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Monday 21 May 2012

Surfeit of white

If you have so far escaped the attention of Dirk Lloyd, the evil boy genius and erstwhile Dark Lord, then you have two options. Option one is to hide under the sofa and hope he never notices you. Option two is to embrace your fate and go with the flow. With his second book now out in the UK and his first book shortly to be released in the USA, I'd advise the latter. This snippet from A Fiend in Need may help make up your mind:
The White Wizard, Hasdruban, sat at his great desk of living oak, staring at the painting on the wall. It was a painting of the Dark Lord of the Iron Tower of Despair, the Nameless One, the World Burner, the Sorcerer Supreme, etc and Hasdruban’s Arch Arch-Enemy. He had to be destroyed once and for all, along with all his works.

A knock at the door interrupted his flow of thought. ‘Ah, here she is,’ said the Wizard, his voice hoary with age and wisdom. ‘Enter!’

A strange apparition walked into his Inner Sanctum. She was dressed from head to foot in long, flowing white lace, an ornate headdress on her head, her face completely hidden behind a veil. Not an inch of her flesh was exposed.

‘Ah, the White Witch of Holy Vengeance.Welcome.’

The White Witch merely inclined her shrouded head in acknowledgment.

Hasdruban continued. ‘It seems our foe, though he has been trapped in the body of a human child and is weaker and more vulnerable than he has been in a thousand years, was still able to thwart our last attempt to destroy him – he defeated the White Beast of Retribution. This time, we must try harder.’

He paused, hoping the White Witch would speak, but she didn’t. In fact, as far as Hasdruban could recall, she had never spoken. Not a word.

‘So, I am sending you this time. You willmasquerade as something the humans of that strange plane call a “nanny”. I believe their task is to look after other people’s children and their families. In this case, the child in question is the Nameless One himself. Though actually, he has a name over there. They call him Dirk. Dirk Lloyd.’

The White Witch stood there, silent.

Hasdruban went on. ‘You will beguile the family he lives with, the Purejoies – they know nothing of the viper they nurture in their midst – or rather they choose not to believe what is obvious. You will…persuade…them that they need a nanny. They will put you in charge of the Dark One. Find out what he is up to, and if you can, destroy him. But be warned! Though he has no sorcerous powers to speak of and inhabits the body of a mere child, he still has his cunning, his endless malice and his evil genius!’

The White Witch inclined her head in acknowledgement. Then she bent low, draping her long veil over her arms and began to do something under her robes.

Hasdruban raised a hairy white eyebrow. After a few seconds, she handed Hasdruban a note written on black paper in white ink. Hasdruban scanned it.

‘Ah, how will you get to that plane the inhabitants call Earth? Well, I have some rather special magic for that! Let me show you, my dear…’

Friday 11 May 2012

The scrapbook of Ada Byron

A break from Frankenstein today - kind of. This is Frankenstein's Legions, which was originally conceived as a videogame with Martin McKenna when we both worked at Eidos, the publishers of Tomb Raider. The idea then was a strategy game of resurrected soldiers, in which you would harvest body parts from the battlefield to build your armies. (A very different concept of "the monster" from that in Mary Shelley's novel, as I discussed in a recent post.)

Over the years we had various ideas of what to do with it. A comic book? I love writing comics, but Martin has no patience for that sort of narrative illustration. A movie? I wrote a treatment. Took it to Hollywood, even. But, really, you can fritter way your life on the meandering streets of studio lots. It's wearying, even if you have a cart to ride on.

A novel was the obvious plan, which is no doubt why we thought of it last. By then I was working at Elixir Studios and, as lead designer on a big, ambitious, Sims-type game called Dreams, I barely had enough spare time to write grocery lists, never mind an entire book. So I handed it over to acclaimed SF author John Whitbourn, who wrote a cracking adult steampunk novel in our setting - which you can get as an ebook here, incidentally.

