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Ether for Authors: Where Is Publishing’s Jetpack?

22 October 2013 iStock_000024954293XSmall photog 1871yes texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Is It the Future Yet?
  2. And the Future of Mak­ing Money Writing? Scratch
  3. Macmil­lan and the Library Biz
  4. Confer­ences
  5. Last Gas: Quar­an­tine ‘em All

Is It the Future Yet?

The Wiley Pavilion in Hall 8.0 at Frankfurt Book Fair 2013.

The Wiley Pavilion in Hall 8.0 at Frankfurt Book Fair 2013.

You can blame this on Frankfurt doing its job well.

The big trade show got us all so rightly revved for the future of publishing that now it’s on everybody’s mind. You pick it up here and there—the odd note of impatience, a longing for the wonderment of it all, the haggard sigh about something we’re still struggling with that’s so…now.

And hey, I can’t throw stones. I was getting off a quick response to a comment from reader Joseph Ratliff at the end of the week and found myself writing: “There are those who get it and are reaching out for more.”

Books in Browsers 2012 2I was alerting him to the two-day international Books in Browsers Conference produced by Hypothes.is and Frankfurt Book Fair. It opens in San Francisco on Thursday. (9 a.m. PT / noon ET / 1600 GMT, hashtag: #bib13)

I’m told by organizers that there should be a live stream of some or all of the presentations, so watch that hashtag and we’ll be letting you know how to see it if you’d like to follow there and/or on Twitter. More is in the Conferences section below.

That edition of Writing on the Ether, in fact, was about the Sprint Beyond the Book program at Frankfurt with its emphasis on how publishing culture, business, and books are changing. More about it is here in our Publishing Perspectives report from the Fair.

Dave Morris

Dave Morris

London-based author Dave Morris was leaving a comment in regards to our exchange about the interactive app he wrote for Profile Books and inkle studios, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The intent of that work is to “place you in conversation” with Victor Frankenstein, in a conceptual shift of the story to revolutionary-era France.

In terms of digital development in literature, Morris put his finger on the at times uneasy relationship between our early efforts and “gamification”:

Where are the publishers going with this? They seem to crave animations, audio, visual FX – but that’s the games business, not the book business. Logic and history both suggest that if we are to see genuine innovation in interactive stories—real innovation in the interaction with characters, I mean, not prettier zoomable images—that will come from the tech people hiring in the writing talent, not by book publishers moving into tech.

And the most serious thing to do at this stage may be to let that comment hang in the air.

Proponents of the best culture of gaming will tell you it all is based in storytelling. And it’s worth listening even when the conversation hasn’t turned directly to the content.

David Streitfeld

David Streitfeld

In his Gaming the Future With EA’s [Electronic Arts] Frank Gibeau, the New York Times’ David Streitfeld hears Gibeau say at one point:

If you have 10 minutes, you’re not going to read five pages of a book or watch five minutes of “The Avengers.” You’re going to drop into gaming. It’s bite-sized time.

The more the digital dynamic pits reading against other entertainment media (I still enjoy cursing Angry Birds), the more the industry! the industry! is going to need to face this.

Sometimes, in fact, the gamers aren’t even trying to talk about the primacy of story.

It was Streitfeld, again, who wrote Saturday’s Times piece, This Is War (for a Game Industry’s Soul), featuring the work of Stockholm’s Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment, or DICE, owned by Gibeau’s EA.

Patrick Bach and his DICE team are  behind Battlefield 4, which Streitfeld calls “a dream of Armageddon without civilian suffering to make things messy.”

Using the the Swedish DICE studio's proprietary Frostbite 3 engine, Battlefield 4 leads one of EA's most advanced suites of gaming franchises. Image: DICE.se

Using the the Swedish DICE studio’s proprietary Frostbite 3 engine, Battlefield 4 leads one of EA’s most advanced suites of gaming franchises. Image: DICE.se

Storytelling in this production hotzone, at least, writes Streitfeld, may be a casualty: “Here’s one explanation for all this Swedish success: Gaming is losing its roots in narrative.”

He quotes Bach:

The story is just the coating on the game. The game is now the experience of playing it.

