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Q&A:  Perplex City  Creators Craft 'We Tell Stories'

Q&A: Perplex City Creators Craft 'We Tell Stories'

March 18, 2008 | By Simon Carless

March 18, 2008 | By Simon Carless
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The milieu of digital games has been significantly extended by the Alternate Reality Game, which was pioneered by titles such as Majestic and The Beast, and uses puzzles and clues hidden in webpages and even real-life to entice readers.

UK ARG startup Six To Start, founded by Dan and Adrian Hon - previously at Mind Candy, where they developed the collectible card-based Perplex City, described as "the world's first commercially successful ARG" - is now embarking on its first projects as a new company.

The first of these is We Tell Stories, a just launched project in collaboration with UK book publisher Penguin, and as the official site explains:

"Penguin has challenged some of its top authors to create new forms of story - designed specially for the internet... Over six weeks writers including Booker-shortlisted Mohsin Hamid, popular teen fiction author Kevin Brooks, prize-winning Naomi Alderman and bestselling thriller authors Nicci French will be pushing the envelope and creating tales that take full advantage of the immediacy, connectivity and interactivity that is now possible."

As an example of this, the first available story from Charles Cumming is "an adrenaline-fuelled adventure written and designed for Google Maps", and is itself inspired by Penguin Classic 'The Thirty-Nine Steps'. In addition to this, the site explains:

"But somewhere on the internet is a secret seventh story, a mysterious tale involving a vaguely familiar girl who has a habit of getting herself lost. Readers who follow this story will discover clues that will shape her journey and help her on her way."

Therefore, we had a chance to chat both to representatives from Penguin and from Six To Start about this unique collaboration - starting with Jeremy Ettinghausen, digital publisher at Penguin:

How did this collaboration come about? Who brought you together?

Jeremy Ettinghausen: We became aware of Dan and Adrian's work at a conference and became very excited about the potential to create a really immersive and engaging storytelling experience. At Penguin we are always interested in taking our authors and ourselves in new directions and to everyone here working with Six to Start seemed like a very exciting opportunity.

How did you collectively end up picking the authors and the classics they would be riffing on?

JE: All of the authors were selected because we felt that they would be interested in trying something new and different and because we felt that they would produce something interesting. The classics were chosen in consultation with the authors.

Are these Penguin authors weirded out by some of the more abstract crossmedia elements, or does it make sense to them?

JE: It's been suprising to me how open the authors were, but I should say that they were chosen on the basis that they might be open to this idea. There were a number of authors who perhaps would have been very weirded out by the concept!

I think that there is a growing number of authors who, far from being at odds with the internet and digital culture, are fascinated by it and see it as an opportunity to do different things with their writing and write different kinds of stories for a different kind of audience. We're thrilled to be able to facilitate this with We Tell Stories and hope that it might lead to other interesting crossmedia projects.

In addition, Gamasutra we caught up with Six To Start co-founder Adrian Hon to discuss the specifics of this new project with him:

This collaboration is obviously quite a lot about 'storytelling'. How do you knit separate stories together to create a coherent whole?

Adrian Hon: It's not easy, especially given that all six stories are completely independent of each other - in other words, you don't need to read one to understand another.

What we're doing is using the ARG to create a meta-narrative that sits above the six stories, occasionally weaving small details into them, that brings them together. But it would be overstating it to say that the six stories form a coherent, thematic whole - other than the fact that they are all adventures into new forms of storytelling online.

Are you expecting the 'normal' ARG coverage and collaboration on sites such as Unfiction, or is this meant to be more of a personal experience than a group-solved device?

AH: We wanted most of the six stories to be personal experiences. That's partly because that's what people are generally comfortable with when it comes to written fiction, and partly because we wanted these stories to be an easy entry into online storytelling.

Having said that, there's at least one story that will be a group experience, but if all of the stories were group experiences, I think we would have raised the bar for entry too high.

There is a 'seventh story' as well, which is more of a traditional ARG with puzzles and live updates, and so I'm pretty sure that the ARG component of We Tell Stories will be covered on Unfiction. I also hope that some of the people who enjoy the six stories might be intrigued enough to investigate the seventh.

Certainly I've seen more than a few people say (approvingly!) that We Tell Stories appears to be a good introduction to ARGs.

The first story looks to use Google Maps in some way - how did you work with the author to make this happen?

What the Google Maps story does is force us to think about the reader experience. While they might not realize it, authors simply don't have to think about this when it comes to books, since they already implicitly know the 'design' of books - it's words on page, divided up into chapters, and you can flick back and forth pages to look at the 'story history', and bookmark pages to keep your place.

The design of books is so great that it hasn't changed for hundreds of years, and so we just don't think about it any more.

When we had the idea for a story based around Google Maps, we knew that it had to incorporate a lot of movement - otherwise what's the point of having a map? So one early idea was a travelogue - a little like Around The World in 80 Days. Another was a thriller, like The 39 Steps. We ended up taking the latter option, due to its frenetic pace, and we asked Charles Cumming, an acclaimed British spy thriller author, to write a story for us.

To begin with, we simply told Charles to 'bake movement in' to the story. However, from early on, it became clear that this was rather trickier than any of had thought; it wasn't enough to have the protagonist walking and driving and flying around the place, they had to do it all the time.

Early drafts of the story saw the protagonist having a very tense discussion for a couple of chapters - riveting stuff - but it was all in one room. Luckily we had a great relationship with Charles and we worked together to incorporate more movement, or references to other locations, in every chapter.

We would often give suggestions about scenes that would fit the design, and Charles was always very open to revising the story and coming up with new ideas. Ultimately, I think it was his flexibility that really made things fit together.

Something that is worth mentioning is that none of the authors we're working with are particularly tech-savvy - some of them are the completely opposite. And while it does help, it only helps up to a point. From my point of view, I can teach an author about technology
and interaction, but I can't teach someone how to write.

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