3/18/2009

Interactive Fiction That Doesn't Work

I had a play around with a new website called We Tell Stories, set up by the UK publisher Penguin; it's a step into interactive fiction, and just won an award at South by Southwest, which I've only vaguely heard of, but apparently hands out awards for innovative websites. There are several of these interactive projects you can play around with on the website. One tells a story imposed over a google map of London, so that with each click on 'next' a line is drawn to another point on the map. There's another called 'Fairy Stories', where you get to fill in the name of the characters as you go along.

I'm all for innovation in fiction, but here's why We Tell Stories doesn't work, and why I don't expect the website to still be around in a year's time, if even that long. Fiction is a passive experience; the internet is an interactive experience. If you tell a story where you keep having to click 'next' just to watch a silly blue line scroll across a map, you lose your reader in five minutes flat, because it's a hell of a lot more 'immersive' to just read the damn story without any whistles and bells attached. That's why ereaders have proved so popular, despite their prohibitive cost and associated software/format problems; they come the closest to recreating the passive experience of reading an actual paper book. I don't want to have to come up with the names of characters for stories, because that's the writer's job, to draw me into a world of their creation. If I have to keep coming up with names, I'm going to get annoyed and bored. Which I did, by the way. Don't believe me? Next time you're in the pub and someone's telling a really good story, see if it's improved by them showing you a google map of where they went on that particular day. Er, no.

That's not to say I'm entirely against it. Like I say, innovation is a good thing, and experimenting is always worthwhile. However, as most scientists will tell you, most experiments provide 'fail' results. Where I can see some of these fiction models working is with very young children, where story-time is in fact a collaborative process between child and parent. I'd have loved something like this as a wee kid, and obviously slanted for my age. But 'We Tell Stories', I'm afraid, isn't it, and what particularly set alarm bells ringing was a Mr Hon's statement (according to the BBC report where I first learned of the site, anyway) that '"E-books are boring - they are just taking a manuscript and turning it into a PDF.'

Oh dear. And I suppose reading is a bit boring too, isn't it, Mr Hon? Here's the deal; if you need bells and whistles to persuade you to sit down and read a story, then frankly, nothing's going to make you want to read it. Not even that, er, great aid to reading, Google Maps.
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