Martin and I even worked out the obligatory airships. Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Henri Giffard had both proposed more-or-less contemporary plans for dirigible galleys. In real life, the crew couldn't row with enough strength to propel Giffard's prototype vessel other than on a perfectly still day. But suppose the "oars" were driven by bicycle-like mechanisms that were pedalled. And suppose too that the people doing the pedalling had been specifically assembled to have huge legs, hearts and lungs. I love it when a plan comes together.

After Elixir folded, a victim of the economics of the UK games industry, I found myself with time to devote to cherished projects. It was either Frankenstein's Legions or gardening. During a long walk across Hook Heath on a day of freezing fog, the teenage Ada Byron peered palely from a window in my imagination and there it was: the idea of treating the material as a young adult novel. Perfect, and it only took seven years to think of it. The opening of the story, which I wrote down as soon as I got back from my walk, is actually based fairly closely on Ada Byron's peculiar upbringing:
Ada rattles around inside a cavernous manor house in the depths of the English countryside. Fourteen years old, she knows no-one of her own age and spends her days between lessons mostly in silence. When she looks outside she sees a garden hemmed in by trees and steeply rolling meadows. For much of the year the fog brings the boundaries of the world within yards of her window, which Ada loves as she can use her imagination to paint whatever she likes in the space beyond the misty white.

The house has dozens of servants. Some of them are young enough that Ada can imagine being friends with them, but in fact she hardly knows their names. They are trained to turn their backs and study the floorboards when she goes by, or to retreat discreetly through paneled doors to the hidden rear staircase.

Ada has seen the backs of those paneled doors and knows they are lined with green baize. She spends hours crouched on the lofty staircase, ear pressed to the wood, straining to hear the muffled sounds that intrude from the servants’ world – a shout of laughter, a swear word, the clatter of plates. These lively noises, muffled though they are by the baize, affront the fusty dignity of the old manor, to Ada’s great delight. In her mind’s eye she is as familiar with the servants’ quarters as the house she knows. She pictures it: noisy, cooking-smelly, crowded, cramped and cosy. A hearth-warmed cottage built up to the eaves of her home.

The manor is a vast chilled mausoleum where half-full grates and stone bedpans provide islands of inadequate warmth. Ada considers how it would look if she could view it through the eyes of a snake – the rooms seen as empty gaps like melting caverns in the interior of a huge iceberg, a smoky blue gloom lit here and there by pulsing dull spots of red. After lessons she pulls on her overcoat and goes out into the grounds, where the cold air is at least fresher and the grass is more comfortable than ancient iron-hard settees.

Ada’s only confidant is Kearne, the groundsman. He rarely speaks, having spent several years on the continent fighting in the war. The pale round scar in the base of his throat shows that he was killed at least once. Perhaps that is when he got his new hands – slender and delicate they are, younger than Kearne’s own leathery skin. They lovingly tend the hedges and lawn borders, something that was not in Kearne’s nature before he went to war.

When he speaks to Ada, it is as though he were recounting half-remembered jumbles of dream: "They give 'em to me in a big jar. I have to put my arms around it to hold it. They're not doin' nothing, just floatin' in there, I says. Soft and white like grubs in ink. Wait till we put them on, the surgeon says. They don't understand a great deal, he says to the sergeant. An' thank God they don't, sir; not likely as 'ow they'd keep gettin' up and goin' out and gettin' shot to tatters every day if they unnerstood a blamed thing."

Kearne’s anecdotes seldom have beginnings or endings, yet Ada loves to hear them. They are all she really knows of life.

Of the things written in books, and that can be measured or mapped, Ada has great knowledge. Her mother, who is absent from the house for weeks at a time, is anxious that Ada should receive a comprehensive education. Private tutors give her lessons for six hours a day in a small pantry that was formerly used for hanging pheasants and rabbits. Ada’s mother has a system of vouchers to ensure Ada is attentive. Her mind is inclined to wander, and Ada’s mother has reason to be anxious about flights of uncontrolled fantasy. The vouchers are issued when Ada achieves full marks in a lesson, and can be redeemed for small treats – an extra half-hour before bed, a square of chocolate, a sheet of music for the piano.

