Interactive Storytelling

Brenda Cooper @ 04-05-2011

Last month I wrote about talks. This month I’m back on content, looking into interactive books. We have usable tablet PCs and e-readers scattered across almost every household (we have four!), but most of the fiction that I read on them is exactly like the fiction I read in a book. I want more. It should be a lot easier to illustrate an ebook – there’s no high cost to print four-color images. Indeed, in the children’s market, this is being done regularly. But of course, children’s fiction has been as much about the pictures as the story for a long time. For example, “Where the Wild Things Are” wouldn’t be nearly so interesting without the illustrations. If you look for interactive books in the Apple app store, most of them are for children.

There are some attempts being made to create interactive media for adults. I have been playing with a few examples:

The Mongoliad (Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear) is a classic historical fiction piece delivered via an iPad app that includes story, illustration, and the occasional video. It’s largely self-contained, although at least one function (the ‘Pedia) links out to the Mongoliad website. The story is in-progress; new bits appear from time to time. I am enjoying it, but more for the quality of the writing than the interactivity, although having the illustrations is a plus. There is also room for community and for reader’s stories, although I haven’t played in those parts yet. There is even a Mongoliad Wikipedia page. Neal and Greg recently stopped by a convention I was attending, but I was unable to get to their panel. It’s worth picking up, and a lot of it is free (or you can get almost all of it for $9.99). There is also a much more expensive patron plan, but since I didn’t indulge in that I’m not sure what comes with it.

In the Mongoliad, there are many media formats available, but essentially only one shows on the screen at a time. If you’re reading text, that’s what your screen is full of, and if you’re looking at a picture, that’s the bulk of the available data. It leaves the experience a tiny bit choppy. I’ve just bought a different multimedia book where the experience is integrated nicely, if less gripping than the fiction in The Mongoliad. That’s the book “Our Choice,” by Al Gore, released in book format a year and a half ago but put out as an iPad app just this week.

“Our Choice” is fun to play with. There’s even a chance to blow on a windmill and nudge the moving parts of an illustration to animate. The multimedia bits are more interesting than the text, and they enhance the reading experience. I’m enjoying it, although by its very nature it feels like a textbook (a very, very good one), and so the experience is different than the Mongoliad, which is pure entertainment. I recommend the “Our Choice” app – both for the content and to see how at least non-fiction content can be presented beautifully. It’s not perfect – as some commenters have noted I can’t annotate the book as I go, for example, or interact with the interwebs directly from inside the app. See the TED talk on the Our Choice app from Al Gore and Push Pop Press to see the app in action without having to borrow an iPad.

There are lower-budget attempts at adult interactive media. I found “Skate Crime,” by Alina Adams, a multimedia novel that has embedded links out to You Tube videos that illustrate some of the skates in the book. It’s much more awkward to use than the two above, – at least on the iPad. It’s also less expensive for the author and the reader: I’m betting it was created with almost all free tools and at the moment it retails for $0.99 for the multimedia edition on Amazon. Mind you, that doesn’t yield the whole book – when I got to the end of the fairly short multimedia edition I found a link directing readers where to buy the whole book in more traditional ebook form. For a series I was following, this would be a good enough deal.

Our Choice was published (developed?) by Push Pop Press, who are building a tool that publishers may be able to license to make other interactive books. I believe it’s already released in beta to some firms. This will probably be hard to afford for the average author, but I predict open source models to follow.

When I started my research for this article, I expected to find a lot of interactive books to look at and play with and I was pretty disappointed. (I posted queries out on Twitter as I was researching this story, and I got a lot more “tell me what you find” notes than real information.) If readers know of other good examples, I hope they show up in comments. I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of these soon. Just as ebooks didn’t take off until good hardware appeared, I suspect interactive books will take off once the software framework is there. Push Pop Is an early success, and based on some of the comments I saw, there may be other companies in the field shortly. My bet for the best platform is the iPad, with acceptable Kindle formats coming soon.

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

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3 Responses to “Interactive Storytelling”

  1. Coyote says:

    While they aren’t novels in the least, Choice of Games fits the bill perfectly.

  2. Brenda Cooper says:

    Thanks Coyote. I’ll admit my clear lack of a clue — what is that?

  3. Tiffany says:

    Check out this gorgeous stand-alone children’s book app: http://gigaom.com/video/ipad-interactive-storytelling/ and “Skeleton Creek,” a YA book that’s half video half text. Both done really well, but as you wrote, I’d love to see this kind of experimentation with adult fiction, even literary fiction.

    A ton of exciting work being done in transmedia/interactive stories. I find the most compelling examples however, outside the publishing world–i.e. the promotions for The Dark Knight, the online content for Lost, even the book tie-ins for How I Met Your Mother or the online games for The Office. Not stunning examples of narrative, perhaps, but a lot of potential for greater engagement as online games, video, tablet & mobile content bleed together more and more in the future.

    I do believe this kind of interactive storytelling is best suited to sci-fi/fantasy though, as the emphasis in these genres is on worlds and not individual characters.