“A sarcastic internet gagsmith who can’t read”

September 24, 2009

contagA couple of weeks ago I did an interview for a quarterly branding publication called Contagious, I think it’s going to be online somewhere but I’m not sure when, where, or how yet and my contact’s on holiday. So in the meantime, I thought I’d stick it up here…

There seems to have been a lot of choose your own adventure around recently, we’re thrilled to see it return. Why do you think that is? Is it just the cycle of nostalgia upon us?

To be honest, I haven’t seen much of a trend for it myself, but then I suspect I’ve been deliberately blocking anything that seemed too similar to my idea. I hope you are right and there is a renewed taste for it though. Either way, I should say that my motivations for writing Enemy of Chaos were slightly different to those of my publishers. As a business, they wanted to make and sell a Fighting Fantasy spoof for the ageing nostalgia market (so I guess the feeling is indeed that there is a new wave of reminiscence coming) but from my point of view I just wanted to write a funny book with some silly sci-fi ideas in it. I always loved the choose-your-own-adventure format, as I’m beginning to realise nearly everyone did,  so this was a natural match for my short-form ideas and impatience with the tedious self-indulgence of pretentious modern novels. I’m very poor at reading and wanted to do a book for people who like reading and thinking about ideas but aren’t necessarily bookworms. So I made this fun gift book that’s smart but not heavy, and if there is a revival of this kind of thing happening now, perhaps that’s part of it: we’re more well-informed than ever, but we don’t expect to have to read reams of text to understand something anymore.

And of course we live in the age of the internet, where everything’s a giant adventure game and every button has an unknown path behind it. Links and blogs and Twitter aren’t complicated new brain-bending inventions by the evil machine master-race – they’re just expressions of something that’s always existed. Technology is continually evolving to synthesise the external world and in a sense, its interactive elements are the latest expressions of our impulse to find a meaningful route through a world populated by other people. But our tolerance for abstraction is increasing all the time and for many people, for many reasons, a lot of these virtual worlds feel much more inviting than the physical one at the moment.

There is something incredibly exciting about the feeling of being involved in the unfolding of a story as it happens, something beyond just being in control or playing a hero when you don’t feel like one. Which is why I felt OK about making Enemy of Chaos kind of a loser, and created a game in which you have very little genuine control. Choose-your-own adventure books are very closely related to text adventure games, something else I love in a much more than nostalgic way and lament the demise of on a daily basis. These formats engage the imagination in ways visual culture now resists because, of course, with text adventures it all plays out in your imagination. There’s a whole other layer of interactivity afforded by removing the visual dimension. The internet has normalised and sterilised the idea of instructing a machine, abstracting realities and following a path through a virtual landscape, so it’s important to remind people how exciting that concept once was. It’s about giving readers/players space to imagine these landscapes, reminding them of the thrill of playing as kids, working those atrophied muscles again. There’s also huge potential for wry, British, self-deprecating humour because you’re not having the jokes flagged up at you all the time in a zany way – you are the joke. In some sense, it’s happening to you and the narrative voice knows it, and you know it, and the pair of you can be funny about it together.

Explain to us how the app works. Is it designed to sync up with the book, or does it operate as a standalone bit of fun?

The iPhone app essentially IS the book. It contains all the text from the book, plus some bonus bits, and is a very neat way of playing the game because it has some really nice features. For example, you can scroll back and cheat every time you hit a “The End” (or indeed whenever you like, as far as you like). You can also check your stats or the front and back matter by using the information button at any time. You can be reading a big section on your commute then close it down half way through if you reach your stop, but it will remember exactly where you were next time you boot it up. It’s basically the text adventure game I tried to write on my Acorn Electron when I was seven, but iPhone still doesn’t have a Sphinx Adventure app, and in the meantime Enemy of Chaos might be a good substitute. At £2.99, it’s cheaper than the book version.

Do you think this operation across multiple platforms is something all authors will eventually need to consider? What does this mean for the evolution of narrative?

I think we’re losing patience with the physical medium as we move more and more into a virtual space – and as everyone knows, the ‘paper media’ is already suffering from that. The book’s selling better than the iPhone app so far, but maybe in a year’s time that will flip, who knows. Still, there is something about having a solid object, and I suppose in fact that’s the whole point of gift books, many of which are so abysmal that really their only point is that they exist in physical reality and can be bought and wrapped up to be given away again. So there’s life in books yet, but there’s a certain market for virtual narratives too, and it occurred to me that that market might appreciate some of my ideas. In general I’d have thought that authors should consider every imaginable platform, particularly authors with small publishers like mine, because you can’t rely on anyone else to get your name out there, reaching all the possible audiences for your book. It’s remarkable there aren’t more books available as apps, but then millions of authors don’t even have coherent websites. Sometimes it’s worth remembering that not everyone lives on the internet though – if you have a good book and a good table deal, you’ll do pretty well for a while, regardless of web presence.

Where narrative is going is an interesting question, and possibly not one I’m qualified to answer as a sarcastic internet gagsmith who can’t read. But I’ll have a go. I kept my narrative exactly as it was in the book because it’s already a game. If anything, the app is a more natural format for Enemy of Chaos than the book. I should think fiction writers will be looking to get readers involved more and more because that’s what we expect and enjoy, and I’d expect to see the tropes of role-play encroaching more and more because the technology’s there and people want to do it. It’d be nice to see it done really well though, writers challenging readers, blurring the boundaries of fiction and gaming, and hopefully helping the world to move on from blogs. Because although it’s the age of the internet and everyone’s published now, everyone’s still just talking about themselves.


One Response to ““A sarcastic internet gagsmith who can’t read””

  1. […] mag Contagious is now up here, on their site – though I edited & amended slightly on the version I published on this very blog the other day, so might be worth reading that instead. Have a glance at the Contagious thing […]

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