And another DICE management team member, Patrick Soderlund, tells Streitfeld:

I hate to say this, but storytelling does not come naturally to Swedes. But we’re good at designing systems, and that’s what these games really are…Battlefield is a system designed for entertainment rather than for telling you a story.

As dismissive as some in publishing may be of digital “bells and whistles,” this is one arena in which, according to its own practitioners, storycraft already can only dog the main event.

But in terms of expressive storytelling—”the writing talent”—there are interesting developments to report, as well.

Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway

For UK author Dan Holloway, the issue is very much rooted in a writerly exchange with others, his own brush with a form of crowd-sourcing and social writing in 2009 having delivered him an unexpected and welcome surprise now:

A while ago I entered a “first lines” competition on the Harper Collins website Authonomy for a bit of a laugh. I entered the first line from The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, a line I’ve always loved:

“It’s nearly midnight and I’ve watched Agnieszka die 103 times since I woke.”

Mine was one of 1208 entries. Anyway, this Tuesday I discovered, when someone posted this link on my Facebook wall, that I’d won.

In his post at the Authors Electric blog, Creativity, Collaboration, and the Curveballs of Fate (and a free story), Holloway writes:

My experience of interactive, or engaged, or whatever you want to call it, writing with The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes was four years ago. And involved nothing higher tech than a Facebook group. But it opened my eyes to the possibilities, and to just how rewarding it can be to be that engaged with your readers throughout the writing process. It’s also a wonderful way to build a community around your work. In many ways, it reminds me of the ancient communities and their oral storytelling, each community modifying their tales to tell the lessons most pertinent to them. With the proliferation of places offering a platform to write like this, it’s something I’d encourage everyone to at least try.

Brian O'Leary

Brian O’Leary

And Holloway’s authorial turn is followed by New Modes of Reading from Brian O’Leary. He tells of a book fair experience that confirmed, all too well, what some of us keep saying about the fixation we, as a culture, have on a “book” as a thing, something you can hold in the hand or click or swipe or tap. O’Leary:

Before the fair started, I had a chance to talk with a cross-section of the authors…Curiously, several asked me a variation on the same question: “The book is going away, isn’t it?” I kept saying, “No, not really.” …It surprised me that people who wrote and read books, the kind of people who take time on a weekday evening to come to a book fair, could be so pessimistic about the future of the book. In each of these exchanges, I kept pressing to better understand what people meant when they talked about “books.” Although authors and readers agreed that they loved the narrative, a structured argument—a story—they still saw the book as a container, a physical or digital object, a defined way to obtain and consume content. There’s the problem, and the opportunity.

Michael Bhaskar

Michael Bhaskar

And while in preparations for its FutureBook Conference in London (November 21, more in Conferences below), The Bookseller has opened a monthly essay-writing competition themed on “the future of the book business.” In its announcement, the staff writes:

The inspiration for the initiative comes from Profile Books’ digital publishing director Michael Bhaskar whose book The Content Machine is a conscious attempt to chart a line from publishing’s past to its present, and see how it tracks into the digital future. As Bhaskar writes: “Now anyone can publish or be a publisher, what does it really mean to publish?”

On the business side, you feel the press of digital expansion—the energy of which is distribution—right alongside the less happy moments in the disruption. You’ll remember that Kobo and WHSmith—and their authors and their readers—went through a stressful week in which Kobo quarantined its UK store’s ebooks to respond to criticism about self-published pornography. More is in our Last Gas section today.

But even as that painful exercise played out, Kobo announced “the arrival of Kobo’s digital reading platform in India.” In a press release headlined Kobo Sets Sights On Billion-Reader Opportunity As It Introduces World-Class eReading Experience To India, the Toronto-based firm on Thursday wrote: “Starting today, Kobo will be available in retail locations across India through its partnerships with CrosswordWHSmith and Croma.”

Michael Tamblyn

Michael Tamblyn

Chief Content Officer Michael Tamblyn‘s statement caught the spirit of a triumphal entry into a massive new market:

Traditionally known as the land of storytelling, it was important to us that we enter the market with an offering that met the expectations of a discerning Indian audience who are passionate about the books they read. We are delivering an experience that delivers the very best from around the world and titles from the most beloved local authors. In partnership with some of the best retailers, we’ll set the standard for digital reading in India. You can read some more background on the India launch here at Publishing Perspectives, in this interview with Malcolm Neil, Director of Content Acquisition for APAC region, Kobo, published earlier this month (wayyyy back on October 2): “Can Kobo Conquer India? Well Know Soon.”

