can affect the material they read. The young-adult writer Amelia Atwater-Rhodes has experimented extensively in engaging with her readers throughout the writing process. Most recently, on her website and on her Facebook page, she has told serial short stories set in the times between her published novels. She tells her readers outright that the frequency with which she updates, and the length to which the stories last, depends directly on the readers’ engagement – the more people comment, and the more interest people show, the more she’ll tell.

Welcome to The World: Interactive Stories and Characters Who Engage

We have examined two types of interactivity in fiction thus far: interaction between the reader and the text itself, as manifest in hypertext narratives and choose-your-own-adventure fiction, and interaction between the reader and the writer – as present in fanfiction and other online serials. What remains is perhaps the most elusive but fascinating possibility for interaction: interaction between the reader and the characters, or between the reader and the fictional world. How can this be done, when the characters and world are just that: fictional? The internet provides the answer once again.

Atwater-Rhodes, in her continued transmedia experimentation, has implemented two projects that take interactivity to a level beyond the comment-and-response interplay discussed above. The 2011-12 project Inbox of Diana Smoke allowed readers to sign up to receive emails from Atwater-Rhodes’ characters directly to their own inboxes, uncovering a story that bridged between the last novel then-published to the next one in the same manner as the characters involved would. In 2013, she took this a step further with BlueX, wherein readers could propose “research” projects directly to a character, and gain access to interview other characters relevant to the research project via Atwater-Rhodes’ online forum, where she would post the characters’ actions and responses for their side of the interview.

In other transmedia projects, characters have their own social media accounts with which to interact with audience members. For example, in the 2012 Youtube series The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, consumers could comment to the eponymous Lizzie Bennett on her Youtube page, Google+, or Tumblr, or they could tweet to her (among other characters) over Twitter, where she would both respond to such comments and carry out in-world conversations with her fellow fictional characters. And in alternate reality games, such as the 2012 The Wall Will Fall (Watch the Footage), players can not only ask questions of the characters over twitter and blogs; they directly influence the characters’ actions through persuasive interaction and active puzzle-solving.

In A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia, Andrea Phillips urges creators to appreciate the value of this type of interactivity. Of interaction in general, she says, “it’s what electrifies the audience. Even that silent majority of passive audience members can be electrified by the spectacle of other, more active participants reaching out and seeing the story reach back” (Phillips 2014). In other words, when interaction is possible, audience engagement is immediately heightened, even among audience members who are not taking advantage of the opportunity. She adds of character-interaction in particular that it “allows the audience to feel a deeper connection to the story world. Your characters become more than fiction, instead rising to the level of people your audience knows and has a personal relationship with” (Phillips 2014). When readers can engage directly with the characters in the story, the text becomes a part of their life.

Instant Gratification: Down-to-the-Second Reader‒Text Interaction

Even Gaiman’s and Atwater-Rhodes’ innovative projects involve some time-delay between themselves and their readers. But in truth, the conversation between author and reader can be even more organic than that. It can be just that: a conversation, happening in real time.

Google’s “Drive” feature allows people to share documents by just sending a link to their desired audience. With colored cursors, people can use Google Drive to collaborate on projects without being in the same place – or to watch one person write, following the writer’s progress as the words seem to “magically” appear on the reader’s screen.

In my own fiction writing, I frequently use this feature. I work with a regular collaborator across the continent with the help of Google Docs: in one shared document, we can both edit at once, while seeing each other’s writing in real time. We can comment on each other’s writing, correct each other’s typos, or finish each other’s sentences.

Amelia Atwater-Rhodes has also recently implemented Google Drive for use with her “beta-readers” (a preliminary step in the editing process: the “beta-readers,” who are typically authentic members of the author’s target readership, read through early drafts and provide their running commentary, so the author can see that characters are making the right impressions and that the right reader expectations are being cultivated, before sending the manuscript on to the editor). She shared documents containing a few chapters at a time with myself and one other beta-reader, and we left our comments as we read directly on the document. Not only did this reduce reader-response time – Atwater-Rhodes had access to each comment as it was written, rather than waiting for a document of commentary to be emailed back – but it also made the process more dialogic. I and my fellow beta-reader could see each other’s running thoughts as well, and could bounce ideas and predictions off each other, providing the writer with a view of a microcosm of how her fanbase might respond to the final text.

Technology has opened new frontiers for the written word. Where once the writer‒reader divide was immutable, it is now fluid, flexible, permeable, allowing information and ideas to flow dynamically in both directions. Questions will continue to arise regarding what these broader horizons will mean for editors. Only time will tell how these different roles will continue to evolve and overlap – but the landscape has already changed dramatically. For Neil Gaiman, writing may have been a solitary pursuit. But when I write a joke, my friends across the world laugh with me.

References

Bronwen, Thomas. “‘Update Soon!’: Harry Potter Fanfiction and Narrative as a                    Participatory Process.”

New Narratives: Stories and Storytelling in the Digital Age. Ed. Ruth Page and Thomas Bronwen. Lincoln, NE: UNP – Nebraska Paperback, 2011. 205-219.

Crawford, Chris. 2005. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. Berkeley: New Riders.

Douglas, J. Yellowlees. 2000. The End of Books– Or Books Without End? Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hallett, Alison. 2013. “Outrageous Fortune: A Self-Published Riff on Hamlet Broke Every Kickstarter Record. But is this Book Worth $580,905?” The Slate Book Review. Last accessed June 4, 2018.   http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2013/08/ryan_north_s_kickstarter_hamlet_adventure_to_be_or_not_to_be_reviewed.html

Keegan, Rebecca. 2013.“Getting to Know Neil Gaiman.” Los Angeles Times. Last accessed June 4, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-neil-gaiman-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane-20130616-story.html

North, Ryan. 2013. To Be or Not to Be: A Chooseable-path Adventure. Toronto: Breadpig.

Page, Ruth. 2011. Routledge Studies in Sociolinguistics: Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction. Florence, KY: Routledge.

Phillips, Andrea. 2012. A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms. New York: McGraw-Hill. Web. Mar. 10, 2014.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2011. “The Interactive Onion: Layers of User Participation in Digital Narrative Texts.” In New Narratives: Stories and Storytelling in the Digital Age. Ed. Ruth Page and Thomas Bronwen. Lincoln, NE: UNP – Nebraska Paperback. 35-62.

Pemberley Digital. 2012. The Lizzie Bennett Diaries. Last accessed June 5, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXfbQAimgtbk4RAUHtIUww

TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, 2012. Watch the Footage. Last accessed June 5, 2018. http://watchthefootage.twwf.info/

 

Edited by Elisheva Brauner

© Becky Friedman, 2018, All rights reserved.

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