Interaction and Narrative: A First Rule

We’ve been looking at the blossoming relationship between narrative and interaction for some time now, but have precious little to show for it. But things are slowly becoming clearer and I think we’re finally in a position to declare our first hard and fast rule.

That rule is this: Interaction must go with the flow of the narrative, rather than against it.

Or in other words, interaction works at the key points and beats of a story in a way that is more important and powerful than interactions between them. There is a reason for this. It is about working with the flow of the user’s attention. It’s a bit abstract, but stick with it.

A lot is made of how a TV audience is in a mentally passive mode, letting the show wash over them, while gamers are in an active mental mode, sitting forward and engaged. Well, neither of these models really apply to interactive narratives, and it is big mistake to assume that they do. The more useful starting model is still that of reading books or especially comic books, where the reader is in control of the speed of story, and able to flick back and forward at will – which is distinctly different than watching a film and being powerless in front of it – but they are still being controlled, manipulated and pulled along by the writer’s narrative.

Now – with that mental state in mind – you have to keep track of where the narrative is focusing the user’s attention, and interactivity must go with this flow rather than block it. If your protagonist has just been told that a witch has kidnapped the princess (for example), the flow is to find the witch and rescue the princess. If they are then presented with an interactive activity about tidying up the room they are in, that breaks the narrative flow. That doesn’t work. But if they had also been told that they needed a golden apple to defeat the witch, and were then presented with an interactive activity about finding that apple in the room, then that goes with the narrative flow. That works.

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There’s a good example of making interactivity work in The Gift from Persian Cat (you may recall I interviewed this book app’s creator back in January). The protaganist in The Gift is a small boy who finds a baby that is washed up on the beach from the sea. The baby is asleep so the boy goes on a quest to discover how to wake her, by asking advice from a series of groteque monsters. It’s nice little story, assuming of course that you don’t think, “shit, the baby’s dead” at the start, in which case it becomes increasingly unbearable as each attempt to wake the baby fails. If you don’t think that, however, it is lovely. (Only adults would think that, of course, so here’s a nice – and sadly rare – example of a children’s story written to appeal to children, rather than to appeal to parents.)

Anyway – at the climax of the story the boy succeeds in waking the baby. At this point the artwork goes into a point-of-view shot of the baby, seen from the boy’s perspective – syncing the reader’s focus completely with the reader-identification-character of the boy, in other words. The reader then has to reach out and touch the baby in order for her to wake up. This simple interaction is perfectly synched to the key beat of the narrative, making it far more effective and rewarding than other, far more technically complicated interactive activities. It leaves the reader completely absorbed in this, the key moment of the story, which in turn makes the story a success.

And that’s the sort of effect you can only achieve with the merging of narrative and interactivity. True, it’s not an effect that is achieved by most applications of interactivity to narative, which is why it is worth declaring our first golden rule. But it is the sort of effect that makes developing this new media worthwhile.

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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.)

Using iBooks Author

I’ve had my head down recently, preparing a series of enhanced ebooks using Apple’s iBooks Author. So, what’s it like?

The key point is that it is very, very easy to use.

‘Very easy’ as in, non-techy publishing people (especially anyone who’s ever done any layout) should be able to pick it up in an afternoon, without any training.

This, ultimately, is both a good and bad thing.

In terms of stability and options, the criticisms that I’m about to make seem harsh in light of this being version 1.0 of a piece of free software. But that said, a few issues are worth mentioning. When a preview sent to the iPad crashes, it does so by closing down in a way that Apple finds elegant – blinking off without any error messages. This leaves you with no clue about where the problem is and no choice but to roll back to an earlier, working saved version and start over.

The software is also designed for reference works – and it shows. Other templates are becoming available, but in general if you’re trying to use it for a non-textbook work (such as the video-heavy pre-school picture books I was making) then you’ve got a fight on your hands. Fortunately though, while the standard widgets can be inflexible, you are free to code your own in Javascript.