In the US, the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project reports that mobile and tablets in particular are rising smartly, stating in Tablet and e-reader ownership:

The number of Americans ages 16 and older who own tablet computers has grown to 35%, and the share who have e-reading devices like Kindles and Nooks has grown to 24%. Overall, the number of people who have a tablet or an e-book reader among those 16 and older now stands at 43%.

Joe Wikert

Joe Wikert

One form of content enabled, in part, by e-reading is Joe Wikert’s topic in Kindle Singles and the future of ebooks, positioning them as “a model that will become much more common over time.” He cites five reasons as “the formula” for Singles’ success:

    • End the practice of artificially puffing up content

 

  • Attention spans are shrinking

 

 

  • Amazon becomes the publisher

 

 

  • Kill the competition (publishers and retailers)

 

 

  • Raise short content prices to today’s longer content levels

 

 

And even Singles don’t have to remain the text-replica of print we usually see today.

From Germany's Aurea GmbH, a video included in Hugh Howey's write, demonstrates an interactive game book for kids using an augmented reality approach.

From Germany’s Aurea GmbH, a video included in Hugh Howey’s write, demonstrates an interactive game book for kids using an augmented reality approach.

Back in the more technical realm of possibility, author Hugh Howey—no stranger to futurist thinking, with his Silo Saga running out to more than 300 years ahead of us—touches on the issue this week in his essay about the potentials of augmented reality for storytelling in The Future of Books:

Donning an AR headset to read a picture book will be as common twenty years from now as putting on 3D glasses to watch a film can be today. But imagine this scenario: You put on a pair of AR glasses and grab a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. The glasses recognize the cover of the book, and it knows you’ve purchased the AR version of Gulliver. When you open the book, the story comes to life all around you. Not just on the pages of the book, but on the floor in front of you. There’s Gulliver being washed up on the beach. You might pull your knees up to keep your feet from getting wet. There are the Lilliputians staking Gulliver to the sand. Maybe one of them asks you to place a finger on a knot while they tie a bow.

 

Because moving into new potentials will mean leaving some things behind, it’s hard to contemplate, at times, the sort of speculation we need. Letting go is not easy. As O’Leary puts it in his piece:

It’s hard to re-imagine our world, but it is overdue.

And what he’s suggesting is that we try to ease our grip on the “book,” digital or print. Think beyond the object.

We have to change our metaphors. Limiting ourselves to the container robs us of a chance to lead. We need to become fluid enough to tell stories, not just efficient enough to fill books.

And in his more recent write, The Water’s Edge, O’Leary has a finely explicit way of saying what we need to keep telling ourselves every time anything new or untried looks daunting:

The most significant challenge publishers face is the threat to reading. Diminishing our options for innovation only increases the likelihood that we’ll fail to address that threat.

Back to Table of Contents

And the Future of Mak­ing Money Writing? Scratch

ScratchOh, yeah. Hm. Money. Well. That’s another subject entirely, isn’t it?

Yes it is, and the co-editors of a brand-new online quarterly magazine like to point out that you can barely walk 18 inches in any direction without running into advice for writers, but:

Very few people or publications speak openly about the economic realities of this business. In our bare-it-all media culture, frank talk about money remains taboo. Writers often lack the context or insight to understand our own industry, even as that industry undergoes massive structural and economic changes. Scratch is here to provide a home for open and sustained discussion of these experiences through high-quality content. Yes, we publish advice for writers—but we also go further, investigating the nuances of writers’ relationships to money, work, and publishing.

That’s @Scratch_Mag on Twitter, ScratchMag.net on the worldly wide web, and it’s launching a free preview issue today that will make a lot of folks sit right up and take notice, you’re invited to look it over.

Jane Friedman, left, and Manjula Martin are launching the new Scratch magazine for writers, and have not yet met in in person.

Jane Friedman, left, and Manjula Martin are launching the new Scratch magazine for writers, and have not yet met in person.