Ada no longer hands the vouchers in, having long outgrown the childish rewards an individual voucher can buy. Instead she collects them, pasting them into a scrapbook. She has been doing this for a long time now, and the pages of the scrapbook are stiff with many jars of gum. She leafs through it every night, marveling at the hundreds of vouchers she has collected. She has no idea what reward the book might earn when she slots in the final voucher and presents it to her mother. She has tried not to think about it, keeping even her wayward imagination from exploring beyond that door. She hopes it will be something very different in kind from earlier rewards. Something much more than a hundred squares of chocolate. But Ada is ill-equipped to imagine what such a reward could be. She has no experience of the thing she is missing.
I plotted the whole book in detail - in fact, the whole trilogy. So why abandon it? Partly because Mirabilis came along, and that grew to occupy as much of my time as developing Dreams at Elixir had. But there was something else bothering me. Ada Byron... Victorian airships... Babbage machines... It all feels a bit stale nowadays. There are hundreds of novels that recycle the same tropes, to the extent that even the (often brilliant) spoofs like Lovelace and Babbage are now pretty commonplace.

In short, I didn't feel the world needed another version of those characters in a setting with all the usual steam-powered trimmings. There has to be something new. So Ada's wan face withdrew from the window, the white curtains of fog rolled in, and I walked by in search of other stories to tell. But I like to think she's out there somewhere, yearning to experience the outside world, and if I ever find an untrodden path to her door then I'm going to help her escape.

Monday 7 May 2012

How many endings does a gamebook need?

How many endings does a gamebook need? It isn’t really a case of one size fits all. If you’re writing a simple dungeon-style bash to slay the wizard Devilbad Dre’ad, there only needs to be one ending – the wizard’s demise followed by a pat on the back from a grateful populace. (Okay, it’s two endings if you count all the death paragraphs, but really those are just restarts.)

When I wrote my Leone-inspired SF gamebook
Heart of Ice, I knew it would need to have multiple endings. The basic premise was save-the-world, but there were others chasing the same goal as the reader’s character and, in most cases, the plans those rival heroes (or antiheroes – well, I did say it was a Leone movie) had for saving the world involved different variations on destroying it. Obviously a black-or-white outcome was never going to work for that story. (The multiple endings of Heart of Ice were also a sort of nod to the various cuts of Blade Runner, but that’s a detail.)

The pitfall with fixating on the number of different endings is that it puts too much emphasis on plot – and plot alone can’t be what’s interesting about a novel or movie, or we’d just read the summaries on Wikipedia. Great Expectations has two endings, and it’s one of the best novels ever written, but not for that reason. Prospero invites the audience to supply the ending of The Tempest (“I must be here confined by you, or sent to Naples”) and it’s one of Shakespeare’s patchier plays – but not on account of that epilogue, which is vintage Bard.

Look at it this way: a novel is a program for the mind. You run it on your brain by reading it, and that gives a unique experience. Then we come away with Pip’s or Prospero’s life in our memory, almost like events that happened to us. Just looking at the plot will tell you what the program does, but you don’t get to experience it. You have to be there for the whole story for the ending to matter and make sense.

That’s not just true for regular novels, it applies to interactive fiction too. As the reader of a gamebook, I might be striving to achieve one of several different outcomes, like the protagonist in a Coen Brothers movie, but a good story is never going to deliver the ending exactly as expected anyway. What makes the difference is the route I take to get there – and that is just as much in my own mind as it is in the flowchart of possible choices the author has presented me with.