This lack of flexibility takes some getting used to. Having planned to spend a day experimenting with different video codecs in order to make the final video as good as possible, it was a shock to discover that there are no options *at all* – there is one export setting in Quicktime that you simply have to use. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how well you like the performance you are given. The video was actually really good, but some standard image compression (on the tablet itself) was more of a problem – it didn’t suit our style of animation, and there was basically nothing that could be done about it.

Still, all in all it’s a solid piece of software that gives you a temptingly easy and cheap route through production to market. So what’s the problem? It’s more of an idealogical one. The ideal scenario, in which enhanced ebooks need to be developed only once (in the universal epub3 standard) and sold on multiple platforms is getting further and further away. Apple and Amazon are focused on drawing you in to their walled gardens, and iBooks Author is a clear part of that. And ultimately, in the long run, proprietary systems suck big logs.

But what’s the alternative? The standards for making enhanced ebooks are not in question – epub3 is essentially a book-specific wrapping of HTML5, and so coding interactive motion graphics in HTML5 should prove a future-proof way forward. There’s a few HTML5 authoring tools emerging, but the one that I’ve been looking at is Adobe Edge. It’s still in development but I like it a lot. It’s hard, though. It takes some mastering. I speak as someone who uses a lot of Adobe’s CS suite (Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop and Encore in particular) so I’m familiar with their layout and how they like to do things. I’m also someone with *some* knowledge of HTML, CSS and Javascript. Nevertheless, I’m finding mastering something like Edge to be an effort.

It’s worth having a look at a demo video now, in order to get a sense of the thing.

http://tv.adobe.com/embed/763/12336/

It’s quite an eye-opener to go from that to the simplicity of iBooks Author, which ignores HTML5 animation and simply assumes that you wouldn’t want to do anything that fiddly. You can see how, from Apple’s point of view, iBooks Author is a great piece of software. As it makes creating enhanced books so much easier – leaving you with much cheaper development costs – it becomes increasingly tempting to crawl into that walled garden. No matter how less interesting the final results may be, or much you might kick yourself for doing so.

The Numberlys – app review

The Amazing Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, the debut release from Moonbot Studios, was a milestone in book app development. It won numerous ‘Best App of 2011’ awards, and the animation that the short film it was based on received an Oscar nomination yesterday. (You can currently download this for free, BTW).

So what did I do when I wrote about it previously? I moaned. I said it wasn’t actually aimed at children. It was aimed at animation lecturers. What a miserable sod I am! But now Moonbot have released their next app, so I have another chance to marvel at their visuals without being a total Grinch.

This is the Numberlys, a story about how the alphabet was invented by some frustrated number-things:

And the Numberlys is a wonderful app, beautifully created and full of original touches. It’s not wonderful for the audience you would think it is aimed at, admittedly. But for a completely different audience? For them, it is wonderful.

Because you’d think it was aimed at 4-6 year olds, wouldn’t you? Being an ‘alphabet app’ and everything, listed as suitable for ‘4+’? But if you were making something for that audience, you probably wouldn’t do so in black or white. Or, indeed, include no visual imagery that four-year-olds can relate to, or even understand. 1920s German expressionist cinema, modernist architecture, the dehumanising impact of mass production – these are not part of a four-year-old’s life. There is a truly lovely sequence, repeated a number of times, of cogs, pistons and steam funnels. This will be utterly incomprehensible to this audience. They simply won’t understand anything about what they are looking at.

As a tool for teaching the alphabet, it goes against all the educational guidelines you can imagine. All text is shown IN BLOCK CAPITALS THROUGHOUT, for a start. It’s in a lovely art-deco font so it works for visual impact, but this is not how children learn to read. There are no lower case letters in the app at all. When letters are referred to audibly it is always by their names (‘ay’) and not their sounds (‘ah’). Each letter of the alphabet is revealed in order over the course of 20 minutes or so, so it is not trying to teach the order of the letters by repetition.

At one point in the app, it has an intermission. It displays a grey screen and the word INTERMISSION, and plays background music at you until you click past. I was reminded of how Monty Python put an intermission in (I think) the video release of The Holy Grail back in the ’80s, which was very funny in context. The context being, of course, that the audience was old enough to remember a time when intermissions were common in cinemas, and so would recognise it as being out of place in the VHS medium. Four-to-six year olds, however, do not have knowledge of out-of-date cinema practices. Nor can they even read the word INTERMISSION, which is displayed in caps and not spoken aloud.