The two creators and editors of this magazine that “publishes smart, useful stories about the intersection of writing and money” are:

Jane Friedman, Digital Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, host of Writing on the Ether on Thursday. And yes, you just saw her in Frankfurt at the CONTEC 2013 Conference and on the Beyond the Book team. How does she do it?

Manjula Martin, a freelance writer, editor, and communications strategist…who happens to know Jonathan Franzen and his wife.

What do you really think of Twitter?

She does, she asks him that. Having been given a preview of the new magazine, I can tell you that Martin does a long Q&A with him, and does it since the big Guardian piece from September, Jonathan Franzen: what’s wrong with the modern world, in which nobody asked him but he told us, anyway.

Want a taste of what he tells her? Here’s Franzen. (Watch out—”animus” ahead.)

I have a particular animus to that social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that. Hard to see Kafka tweeting, hard to see Charlotte Bronte self-promoting. If we don’t maintain other avenues for establishing a literary reputation and finding some kind of readership—things like traditional publishers and reviewing, where the writer could just be a writer and not have to wear the flak hat, the salesman hat, the editor hat, the publisher hat—if we don’t maintain those, then we hand over the literary world to the personality types who are, I would say, less suited for the kind of work I care about.

What Franzen lives up to here is Martin’s promise that he’s funny. It’s a long, rich read. Martin presses him about how some highly regarded novelists (in Franzenian, “cliché-free”), including Gabriel Roth, say they think of Twitter as “a formal way to play with language.” Franzen:

A great artist can make great work out of anything, even Play-Doh. It doesn’t mean Play-Doh is an expressive medium for the ages.

So maybe Martin won’t be winning this round, but playing along is fun. When you’re done, you may not like Franzen better, but you might dislike him less. I hope that’s not a cliché.

Best in this free-trial edition is a round table piece with editors Alexis Madrigal, Nicole Cliffe, and Dan Kois from, respectively, The Atlantic, Slate, and The Toast. In Who Pays Writers? We Asked the Editors. they carry on with alarming candor about what they pay and, worse, what they don’t. You have to love Madrigal telling Friedman that The Atlantic has “a very federal system.” You may feel like looking for an extra day job, too. Did I mention having alcohol nearby?

Erin Siegel McIntyre in Tijuana writes Scratch's Freelancer's Journal. Photo: Eros Hoagland

Erin Siegel McIntyre in Tijuana writes Scratch’s Freelancer’s Journal. Photo: Eros Hoagland

Other entries include:

And the editors include a Transparency Index at the end with all their costs expressly revealed for doing the magazine. Check out the “friend rate” for the sweet logo. It’s where almost half the resources went on this issue. I’m in the wrong business.

Scratch’s free-trial issue is a little uneven; one piece strikes me as stretching to build the theme, and I’d like to see more images. But these are minor quarrels, especially for a first outing.

This is a deftly paced collection of work that defines its intent with authority and humility. “Let’s face it. Nobody really knows how all this stuff works,” the co-editors write in their opener. “Scratch doesn’t claim to have all the answers.” How refreshing. The magazine is spunky and cleanly designed, happily without aping Medium, as some others do. And its tone is smart without trying to impress you with that fact. You’ll find yourself bookmarking more than one article along the way.

Plus, everyone writing for Scratch gets their Twitter handle in their byline so people like me don’t have to look them up. Perfection is at hand.

Back to Table of Contents

Macmil­lan and the Library Biz

Almost while we weren’t looking last week, a considerable step forward was made in making ebooks available through US libraries.

Sarah Weinman

Sarah Weinman

In fact, I like that Sarah Weinman at Publishers Lunch reported in Macmillan Expands eBook Library Lending to Total of 11,000 Backlist Titles the means by which we learned this:

The news was first reported on Twitter by 3M collection development coordinator Heather McCormack.

See? That’s one jetpack we do have: big corporate announcements are blasted first out on Twitter.

As Weinman wrote:

A little more than 6 months after entering the digital library market with a pilot program including 1,200 backlist Minotaur titles and other titles from romance imprint Entangled, Macmillan has expanded its digital library offerings to include an additional 9,300 backlist titles across all company imprints. That brings the total number of backlist Macmillan titles available for digital lending to approximately 11,000.