In Frankenstein there happen to be several distinct endings – I didn't count, but there must be at least six or seven. If you look at them from a plot point of view, they’re not wildly different. I didn’t have one where Victor creates a race of little frankenkinder and another where he goes off and becomes a botanist instead. All paths through the story lead to Victor’s death. (Since it’s a tragedy, I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) But consider all the stories you might have experienced up to that point:
  • Two villains: a cold, ruthless madman pursued by a murderous monster.
  • Two heroes: an idealistic visionary and the tortured, sensitive child-man he creates.
  • One hero and one villain: which can play out either way round.
  • Or something even more interesting, in which both our characters are flawed but have some of the qualities of greatness – the defining scenario for a tragedy.
And the differences go deeper than that. You may uncover a story in which Victor genuinely loves his cousin Elizabeth – or in which he finds her a more relentless and unwelcome presence than the creature. It could be a story in which he honestly believes the creature has a grievance, and tries to make him a mate to ease his loneliness – or in which he refuses to, on the grounds that a race of such monsters would threaten the whole of mankind. It could be a story in which he knows that the creature is the cause of his friends’ deaths – or in which he suspects a more complex web of deceit, leaving the creature conceivably even blameless. It may be a story where the creature is a man, or a monster, or both – and where he either regrets or glories in that fate.

At the end of all of that, you may reach one of those half dozen final paragraphs. The number of stories you may have travelled through to get there, however, is infinitely greater.

Saturday 5 May 2012

Horror, begorrah

Here's yet more media attention for my Frankenstein interactive novel - coming thick and fast now that it's in the Top 10 on both sides of the Pond. This piece by Hilary Fannin is in the Irish Times and I found it the most interesting of the lot because she gave the app to teenagers and asked them what they thought.

Now, Frankenstein is not specifically intended for young people. It's certainly not for the middle grade kids who used to read Fighting Fantasy, given all the gouging, strangulation, mob violence, blood, guilt and sex. But I was particularly keen to see how it would be read by near-adults who probably would never look at Mary Shelley's original book. (And why should they? I'd never read it myself until I did so to create this new version.)

Conor Bulman, 17, plans to become a game designer, so he certainly got the point of hybridizing literature with interactivity in this way:
"You’ve got choices: which way do you want to go? Are you going to be a vicious killing machine or a monster that wants to be human? You’ve been thrown out of the house after twenty minutes of consciousness, you look horrific, you’re eight feet tall, you’ve got translucent skin, you can see the muscles underneath, you’ve got yellow eyes, your creator views you as a slab of meat. But you are human. You don’t know your own strength: you try to comfort a dog; you end up killing it." 
Susan Birmingham, 16, who is writing a novel of her own, said:
"Frankenstein is all about the characters. You get so involved. You want the monster to be happy, but deep down you know he’ll meet contempt... [The book] allows you to grow up with him, to make choices between good and evil, love and hate."
Lots more insights over there on the Irish Times website. And if you are curious about trying the book, you can get it for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad right here.

Emerging from The Waste Land

There's a lot of talk about the resurgence of gambooks, so it's nice to see quality UK newspapers like The Guardian taking the new wave of digital interactive literature seriously. Literary editor Claire Armistead writes:
"Last week, the independent publisher Profile Books launched an updated, interactive version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which leapt straight into the top 10 in the books section of Apple's App Store on both sides of the Atlantic."
Whether your preference is literary fiction or orcs-n-goblins (or both) this should be good news for gamebook aficionados as it signals a willingness in the mainstream to take the medium seriously. Hit the link to see a bunch of other interesting digital books that Ms Armistead is looking at.

Friday 4 May 2012

Once more, with feeling

I'm on BBC Radio 3 tonight at 10 pm talking about interactive literature with a brief mention of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The show is The Verb, presented by Ian McMillan. It's only 45 minutes, so blink your lugholes and you could miss me, but there's plenty more worth listening to on the show. Daniel Morden tells the story that Shakespeare ripped off for King Lear, part of The Devil's Violin Company's new show A Love Like Salt, as well as performing part of a gamebook on air. (Is that a first? Maybe.) You can hear Katherine Mitchell's new prize-winning, darkly funny play in its entirety; and there are two brilliant, raw, Hopperesque songs by the immensely talented singer, songwriter, novelist Simone Felice.

Image by AlwaysBreaking.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Does interactivity have a downside?

