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Games are interactive, books are not. Is that the truth?

Previously on Zanna Garrick, we explored the difference between books and videogames, and what makes them two complementary and compatible forms of entertainment. The main difference among them, as we saw, is in the fact that stories in a book are decided by the writer, and the reader can only decide at what pace they want to enjoy them. In games, instead, the audience has more agency: in many categories of games, they build their entire adventure, in some other their agency is limited but allow them to choose the pace of the story and a few details enriching it.

But is that an absolute truth? For sure it’s difficult to see a printed book as something that allows interactivity, but the answer to the question, as it turns out, is not exactly. Kids growing up in the 80s and in the 90s probably remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books series: usually written in the second person, those books allowed the reader to make a choice every 3-4 pages, and each choice produced a different outcome (some of the books allowed for up to 44 different endings).

Similar experiments have been made in movies, the most famous example being Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. At a few points in the movie, a binary choice was presented to the audience, and it affected the final outcome of the story. Some choices could be reached in different ways, some others caused the storyline to meet a “dead end” and brought the viewer back to the last decision made (or to another choice in the movie), and overall the movie allowed five different endings. Curiously enough, Netflix was sued by Chooseco (the company re-publishing the Choose Your Own Adventure books) for copyright infringement, and they settled on an undisclosed deal in late 2020.

Such examples won’t offer the same amount of agency as World of Warcraft, but I think it means it’s possible to have interactivity in a more “passive” entertaining medium. Some of us have played text-based adventure games sometimes, and can’t those games be seen as a form of an interactive book? If I think about my background and my passions, to be honest, I find it hard to understand how I could know so little about it, but there’s a huge lot of text-based adventures out there, which in a way can be seen as a sort of interactive fiction pieces. Maybe it’s because as much as I love both forms of entertainment, I’ve always tended to separate the two: quiet and relax while I’m reading, CGI and quick decisions while I’m playing.

The thought about never really getting into the synthesis of books and games came to me when I discussed with a colleague of mine about a way to promote and introduce We Gotta Get Out: he’s a huge fan of text-based adventures and with a few of his friends he was writing his own interactive fiction using Inkle. In case you never heard of it, it’s a quite popular language used to write interactive fiction, and it can easily be integrated with Unity.

To be honest, I had read about Inkle on my storytelling bible, and I had made a mental note to check it out, but I had completely forgotten about it until my colleague mentioned it to me.

My colleague and I were the only ones in the entire lab to share some commute time, and he used to spend that time working on his project. It gave me the idea: what if I advertised my book with a brief interactive fiction piece that introduces my characters and my setting? Luckily enough, my colleague didn’t trump my enthusiasm when I told him: he showed interest in the project and pointed me to a few awesome resources and tutorials for Inkle. So I made my decision: the We Gotta Get Out interactive introduction is happening.

There must be a few other tools out there, but what I’m loving about Inkle is how schematic it is. As a software developer, I’m used to keywords and structured code, and the language on which Inkle is based provides just that. Values can be stored in variables and incremented/decremented at will, boolean conditions are evaluated. Of course, there are conditional statements too: it seems like I’m writing code for a program, but I’m creating a story instead. Needless to say that I love how those two passions of mine merge thanks to a tool like Inkle.

And I also like how the introduction is shaping up. I don’t want it to get too long or too complicated, and neither to give away too much of the plot, but I found a way to make the different storylines merge with the action in the book and I’m quite satisfied with it. All this to say that I’m going to talk a lot about it going further and that if you’re interested and you’d like to stay in the loop you just have to head to the newsletter page and subscribe!

P.S. Of course, don’t forget to comment and let me know what you think about interactivity in stories and in traditional media.

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