Laura Hazard Owen

Laura Hazard Owen

And the good Laura Hazard Owen in  at GigaOM did us the favor of a quick wrap on where the other major US publishers now stand on library ebook lending:

Random House (now merged with Penguin, but, according to Publishers Lunch, the publishers will retain separate library ebook policies) makes all of its ebooks available to libraries, but at prices as much as three times higher than the retail price.

HarperCollins allows its ebooks to be checked out 26 times before the library has to buy a new copy.

Hachette makes all its ebooks available to libraries and charges more than the retail price, but a library only has to buy a copy once.

Simon & Schuster does not make its ebooks available to libraries.

Back to Table of Contents

Confer­ences

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

Books in Browsers 2012 2October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Produced by the Frankfurt Academy and Hypothes.is, BiB is described as “a small summit for the new generation of internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art.” Now in its fourth year, this is among the most advanced of conferences for issues of form meeting content beyond today’s norms. Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time by Peter Brantley and Kat Meyer in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by Hypothes.is and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and more. (Hashtag: #bib13)

Surrey International Writers Conference siwc.ca - British ColulmbiaOctober 25-27, Surrey, British Columbia: Surrey International Writers Conference: “The Surrey International Writers’ Conference, held every October in British Columbia, is the most comprehensive conference of its kind in Canada. SiWC offers writers in all genres — from beginners to experts — the opportunity both to hone their craft and to expose their work to the international literary marketplace. Registration.   The Writing Platform

November 4, London: The Writing Platform Mini-Fair and Conference: The Writing Platform returns to London’s Rich Mix for a daylong second annual event featuring discussion, practical workshops, a short story competition and a chance to win a Kobo Aura thanks to the involvement of sponsor Kobo Writing Life. Led by author and Bath Spa University professor Kate Pullinger, the day’s full program of panels and seminars is here (PDF) and features speakers including Polly Courtney, Philip Hensher, Anna Lewis, Suw Charman-Anderson, and many more. For tickets, use the Rich Mix box office site.

Get Read conferenceNovember 13-14, Online: Get Read – Marketing Strategies for Writers: Dan Blank’s We Grow Media presents this two-day Internet conference for authors, “focused on helping you ensure your books get read.” Speakers are to include Jason Ashlock, Claire Cook, Elizabeth S. Craig, Jane Friedman, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Ami Greko, Rachel Fershleiser, Richard Nash, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, Chuck Wendig, and more. (Hashtag: #GetRead) For a discount on registration, use code “porter.”

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Nine session, seven “big ideas” pitched, and 40+ speakers including Charlie Redmayne, . Matthew Cashmore, George Walkley, Michael Tamblyn, Patrick Brown, Stephen Page and more. (Hashtag: #fbook13)  Now open for bookings.

DBW Conference 2014January 13-15, 2014, New York City: Digital Book World Conference & Expo: “Digital Book World’s sessions strive to offer you the most practical, relevant and actionable programming on everything from eBook publishing and internet marketing to digital solutions for selling and marketing your books. While we’re still building the final program, registration is officially open.” Speakers include Brad Stone, Tim O’Reilly, Simon Lipskar, Peter McCarthy, Dominique Raccah, Mike Shatzkin, and more. (Hashtag: #DBW14) Best prices end November 8.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.” Back to Table of Contents

Last Gas: Quar­an­tine ‘em All

Quarantine all new ebook titles, even those from big publishers. Only remove the quarantine when either the ebook or its print counterpart has sold more than 100 copies.

Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason’s piece Quarantine all ebooks appears as a response-to-a-response-to the business of WHSmith in the UK having shuttered its own site last week while Kobo went about quarantining self-published and small-publishers’s ebook titles. They were removed from the UK store for days while Kobo worked to root out reported porn titles and evaluate others before reactivating them for sale.

Our colleague Dennis Abrams here at Publishing Perspectives invoked the c-word, “censorship,” in his post on the situation, Should Self-Publishing Platforms Censor Objectionable Books?

Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss

Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss, on the other hand, in Thoughts on the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, wrote—not in response to Abrams specifically but to industry hubbub in general:

This isn’t censorship; these are businesses, which have the right to sell what they choose.

She was on the way to a point I also was making in Said the Online Retailer to the Entrepreneurial Author at Writer Unboxed, in Strauss’ words, the real point here is “the degree to which the apparently free market of self-publishing is vulnerable to Big Brother control.”

