Tuesday, 25 March 2008

We Tell Stories. You Watch Them.

There's a prevailing belief in certain quarters that while spending hours reading books is Good For You, spending hours on the internet is most definitely not.

Books feed minds, goes the argument, while 'the internet' saps and enfeebles them, reducing people to drooling, glassy-eyed, socially-incapable morons.

Never mind the fact that, as Steven Johnson recently pointed out, most of what people do on the internet *is* reading; for many people, it's reading of the wrong sort. 'Proper' reading is the sort they remember from childhood: the reading of books while curled up in an armchair or in bed, rather than the reading of newfangled online stuff - like, say, this blog - while sitting upright in front of a keyboard and screen.

So I wonder what the pro-book lobby would make of venerable book-publisher Penguin's latest foray - into what it's calling 'digital fiction'.

Never in fact a company to shy away from embracing new formats - anyone remember its Penguin Remixed competition, which invited musicians to make a moody dance track out of A Tale of Two Cities? - Penguin's latest experiment, We Tell Stories, involves asking six well known authors to create a 'digital short story' using new online formats rather than ink on paper.

Each story is 'inspired by' a Penguin Classic (the ultimate aim of the exercise being to promote the Penguin Classics range - and full marks to Penguin for using ultra-modern technologies to promote fusty old Victorian novels), and they're being published at the rate of one a week.

First up is a modern version of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, called The Twenty-One Steps. It unfolds entirely within Google Maps, so you can trace the protagonist's movements as he's whisked along by a high-speed plot that takes him from the new Eurostar terminal in St Pancras to the National Gallery, Heathrow, Edinburgh, Gullane Bay and beyond.

With only Google Maps speech bubbles to contain the text, the author, Charles Cumming, has had to convey the story very sparingly. There's only really scope for bare-bones descriptions of actions and terse, single lines of dialogue, but for the most part this limitation actually suits the high-octane plot, and I soon found myself being carried along with the story.

It's difficult not to think of this as pure gimmickry, though. Following a blue line on a Google Map for ages isn't terribly exciting, especially as you can't really see any of the scenery that the protagonist is passing through. The new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras is stunning, but all you can see of it in Google Maps is the roof. Likewise Edinburgh, which is a fantastically beautiful city, but which only appears in The Twenty One Steps as a blurry, grey roofscape. I'd far rather watch The Twenty-One Steps as a film, frankly, or read it as text (either on paper or online) and imagine the action in my head.

While undoubtedly innovative, the Google Maps format can't help but combine the least evocative kind of writing with the least evocative rendition of scenery. So, while it was an interesting experience - and it's quite telling that Penguin has felt the need to incentivise people to read these stories by hitching them to a weekly prize draw and an overarching competition to win all 1300 Penguin Classics - I don't think that book-publishers and filmmakers have anything to worry about quite yet.

I did get a weird glimpse into the possible future of publishing in the digital world, though, when my other half asked me what I was doing and I said 'I'm watching this story'. I've never had occasion to say that before. If 'watching stories' online is the future of reading, then I can't imagine the pro-book lobby will be calming down any time soon.

NB The second story, Toby Litt's Slice, is now online, and takes place across two blogs over the next week. As the blog format lends itself far better to prose writing - and to interactivity - I wonder if this one will shape up to be a more satisfying experience. It's based on a ghost story by the masterful M.R. James, as well, so it should be well worth a look.

UPDATE: The Wired games blog suggests that The Twenty-One Steps may be more sophisticated than it first appears. More perspectives from Dr Tom Abba at Other Things (on the narrative aspects) and the FortiusOne blog (on the use of maps to tell stories).


Sean McManus said...

The strength of using Google Maps is that you can explore it any direction. It should lend itself well to interactive fiction, where you can unlock different possibilities for your next slice of story, making options (=location pins) appear and disappear as you make your plot choices (like a modern version of those 'choose your own adventure books'). But here they've just put a linear plot on top of a map, as far as I can see, which is far from compelling and doesn't really unlock the potential of the technology. They're not really doing anything they couldn't more easily do in print here.

Also, in conventional written fiction, a lot of texture comes from how you change viewpoint. Here you're forced to stick with an aerial view all the way through.

Nice experiment, but I'm not sure it's quite the creative triumph it could have been.

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Hello Sean, yes, it did seem to fall between a number of stools: not visually exciting enough to rival video, not textually rich enough to rival reading a traditional short story, and not interactive enough (in fact, not interactive at all) to rival a computer game, or even a choose-your-own-adventure story.

I'm quite surprised because, as far as I'm aware, these stories have been put together with the assistance of an 'alternate reality game' company who have a lot of experience of putting together online narrative-based games.

I can see that some sort of potential is there to do something with Google Maps, but as you say this didn't exploit it to best effect. It felt a bit like travelling back in time and playing The Hobbit on the ZX Spectrum after having played Warcraft in the present day!