A couple of weeks ago, at the London Book Fair, Faber & Faber announced that it was creating a “fully playable, fully immersive product” when it came to ebooks. It was working with software publishers and a developer, The Story Mechanics, to produce a reprint of John Buchan’s early 20th-century serial novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which most of us — if we know it at all — know from Hitchcock’s film adaptation.
My knee-jerk response was that any book which has achievements you unlock, items you collect, and music which plays at points during your reading is not a book — that’s a video game. But I reined in my what the hell is wrong with you almost immediately, because whenever I find myself saying “that’s not the thing it says it is, it’s some other thing” I usually end up having to have a long argument with myself (occasionally even other people) about definitions.
Besides, there’s nothing wrong with video games. I know I’m not the only person who does this, but I enjoy video game narratives without needing to play the game. I don’t especially want to play Assassin’s Creed, but I am entranced by the story, so I enjoy watching other people play it. If they made a movie out of the cut scenes, I would probably go to see it. I actually got frustrated that there was no way to pause the cut scenes in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess because when I was playing that game, people would invariably try to talk to me during a really long cut scene. I failed the final level of Braid so hard and so often that it soured the whole game for me and I no longer even care how it ends (apparently it’s incomprehensible anyway) but the only reason I played it as long as I did was the story.
It’s not like a video game has never been based on a book before, either. And there are books you can “play”, like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. But these ebooks, which have a soundtrack and achievements — and maybe levels? Do they have bosses you have to defeat? — blur the line a great deal between what a game is and what a book is.
I keep thinking about Dara O’Briain’s comedy routine about video games: no other medium prevents you from experiencing it based on skill. He points out that music doesn’t make you dance competently before playing the rest of the album; books don’t stop you after chapter three to ask you what the theme of the work is. But we now have a fairly widespread platform for reading where a book could give you a test before allowing you to go any further. Which is a little freaky.
So with the production of books-as-interactive-experiences and video-games-as-narrative-media I suppose there are two questions left to answer: where does the line between story and experience fall? And, if we can cross or blur that line, does the line matter — do we actually need to know?
I am a competitive person and I frustrate easily, so I don’t want to play a book. I just want to read it. I’m also not that keen on paying for a book that has involved a software development team, because I suspect either I’m paying more or the author of the actual story is getting less for features I will not use. But that’s not a good reason to prevent the exploration of a new medium, or a melding of two older mediums, and it’s not a good reason to say that’s not a book — because what does that prove, anyway, and who told me I got to arbitrate what a book is? People have been “playing” murder mysteries for over a century, trying to solve the case before the detective does.
There’s a lot of fear in the publishing industry right now, that ebooks are going to kill paper printing, that authors who grew up in a video-game generation (authors who are — or will be very soon — the children of the MTV generation) don’t have as much invested in the written word. I can’t speak to the former, but I’m pretty sure the latter is bunk — or we wouldn’t get awesome stories in our video games.
So as long as they warn for video games in our awesome stories, I guess I’m good. Trepidatious, but good.