Inklewriter launches

A few weeks back I got excited by the Dave Morris‘ interactive take on Frankenstein. What struck me as significant was that, while I had been expecting something similar to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, what he had done was far more subtle. You can read my thoughts on this here, but overall I was struck with a new sense of potential about branching fiction.

And guess what? A writer-facing version of the tech has been placed online by inklestudios of Cambridge. It’s still in beta, but it allows anyone to write and share similar interactive fiction. You can find it here: http://writer.inklestudios.com/

So what’s it like? Well, first impressions are very good. There’s a bunch of tutorials which take you through how the system works and constantly challenges you to experiment with it. These tutorials make it seem pretty simple and useable. There’s no conditional logic or tracking variables – yet – and there’s no way to export your story as a stand alone .epub3 file, but all in all it’s a pretty unexpected and wonderful little gift from the Internets.

Of course, putting this online makes complete sense. If branching fiction is to move away from the quest-based ‘adventure’ model to the more interesting things that Frankenstein hinted at, then giving writers the ability to play around with the form and see what they come up with is a necessary step.

What surprised me most was more what it wasn’t. I expected something with a top-down, flow chart structure, rather than the ‘here’s a blank page, start at the top’ approach. This may be more a quirk of my approach to writing, or a side-effect of having a background in computers. For my own fiction I tend to write in Scrivener, which matches my way of thinking – I think in structure and I tend to ‘build’ stories rather than let them flow out. For most writers, however, I suspect this would be a far more comfortable approach.

But the big question is, what’s it like to actually write branching fiction in? And the only way to find that out is to roll up your sleeves and write something. So, that is what I will do.

*checks schedule*

I’m not entirely sure when I’ll do that, admittedly, but do it I shall. Wish me luck!

Frankenstein

I nearly didn’t take a look at the new interactive Frankenstein novel, despite the good press it has been getting. It was described as short chunks of text followed by branching choices that change the story, so I assumed that it was another ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

There’s nothing wrong with a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, of course. I used to love them as a kid. But their basic model has the reader making decisions for the protaganist, who essentially becomes an avatar for the reader during some form of quest, and that is a model which can be done better in videogames than in prose. It’s not the future of the novel.

What Frankenstein does is much cleverer, however. Here’s the promo vid:

Dave Morris’ retelling of Mary Shelley’s story is great. It moves the story a few decades earlier in order to use our hindsight about the French Revolution, which is ripe with the themes of horror and rebirth. The Hollywood imagery of castles and lightning are stepped over, and it is thankfully much less interested than Mary Shelley in long, long digressions about just how fantastic mountains are. Frankenstein is a story where it easy to go horribly wrong with the tone – just ask Kenneth Branagh – but there are no misteps here.  That’s not our primary interest here, though.  What’s interesting is how this is different to a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

In a linear 1st person novel, the book’s narrator talks at the reader and the reader’s role is that of an observer or an audience. That’s also the case here, but instead of being an observer, the reader’s choices create a conversation with the narrator. The conversation is well done, flowing naturally and somehow avoiding skipping over key backstory or plot points.

So what is your role, as the reader, in this? You are not physically present, and you converse only with the narrator. You only have a minor impact on the events. What you have become, in actuality, is best described as the narrator’s conscience. Your role is to react to the narrator’s actions, and to challenge them to justify themselves. And this is why the Frankenstein app is so significant – it’s a first person prose narrative which has shifted the reader’s role from ‘observer’ to ‘conscience’.

And this new role is a hell of a perspective to experience the story of Frankenstein from. Being the conscience of Victor Frankenstein as his mind cracks under the realiastion of what he has done is quite an experience, as is being the conscience of the monster itself after the narrator changes, and you escape the laboratory and discover the streets of Paris.

True, when the book switches to using the monster as a narrator, it switches back to the 2nd person (“you can see a house”, etc) and becomes more of a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure, with your choices ‘controlling’ the monster more than arguing with it. This does make some sense in context, however, with the newly-hatched creature not initially having the mental faculties to justify itself to you.

When I started this blog, I was looking to see if the experimental melding of narrative and interactivity would produce something that was more than the sum of its parts. There’s been many examples that have been interesting or promising, but overall it was not looking good. I had originally described these emerging book apps as an ‘unwanted Frankenstein media,’ so it is a pleasing coincidence that it is the Frankenstein book app where the potential of this new form finally comes to life.

I think what they’ve done here is, in the future, going to be remembered as very significant. I’d recommend that all writers of fiction have a good look at the monster Dave Morris has created.

Frankenstein was written by Dave Morris, developed by inkle and published by Profile Books. It (currently) costs £2.99 from the App Store. (Long-term followers of this blog will note that it is another example of a book app appearing in the App Store rather than the iBooks Store, and another example of a developer hoovering up a classic, out of copyright character rather than creating something new.)