In Bjarnason’s cunning suggestion:

Quarantined titles only appear on Author pages and if you follow a direct link to their page. This means that most publisher online sales and marketing campaigns would still work as normal. Once a title has sold 100 copies it is reviewed by a human to see if it fulfills the ebook retail platform’s quality requirements. If it does, quarantine would be lifted. If it doesn’t, the publisher gets a notice as to what it is that needs to be fixed.

He anticipates the objection: “But this would destroy the sales for most self-publishers.” And he counters:

But it would increase search discoverability and the sales of those who do sell more than 100 copies. Consider it a ‘you must be this tall to ride’ kind of thing. The ebook retail platform would probably increase their overall sales with the added bonus of preventing forever [a] PR disaster like the one that took place last weekend.

A grain of Icelandic salt:. Bjarnason is familiar to many of us for his enjoyment of the role of provocateur.

Still, you could hear the basis for his post and its tone in many comments, such as this one from Karen Myers at Writer Unboxed:

From the perspective of someone in a more sophisticated industry (IT), the underlying problem is so trivial (gosh, what are all those category fields again?) that spectacles like WH Smith shutting down its entire website (not just books) is beyond laughable. Never thought much of them as an online bookseller, but they’ve managed to sink even further in that regard. What is it about the publishing industry that makes them so clueless about how to handle data?

Many might say “clueless” overstates the case. But “drastic,” for many, might describe Kobo’s and WHSmith’s handling of the moment.

And Bjarnason takes advantage of the whistling winds of outrage around the event to write about his “plan” to recognize no book before it sells 100 copies:

Would it piss everybody off? Absolutely, and on that basis alone I think it should be implemented on all major platforms.

Back to Table of Contents


Porter Anderson (not a pen name) is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – iStockphoto: 1971yes

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3 Comments

  1. Posted October 22, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    “Storytelling does not come naturally to the Swedes”? This is, of course, utter nonsense. You will find game developers in the UK saying that storytelling does not come naturally to the British. America likewise. The fact is, storytelling often doesn’t come naturally to the kind of person who gets interested in videogame development – but that, fortunately, is changing.

    What Patrick Soderlund hasn’t grasped is that, when we talk of storytelling in games, that doesn’t mean a writer using the game as a stage from which to declare a pre-defined story. A game is a world: an environment populated by characters and objects with rules to govern the interactions between them. The most interesting possibilities for story in such a context are not the sequences I might write in advance for the player to watch. That’s just using the game environment as a kind of movie, albeit one you can walk around inside. The really interesting evolution of storytelling in an interactive framework is when the story emerges from what the player does. Like, if I place a limpet mine on a wall that I couldn’t otherwise scale and use that to rocket-jump over it, there I have a story to tell my friends. It’s a very simple story in that example, but it’s special because I made it happen. It wasn’t a story fragment left there for me to experience “from the stalls”.

    Here’s how game developers ought to be thinking about interactive stories. Once a fortnight, I run a face-to-face roleplaying game. My group are mostly writers themselves. I see myself as the moderator. I present them with characters, the germ of incidents, the constraints such as legality and status. I don’t know in advance what the story will be. That only happens when the actors – that is, my players – come on stage. Our stories are not polished the way a novel or movie ought to be, but they’re not intended to be a spectator sport. Experienced from within, a genuinely emergent story is new and unique and thrilling. It isn’t “tell me a story” any more. More videogame developers like Soderlund should roleplay so they get to see why the rest of us are so excited by the possibilities here.

    Having said all of that, I have to add that words are still the most powerful medium for telling stories. That’s been true since long before Homer first banged his stick on the ground and said, “Sing, goddess!” – and you bet you could hear a pin drop. Words are more powerful because they create a more personal conduit into the imagination of each reader or each listener. (And to think I say this as a writer of comic books and a designer of videogames.) That’s why, if a discerning fellow in the year 3000 really wants to appreciate Gulliver’s Travels, he’ll do without the sloshing surf sound FX and all that art installation gimcrackery and just go back to the words as Swift wrote them.

  2. Posted October 31, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I really want to see such more posts in future. Excellent post!

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