Fictionally interactive

Interactive fiction as media tie-in

(Excerpt from the book Let a Billion Videogames Bloom.)

Videogames have always gotten along well with other media. Never mind that many early titles were, if not outright adaptations (more or less licensed), then at least heavily inspired by popular franchises of the time. Soon, creators figured out that games have strengths complementary to those of other media, and learned to come up with tie-ins to flesh out the imaginary worlds they were trying to lure players into. As early as 1984, cult classic strategy Lords of Midnight, by the late Mike Singleton, came bundled with a prequel novella that detailed the game’s premise and backstory, written by the same author – and it is an auteur game. More recently, the original Myst spawned a prequel trilogy of novels that sold pretty good, if not nearly as well as the game. And if you look on Scribd these days, books set in the Warcraft, Halo or Mass Effect universe abound.

But going in the opposite direction is just as popular, if not more. City of Secrets, the interactive fiction epic by Emily Short that’s possibly her best known work, was commissioned as promotional material for a music album, if I remember correctly, before the deal fell through, allowing it to be released for free. Less famously, Christopher Huang recently created a trilogy of text adventures to promote his upcoming novel. And at least they’re both authors with experience in the medium. Other people have used interactive fiction to promote things ranging from Stephen Colbert’s new TV show to a homeless shelter, and these are just a few examples*.

Why games as media tie-ins? Because interactivity can engage the audience in a way no traditional medium can match. Why interactive fiction then, in particular? After all, flashier genres have been harnessed for the same purpose: see The Quest for the Rest by Amanita Design, the creators of Machinarium. But that’s not so easy to do when it requires art, animation, programming and sound design, all working together; there’s a reason why even the cheapest to make indie games today have six-figure budgets (and I mean in US dollars, not yen).

Interactive fiction, on the other hand, is just words. Well, “just”. Anyone who’s actually tried can tell you writing ain’t easy. Even less so when you have to account for all the different ways players/readers will approach your text. But it’s still much simpler than making any other kind of game, and that’s – no pun intended – a game-changer.

In a previous article on this very blog, I gave some examples of what it’s like to write interactive fiction of various flavors. As you can see, it’s almost entirely, but not quite, as easy as enthusiasts of the medium like to make it. Worry not though, even friendlier tools exist. The recently-launched Texture is entirely mouse-driven (well, except for the typing part), and you don’t even have to install anything to create a mobile-friendly text adventure anyone can figure out. Want to have your mind blown? with the same amount of effort, you can make a multiplayer world where your players/readers can meet and interact if you sign up for Seltani instead.

I could easily suggest twice as many tools, but the number of references in this article is already overwhelming. Point is, if you have a media product to promote, and you’re considering a tie-in as part of your advertising strategy, a piece of interactive fiction is a good option, as you don’t need a team of professionals to get started (though paying an experienced author for extra quality is a good idea). Especially if your product is already digital in nature, such as a series of e-books or a Netflix movie. You just have to find a good angle, because interactive fiction, more than any other art form, is a literal dialog with the audience. But by the same token it can be a very personal form of marketing, that doesn’t need to pass many filters on the way to your public.

One more thought: lately there have been various clumsy attempts to “reinvent the book” for this digital frontier nobody seems to figure out already. But books don’t need to be reinvented; they’re perfectly good as we’ve known them for centuries now. Better then to let a franchise colonize a different, if closely related, medium if you feel static words on a screen are no longer enough, than to mindlessly pile bells and whistles that nobody wants on top of traditional literature.

*For more examples of IF as media tie-ins, see this poll on the Interactive Fiction Database; shout-out to Chandler Groover for his many intriguing suggestions.