Why "The Walking Dead" is a clear winner in the "interactive fiction" race

We've "lost".

In the race to find the “interactive storytelling” Holy Grail, we’ve been well and truly beaten.

We have been beaten by a digital games publisher who based their model on licensed IP, and a comic book company.

Most of the book trade will not know, or care, about Telltale Games and Skybound’s tie-up over Robert Kirkman’s cult comic and AMC TV series, The Walking Dead. However – everyone involved in storytelling in any medium should investigate it – for Telltale and Skybound have done something none of us have yet been able to do: Use game mechanics to make us feel true empathy.

Can a video game make a grown, cynical, industry-hardened man cry? Up until now, the answer to that question has been an unequivocal “no”. The Walking Dead has changed that. I’ll freely admit to blind panic when faced with some utterly horrible choices in the game, and an almost uncontrollable rage towards a couple of the characters.

In video games, normally, anger at a NPC (non-player-controlled character) is driven by a bug in the AI routine, or some bit of scenery that has left the character stuck behind a door, or simply because of “they’re shooting at you, get out of the way, you berk” type sloppy design.

In TWD, my rage was forged from a reaction to character’s attitudes, causing genuine upset via a well-written and superbly delivered script, and utter horror came as a result of choices those characters made. That, regardless of media, is immersion. Stripping back all the technology and forgetting the medium and just getting involved because you care. In TWD, you’ll likely care enough, that the choices you make (which affect the story later on) make you sick to your stomach.

Adding game elements to book apps is all well and good. With this, though, the game elements are intrinsic parts of the story. The decisions you make elicit emotions far beyond the traditional logic tree of decision-based fiction ebooks and apps that we’ve seen so far. The art is a solid nod to the comic books, and the action is tremendously visceral, so everything you do has visual and emotional consequences. You are left in no doubt as to what effect your choices have had upon the storyline, and the game had me at times laughing, crying, shouting and panicking in equal measure.

What’s really interesting is that the “game” interface is incredibly simple. No need to learn hundreds of button combinations or rely on lightning-fast reflexes. It provides you with just the right amount of agency needed to make you feel like you have a valid effect on the game’s progression, whilst holding off enough to keep the story moving, relying on its writing, character performances and your own emotions to drive the storytelling home.

It’s truly immersive, which is surely the point of all this digital storytelling malarkey.

The squabbling over formats and devices, models and rights is a sideshow. We have to embrace ways to get us immersed in the storytelling, formats be damned. It may well be that a simple eBook is the right medium for a particular story. I’m not saying that we should make this style of game for all our authors. That clearly doesn’t make sense. What does, though, is that if we have IP, fantastic authors and stories, and we have a fanbase to sell to, we have an obligation to explore projects like this.

Finally, before this is dismissed as a niche product – hell yes, it is. It utterly caters to its target audience – and in the process sold over 8.5million units before it even hit a retail shelf. I’ll accept that niche all day long.

Shame you can’t invert the y axis though……

 

 

Comments

There's much to learn from games...

First up, great to share this type of content. It's vital publishers are looking to other mediums, particularly video games for opportunities and inspiration on shaping our digital product. Though, video games have been successfully storytelling for years, it's not a new phenomenon. From text-based adventures where all you had was a keyboard and a cursor, yet they still managed to stimulate real tension, right up to the present day - Heavy Rain, L.A. Noir, Bioshock et al - all games that make the player make hard moral judgements. Loads of games stimulate genuine emotional responses in those that play them, it's why they are so successful. Call of Duty contains similar levels of excitement to a Chris Ryan Novel. The Rainbox 6 games have used Tom Clancy's content. they won't make you cry but it's still emotional. The biggest game francises have a mix of individuals and teams creating complex interwoven storylines, and improvements in voice acting and script-writing, plus engaging real literary talent have combined together to create some stunning narratives to rival many novels. For example Bandon Sanderson a NYT bestselling fantasy author worked on the iOS game Infinity Blade. Alex Garland wrote the script for Enslaved, a stunning game on PS3.

The reality is most modern big budget games are written in a similar way to a James Patterson novel... Our worlds are not so different, with one exception - budget. In all likelihood, the growth of the gaming industry most likely represents a tremendous opportunity for authors.

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