A few weeks ago I got a call from Amazon to talk about the Halloween releases for Alexa. They’d seen my Frankenstein app and wondered if it could be turned into an interactive audio story.
I’d already talked to a few audiobook companies about that. Frankenstein is tailor-made for audio. It’s narrated by Victor Frankenstein, whose confidant and advisor you are, and written “to the moment” (ie in the present continuous tense). And I’ve been banging on about audio adventure games since I worked at Eidos in the mid-90s. So Amazon’s suggestion was perfect, except…
It’s over 150,000 words. That’s about twenty hours of audio. I’d have to edit all the text, it would need to be cast, recorded, have sound effects added, coded – and all that within five weeks, assuming one month was enough for testing.
So naturally I said I’d do it. Not only that, I’d recently talked to a company called Mythmaker Media about working on an interactive audio project, so how about hooking them in?
“We already have a developer in mind for Frankenstein,” the Amazon guy said, “but why don’t I talk to Mythmaker anyway? Maybe there’s another project you can do with them.”
A few days later, that one got the green light too. Now, as well as editing Frankenstein, I had to write an interactive audio drama from scratch. Only seven thousand words, but it had to be scary (Halloween, remember) and it had be a completely innovative model of interactive storytelling. (Otherwise why do it?)
Skype chirruped again. “What about your gamebook Crypt of the Vampire? That could be an Alexa app, couldn’t it? Can you get that ready for Halloween?”
I said yes on the basis that you can’t have too many irons in the fire; something always goes wrong. And a few days later the Frankenstein developer, having run the numbers for actors’ fees and studio time, asked if it would work with synthesized speech.
“Not really. Victor has to come across as impassioned, driven, stressed, increasingly desperate… But look, the story is in six parts. The second part is different from the others. It’s the monster’s story told in second person, so you are the monster. That might just work with synthesized speech. And it’s just thirty thousand words, so I’d have time to edit it and add markup. Pauses, interjections, that kind of thing.”
They lost interest. Not to worry, as I still had the drama with Mythmaker Media (that’s called “Fright Tonight”) and the gamebook, by now retitled “The Vampire’s Lair” because it’s snappier. Or bitier.
For The Vampire’s Lair I’ve teamed up with a programmer called Kevin Glick. We decided to strip out all the game-heavy mechanics: hit points, skill rolls, things like that. It’s audio, after all, though in fact there’s a Fire Tablet option with some toothsome graphics by Leo Hartas. The way it works now, you play until you die, and you can then either buy another life and keep going, or you can restart from the beginning. (And, yes, of course it’s possible to play right through to the end without having to buy a single life.)
So I hauled out a copy of Crypt of the Vampire, my first ever gamebook from way back in 1984, and embarked on what I thought would be a simple editing job. But no plan survives contact with the enemy, as they say, the enemy in this case being reality. Too much of Crypt was a dungeon bash when what Kevin and I needed was a haunted house adventure. Too many encounters depended on dice rolls. All of that needed to be rewritten. Also, it needed to be scary. Fun-scary, you understand, like pumpkin lanterns and spray-can cobwebs. The orcs had to go.
Luckily I wrote “Fright Tonight” first, because plunging into the flowchart for Crypt and completely rewriting about half of the book would have burned out my creative psyche for weeks. But I got it done, and the result should be soon available on Amazon as an Alexa Skill. (Yeah, don’t blame me; that’s what they call them.) Just say, “Alexa, enter The Vampire’s Lair,” and get ready for some agreeable chills.