So, for alphabet-learning children, it’s a total non-starter. But go a bit older than that, say 7-12? Then it’s terrific. The character design and animation are first class, and the characters are totally engaging. The music is even better – there’s an award-worthy musical score if ever I heard one. The imagination on show, the craft, the humour – all wonderful. More importantly, the pacing and the variety of the interactive elements is really well done (there is an interactive element for the creation of each letter in the alphabet. They are too tricky for 4 year olds but perfect for older kids). The ‘comedy German’ voice over – think Borat-style almost-racist – really appeals to this age group. They are also, of course, more comfortable with fantasy worlds that have no elements of their own world to relate to, and so the homage to 1920s German expressionist cinema should not trouble them.

In fact, the app is so perfectly suited to this age group that they will probably overlook the fact that it’s about the alphabet.

Still, you have to wonder. The “who is this for?” conversation – do they not have those at Moonbot?

Dracula

Dracula: The Official Stoker Family Edition is the book app which makes a convincing case for book apps having a significant role in the future of fiction.

Why is this?  Well, what it adds to the text doesn’t detract from the experience of reading the novel. You become absorbed by the book without being distracted by novelty interaction or the sense of wrestling with software.

Instead, it adds atmosphere.

Here’s a video to give you a sense of the thing:

The novel, of course, is told through a series of letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings and so forth. These have been recreated visually in a period style which immediately sets the scene nicely (the text is abridged, but sensibly so). Then there ambient audio effects – howling wolves, creaking ships timbers, fluttering bat wings, gothic music and so forth.

Sometimes it is just the little things that have the most impact. A personal favourite was early in the book, when a shadow passed across the page. Make no mistake, when you are absorbed in the text, things like this can be very effective.

The choice of book lends itself well to little tricks like this. The atmosphere of Dracula is so vivid that the app can evoke it precisely, especially in the early Transylvanian section. If you’ve ever had to write the story for a videogame, you’ll know that you’re stuck with a limited emotional pallet – ‘fear’ and ‘excitement’ are the only emotions that videogames seem able to create with any regularity. It may be that gothic horror is a genre that works particularly well for long-form book apps, but my hunch is that the approach Padworx take here will work for other genres.

There is at least one full-page piece of artwork in each chapter, and the balance of art to pages of text worked well. Visually, the art is in a comic book style that reminds me of 16-bit computers like the Atari ST or the Amiga. This has a certain nostalgic appeal for me, but I can see that it might not be to all tastes and that something a bit more photoreal might have been a better way to go.

There are occasions where the illustrations contradict the text, and this does break the spell a little.  The Count, for example, is described in text as having a white mustache and then illustrated clean-shaven.

Importantly, working the thing is completely intuitive. There’s consistent back and forth arrows to turn each page, plus an icon that calls up the menu. There’s just one extra thing to remember, whenever something is blood-red you can tap it to trigger some visual event.  This is all nice and clear and you are never in the position of worrying if there’s something you’re supposed to be doing, instead of being focused on the text. This might seem so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning, but there are many book apps that have yet to master it.

The app seems to be coded using a game engine of some kind. Some objects, such as a lantern that swings when you tilt the pad, are 3D models casting real-time shadows. Letters can be moved around, matches held to read letters, leaves brushed off gravestones and so on. I’m not sure if this is an off-the-shelf engine or some proprietary system, but it seems well suited to book apps like this. The whole ‘less is more’ thing is still blasphemous to many developers.

There are a bunch of extra features – hidden easter eggs to find (including the entire 1922 Nosferatu movie), forums, songs between each chapter and so forth.  These are nice to have and give the impression of a quality product for your £2.99. But it isn’t these that make Dracula such a success.  It is the reading experience itself.

And that, I think, has to bode well for tablet books in general.  And maybe even for fiction itself.

First thoughts on the Kindle Tablet.

