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One of the worst things you can do to a book is drag it online
and just put it there, with no attention to web-based reading
habits, possibilities for interaction or innovative design. One of
the best things you can do, though, is acknowledge these three
things and craft what the London-based company Six to Start calls
experience design with respect to reading. The company, known for
its work with alternate reality games, worked with Penguin UK to
produce six web-based interactive stories by six contemporary
authors, who used six classic titles from the Penguin library as
starting points. Continuing the “six” theme, they used six
different Web 2.0 platforms through which to tell the stories,
which were released across six weeks.
Homepage for the We Tell Stories website.
Dan Hon and Adrian Hon lead Six to Start. Prior to creating
Stories for Penguin, they did design and production for the
popular ARG Perplex City, and indeed, the pair was
interested in deploying the techniques that make ARGs so compelling
in the six interactive fiction projects. However, they also had a
number of needs to satisfy: Penguin hoped to reinvigorate interest
in the six classics selected as starting points, but also wanted to
showcase six contemporary authors with upcoming projects as a way
of building attention. The publisher wanted to investigate new
storytelling methods while also reaching people who might not read
traditional books at all, but could find their way to the classic
titles via the interactive projects. “We weren't interested in this
as only a marketing project,” explains Six to Start CEO Dan Hon.
“We wanted to experiment and see if we could genuinely break new
A screenshot from The 21 Steps.
The most compelling of the six projects is The 21 Steps,
written by Charles Cumming and based on the 1915 novel The 39
Steps by John Buchan. The story is a fast-paced account of
intrigue and deception told through Google Maps. “Google has such a
terrific interface,” says Hon, “but people have only been using it
with data and annotation. What if we used it for dramatic
information?” The Six to Start team decided to literally “map”
Cumming's story, using the small annotation boxes for snippets of
text and then illustrating movement of the main character with a
blue line. As users click through bits of the story, the blue line
traces the protagonist's trajectory, and the result is a story that
is at once text-based but includes a temporal dimension—we watch in
real time as movement takes place—as well as an information
dimension as the Google tool is, in a sense, hacked for
storytelling. One of the pleasures of the project is precisely in
recognizing the original Google Maps framework as it is reinvented
A character's blog from Slice.
Three voices make up Slice—written by Toby Litt and based
on The Haunted Dolls' House by M. R. James, first published
in 1923—to tell the story of a young girl, recently relocated to
London with her mom and dad, who finds an unusual doll house in her
new bedroom. The story is perhaps the least visually interesting as
it is told via blog entries and Twitter posts that appeared during
the project's presentation week. However, like The 21 Steps,
the story's pleasure comes in how it reinvents a common networking
tool as a storytelling practice, and during its “live”
presentation, allowed a kind of interaction with the characters
that has great potential for narrative. “To be honest, we hadn't
really thought through what to do when people began interacting
with the characters,” admits Hon. “We had a production assistant
respond, and being able to interact with the characters this way
was very powerful for the audience.”
Each of the other stories adopts a different storytelling mode.
For the story titled Your Place and Mine, which is based on
Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin and was written by the duo known
as Nicci French, Hon says the idea was “to think about storytelling
as performance art.” In this case, the story appeared “live” on a
website as the authors typed it, with the two characters—a man and
a woman with very different takes on a relationship that blossoms
and then quickly fades —each offering their version of the story.
Fairy Tales by Kevin Brooks, based on the fairy tales of
Hans Christian Andersen, opts for interactivity in allowing readers
to customize the story and to make choices about how the story
unfolds, while The (Former) General, by Moshin Hamid and
based on Tales From the 1001 Nights, uses a
choose-your-own-adventure structure, allowing readers to see the
diagram of the story as they opt for different paths. Finally,
Hard Times, written by Matt Mason and based on the novel by
Charles Dickens, reports on contemporary times with a focus on
statistics and factoids represented graphically through the vision
of designer Nicholas Felton. Part comic book and part infographics,
the book is perhaps the least reliant on its web-based delivery—in
fact, it would be beautiful as a printed object—but reflects new
modes of writing and design that are definitely inflected by our
immersion in a networked milieu. A seventh story, Alice,
plays out as an alternate reality narrative that emerges through
clues interspersed in the other six stories; the idea here was
partly to unite the six stories in an integrated way, as well as to
bring in an ARG audience.
(clockwise from top left) Screens from Fairy Tales, The (Former)
General, Your Place and Mine and Hard Times.
Ultimately, each story is an experiment and reflects the ways in
which publishing is reinventing itself, rethinking business models,
emerging forms, cultural needs and, perhaps most significantly,
design issues as the book blossoms from its traditional format as
text on pages into new, experience-based explorations. For Six to
Start, the experimentation centers on an attention economy and the
ways in which traditional media forms need to consider how to gain
and hold the interest of busy people. “Like every other industry
that is focused on people's time, the book industry has to work
much harder to capture readers,” says Hon. “Publishers are
competing with anyone else who takes up your time and they're
asking themselves how to stay relevant.” These six digital fiction
experiments point to the integration of design in—and as—writing,
suggesting their inseparability and at least one potential
direction toward new relevance.
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