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(Interactive) Novel Concepts

January 17, 2012

No clever song lyric title today, my Mackadamia Nuts,

Today I’m going to discuss, briefly, the concept of the interactive novel as a means of telling a new(ish) form of stories. I haven’t waxed eloquent about interactive storytelling in months, and should probably be writing this in the blog, but I may simply crosspost it if it looks good enough when I’m done.

The idea is, since eReaders are becoming more common, it should soon be possible to sell people novels with multiple paths and endings. There is a limitation to this, as has been pointed out many, many times by critics of the old Choose Your Own Story ‘game books’. See, the problem is exponentiality. If you start by writing several paths that diverge and keep diverging, you’ll write a thousand pages for ten minutes of storytelling. This is, potentially, Immersion Fail. A great storyteller can do a great deal with ten minutes or even less of storytelling. Flash Fiction and Nanofiction pretty much live or die by the amount of minutes they can tell a compelling and evocative story in.

That said, there’s something about buying something that calls itself a novel, and then turns out to be a series of interconnecting short stories that you have to read and reread to get all of the salient plot points from that would only appeal to people who like to pick turkeys clean of meat after Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner (sorry, I know that’s a pretty North American reference). The point is, most people want to read a story from one end to the other and not feel they missed much.

So where does that leave interactive storytelling? Well, there’s an argument that half of the interactivity can be gained from cross-referencing and footnotes, as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett proved admirably. Using hypertext linking or pop-ups (as some eReaders are equipped to do) in the context of a slim interactive story might not be such a bad way to go, but it does sound like a bit of a fuzzy gimmick. I like the pop-ups. Wish my eReader could to that. Not much point in writing for a function that isn’t universal.

Of course, there’s also the video game method, providing side quests that dovetail back into the main thread at some point. I suppose the interactive novel version would be to dedicate a chapter here and there to side quests that you have the option to skip over, but it does require that you decide early on what consequences, if any, you can affect for those that choose to skip ahead. For instance, those who choose not to do the introductory chapter can avoid the tutorial, but they also may miss out on some subtle benefit you have added for those who complete all of the challenges of the tutorial without skipping. It’s kind of a punitive method of making people follow all of your content, but then, it’s the same in linear writing; if you don’t reward the reader, they grow bored and start thumbing through to the good bits. The difference with interactive novels is, you’ve provided hotlinks.

What is needed is a context-sensitive series of links that only allow you certain choices based on what you have already done in the course of the story. If you didn’t go to the Cave of Pastries for the Conch of Creams, then you’re gonna have a pretty hard time stopping Duke Mingus from fully resurrecting and taking over the concert. Err, sorry, that’s a slight spoiler for my next interactive novel, The Lost Fortress of Black Glass.

So the point is, the technology is getting there, but it may or may not be everything I’m hoping for, and I may still be forced to resort to a web interface of some sort, which I’d like to avoid because the web is not infinite, as SOPA and PIPA are determined to prove.

Anyway, I promised to keep it short, so I’m gonna stop here. Think I’ll write a longer bit for LimboInteractive after all. Thanks for reading.


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