The first concrete reports about the long-rumoured Amazon Kindle Tablet have surfaced – MG Siegler’s post on Techcrunch is particularly informative, and there’s another good Techcrunch post that I’ve nicked this mockup from.  But in short, its smaller and lighter than an iPad, doesn’t have a camera, and is half the price at $250. It will be available before Christmas (in the US at least) and it will, I think, be a very big deal.

Initial comments are focusing on the relatively low specs compared to other tablets, and the decision to branch Android so completely that it’s almost like a different OS. There’ll be no access to Google’s Android marketplace at all.  Everything, including the app market, will be Amazon.

This, though, is why I think it will be massive.  Amazon’s strengths are the trust they have with their customers and their understanding of the importance of pricing. As much as I wish that the standard for ebooks had become non-DRM epubs that could be produced and sold by anyone, the sad fact is that Amazon won that battle. The only ebooks that sell in significant quantities are Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format, and they can only be sold by Amazon.

Now – if this different Android OS does mean creating different apps for different Android tablets, I think those who make tablet book apps will code for Amazon first. A ‘Google marketplace flavour’ conversion will be viewed as optional, and dependent on cost. (Apple will still do everything it can, I think it is safe to say, to make the production of separate Android and iOS apps as awkward as possible.)

Why do I think this?  Well, it’s Amazon.  Amazon are very easy to underestimate, as those who dismissed the Kindle will know. Amazon started a war with the publishing industry, and it won.  True, the publishing industry failed to turn up, or even notice, but that doesn’t change what happened.  And what happened is very instructive.

Once upon a time, publishers were the gate keepers between readers and authors, and all was well with the world.  All authors had to do was write.  The publishers took care of selection, distribution, marketing, editing, proofing, design and production, and this justified their position and their long lunches.  Publishing had a high barrier to entry, so things looked secure.  In time, publishers gradually pushed much of the marketing responsibility onto authors, meaning that they had to both write and establish themselves as some form of ‘brand’, but things still looked secure for publishers.

Then came Amazon, undercutting the high street and giving the reader all the ‘long tail’ titles they couldn’t find in shops. This initially seemed great for publishers, but the cost was the collapse of much of their distribution chain when the high street book shops started to disappear. And then came Kindle, which removed the problem of production and let the market handle the tricky ‘selection’ part of publishing.  What, then, had publishers to offer in order to justify their role as middle men and gatekeepers?  All that remained of that original list was proofing and design, and those could easily be outsourced to independent illustrators and editors.  Suddenly, all publishers had to offer was credibility, and not all writers needed that. Then, and only then, Amazon began relationships with authors and stated to publish themselves.

Publishers are now adapting like crazy. They still have a future, of course, but even the most optimistic will admit that their future will be very different to their past.

And how did Amazon win this silent war?  Because of their relationship with the customers, and their understanding of the importance of price. Time and time again they gave us punters what we wanted, cheaper than anywhere else, quickly and without fuss. They earnt our trust, to the extent that ‘looking on Amazon’ is something that now automatically follows the emergence of the thought in our heads that we’d quite like to buy a book.

How will the market for tablet books change now that Amazon are joining in? It is easy to imagine examples where Amazon would behave differently to Apple.  Consider Apple’s announcement that they’d be taking 30% of the price of in-app purchases, for example.  We don’t know what Amazon will do here, but if they don’t help themselves to such a chunk, or if they take significantly less, then all the extra magazines, comics and other content sold in-app will be noticeably cheaper on Amazon than on Apple.

Consider also the messy way that most (but not all) Apple tablet books are sold as apps rather than iBooks. Will Amazon find a more elegant way to organise everything, and help us find them in its store?  We’re just guessing at this stage, but past performance suggests that they’ll do better than the mess that is iTunes.  Amazon know how to help us shop.

Apple, of course, have a powerful glamour – in both the modern and the occult meanings of that world.  It did look like they had the tablet book market sewn up, and that all tablet books would need to be coded for iOS.  But given a Kindle tablet at $250, we now have a genuine competitor.  With Apple and Amazon being the type of companies that they are, is that a good thing?  Only time will tell, but until then, I for one welcome our new Amazonian overlords.