Unsurprisingly, it is creative startups that are experimenting most boldly. The Circumstance art collective in Bristol will soon publish a new version of “These Pages Fall Like Ash”, a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical. “Abra” is a fine book and an app that makes poetry magically form and reform. Software developers, meanwhile, are cooking up apps that combine narrative with games. “Gone Home” is a mystery in which the reader/viewer enters an empty mansion and follows clues to unlock text that tells the story of the vanished occupants. In “Device 6“, readers puzzle out a similar mystery chapter by chapter. Such “story exploration games” reveal narrative through gamelike moves, adding graphics to the text-based genre known as interactive fiction (IF).
Many believe this is the real future of electronic literature. If it’s hard to imagine a truly digital novel, it is because “we already have digital narratives—they’re called videogames,” argues Lincoln Michel of Electric Literature, a web site. Naomi Alderman, an award-winning British novelist who is also the author of “Zombies, Run!” a jogging app that has sold 2m copies, concurs. “There’s nothing like a novel to take you into the individual consciousness of a writer. But there are things that are choice-based that only video games can do.”
New narrative games like the prize-winning “80 Days“, based on Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”, allow players to experience a story not just as reader, but as protagonist. In these graphically rich narrative worlds, readers both lose and gain. What’s lost is our own imaginative rendering of a story world—arguably literature’s most distinctive feature. But what is gained is a truly empathic connection with the protagonist. “It’s about complicity,” Emily Short, a noted IF writer and critic, recently observed at the London Literature Festival. “You are in the position of being the idiot going into the basement, instead of the one shouting at the screen.”
Homo sapiens has always been a storytelling animal; so is homo digitalis. The difference is that in the digital environment, reading breaks the page, says Tom Abba, a scholar of digital narrative at the University of the West of England. “We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story,” he says. In other words, better hold on: the digital ride is just beginning.