As you’d expect of a book that has been in print for two centuries, there have been many interpretations of Frankenstein. Most derive less from the original novel than from Richard Brinsley Peake’s stage play, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, performed five years after Mary Shelley first sent her “hideous progeny” out into the world. Like Peake’s version, later adaptations usually opt for a surface reading that feels a little lazy to me. Victor is callous, if not sneeringly evil, the woebegone monster provides his comeuppance, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a science-gone-mad cautionary tale. Hence all the rifled graves, stitched body parts and creepy castles stirred into the mix to provoke shudders.

Well, Frankenstein is an overdetermined work, rich in possible meanings, so that’s okay as far as it goes. But, when we consider the clue that Mary Shelley left for us in those words “a modern Prometheus”, we might usefully dig a little deeper.

Victor Frankenstein in the book is a genius and a rebel, a Byron of the sciences. He descends into the belly of the beast, risking insanity and broken health to bring back a secret that gods have tried to keep from Man. In finding fire he creates life. If this is a tale of duality, then the monster is the unruly, all-too-human side of the hero. A decade ago we might still have said that Victor’s monster is the Id that he has made strong by focussing too exclusively on the Super-Ego, except that Freud’s terminology now seems even quainter than Mary Shelley’s schoolbookish prose.

Some have said that Frankenstein is a story of a bad parenting giving rise to a troubled child. On the level of social metaphor, that’s a reading Mary Shelley certainly intended, and it’s the reason I moved Victor’s university from Ingolstadt to Paris during the Revolution. But there is more to a work of fiction than picking at the plot as if it were an account of real events. We could ask whether Pip could have got to the Gargerys’ house to club his sister over the head, or whether Holmes could have faked the existence of Moriarty, but a literal interpretation is not the point of fiction. Pip is seething with repressed grievances of his youth and he is desperate to cast off his embarrassingly humble origins; the injury that tames his bullying sister is a manifestation of his desires. Moriarty is both an actual antagonist (in the “reality” of the story) and Holmes’s alter-ego (in the story as a work of fiction).

Likewise with other stories of duality. Is Deckard a replicant? Yawn. He’s the flipside of Roy Batty, is what matters. Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt is not, within the universe of Thornton Wilder’s screenplay, a literal demon conjured from Young Charlie’s subconscious – though in fictive terms he’s nothing but. It is the richness of literature (and cinema) that it allows for more than just a literal reading.

A well-written novel, the most immersive of all forms of storytelling, should command your full attention and belief. Yet, even while held by the spell of belief, you can appreciate the novel simultaneously on several levels: as a description (honest or otherwise) of the events of the plot; as insight into the characters’ feelings and relationships; and, on a level beyond the plot seen as a make-believe reality, you can tune into the themes and resonances that the author has placed there that make it, not a mere account of events, but art.

The risk of interactivity is that it can strip away that liminal level of fictionality that lies between imaginary reportage (“here’s what is supposed to have happened”) and authorial artifice (“here’s the iceberg of meaning beneath the events themselves”). Interactivity is a powerful tool that can draw you so deeply into the interior of the story world that you lose sight of it as a story. You think you are there.

That’s why my interactive retelling of Frankenstein is not intended as a replacement for the novel, any more than Mrs Shelley intended her story to supplant Paradise Lost. Like a movie adaptation, it emphasizes some aspects, downplays others. It’s told in a style that is necessarily right in the moment, and the interactivity certainly does pull you inside the story. That sounds like marketing spiel, right? Who wouldn’t want to get pulled inside the story? But the downside is that that comes at the expense of removing the reader’s ability to absorb the work’s meaning in parallel with its story. While talking things over with Victor, you are no more likely to regard him as one side of a divided soul than you are to take that view of a rival you're arguing with in real life. Interactivity values the direct, personal connection. It places fiction above fictiveness.

So, if you read the new version, do interact with Victor and his creature – but don’t just leave it there. Take a look at the narrative that’s left behind in the wake of all your choices. There you have a unique, personal version of Frankenstein, created by your interaction with the text, that you can go back and read as a traditional novel. The themes are all present, you just need to raise your view from the decision tree to see the whole forest of ideas that Mary Shelley planted. And the richness of her story, not the cackling hunchbacks and brains in jars, is the reason Frankenstein is likely to remain a bestseller for another two hundred years.