Six to Start

How We Tell Stories

This is an adapted version of a talk Adrian Hon gave at the Austin GDC conference. You can also listen to (yet another) adapted version in audio here.

I’m here to talk about stories. Not about games, or even alternate reality games, which is normally what I do talk about, but just stories.

This talk is split into three parts. The first part, which is five or ten minutes, is about the history of stories and how their development mirrored video games. The second and longest part is about a project called We Tell Stories, where we created six stories that could only be told using the web. And the last part is about what this all means for video games and stories in the future. The History of Stories

Storytelling is as old as the human race. Some of the oldest written stories are simply records of oral epics, such the Iliad and the Odyssey, from the 8th century BC, and the Ramayana, from around the 5th century BC.

One of the many major developments in storytelling was the invention of the printing press. Previously, books were manuscripts that were written by hand, and as such, they were extremely expensive and took entire months to produce; Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one example of a handwritten manuscript.

The immediate effect of the printing press was to make books cheaper and more current.  It also allowed people to start making a living from writing stories. Many of these early stories were tales, fables, and epic romances. But around this time were new fictional narratives called ‘novels ‘- Don Quixote was one of the first stories to be called a ‘novel’ and in fact the word has a Spanish origin.

A lot of people at the time were very concerned about the morals of this new storytelling medium of novels, or rather, the lack of morals. After all, these stories might set a bad example to impressionable young readers – a worry which may strike some people here as familiar.

The continued development of printing press, as well as rising incomes, the industrial revolution, and increasing literacy – all of these things expanded the audience for books. At the same time, more experimentation was occurring, and by the early 1700s, the first novels that we would recognise as ‘literature’ had appeared; books like Robinson Crusoe, and Samuel Richardson's Pamela, and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.

Now, these stories blew people's minds; today, we call them ‘epistolary novels’ – stories that are entirely fictional, but written as if they were real and conveyed through ‘found’ documents or letters. Take Robinson Crusoe as an example. This story claimed to be an actual diary, written by Robinson Crusoe himself (Daniel Defoe being completely out of the picture at this point). Samuel Richardson, the author of Pamela, claimed that he had actually found the letters that comprised the story, rather than writing them himself.

Pamela, which was more or less a romance story, was not just a bestseller - it was Harry Potter, Grand Theft Auto, and The Da Vinci Code all rolled into one. It was a bona fide national phenomenon. Here's an anecdote about the book:

"The blacksmith of the village had got hold of Richardson's novel of Pamela and used to read it aloud in the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience. At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived, which brings the hero and heroine together, and sets them living long and happily... the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout, and procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing."

Now, I know we all liked Bioshock, but I don't remember hearing about players ringing church bells around the country when they finished it.

Pamela, and other books like it, really were the videogames of the time. MPs in Parliament had debates about the terrible effects of youths wasting their time reading these fabrications, while parents would worry about their children sitting indoors for hours at a time, completely immersed in something that they couldn't understand. Again, it’s a familiar tale.

After that, you know what happens. Jane Austen is born, she writes Sense and Sensibility, popularises the omniscient narrator and more or less gives birth to the modern novel.

Fast forward to present day. After hundreds of years of cultural dominance, the publishing industry and authors are worried, because stories are no longer being consumed primarily through books, but through radio, movies, TV and now computer games. Now, even if they wanted to, authors and publishers couldn't just turn themselves into filmmakers and game designers. They deal with words on a page - thousands at a time, and that type of long-form storytelling that requires attention and reading is hard to translate to other media.

Nevertheless, some book publishers are trying to put stories on the newest form of media, the internet – which, conveniently enough, is a place where we spend most of our time reading text.

Traditionally, the stories that publishers place online are usually short stories or novels simply cut and pasted onto a web page. These stories are easy to access, but uncomfortable to read, and with the absence of any web or online-specific features, you'd be better off printing them out. Hardly competition to the attractions of YouTube or World of Warcraft.

We Tell Stories

Last year, Penguin created the first Wikinovel, a book that was written by thousands of people working together – or not – on a wiki. Apparently someone at Penguin said that while the wikinovel might not be the most read book ever, it certainly was the most written.

Anyway, in 2008, Penguin approached us for a new project exploring online storytelling, based on the strength of our work at our previous company on Perplex City, which among other things, had as its lead writer a novelist (Naomi Alderman, also at Penguin) who won the 2006 Orange Prize for new writers.

This new project was called We Tell Stories, and it represents the essence of Penguin’s purpose - to tell good stories. In We Tell Stories, we created six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways - ways that could only happen on the web. And what I want to do now is show you thosestories.

The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming

The six stories were released over six weeks, and like any good album, we wanted to start and end with the best. Our first and most successful story was The 21 Steps.

The idea here is very simple – The 21 Steps is a story told using Google Maps. During development, we knew that this would be popular – Google Maps is an interface everyone is familiar with, and the idea of tying a narrative to locations is well-established; just think of the dotted red line in Indiana Jones, or plotting out Phileas Fogg’s journey around the work on a map. However, no-one had done it yet with Google Maps.

The author we picked for this story, Charles Cumming, writes spy thrillers, and The 21 Steps is a homage to John Buchan's The 39 Steps - it's a case of mistaken identity, conspiracies, and a race around the country. A spy thriller is the perfect fit for a Google Map-based story, since we need to keep the protagonist moving constantly, in order to prevent the map from staying still for too long. In fact, we needed our hero moving almost every single paragraph, which did require some clever writing; where this wasn't possible in the story, such as when he was locked up in a shipping container, we showed a dozen places in the world where he might be.

Despite being a relatively young guy, Charles was not particularly familiar with games, or Google Maps. In fact, he didn't write the story on Google Maps - he just sent us a Word document, and we mapped it; he later said the process was a little like him writing a script for a film, and us being the directors. I’ll admit that this is not exactly the best way to write – ideally, we would have created an interface with which he could have written directly on Google Maps – but we had a tight deadline and the results were still very impressive.

Now, The 21 Steps is not a game. It’s completely linear, and it only has the illusion of interactivity. But even that illusion is more than you get with a book, and in total, The 21 Steps has been read about 250,000 times, which is more times than all of Charles' books have been read put together. I think it's safe to say that it was a success.

That's not to say that we think it's perfect. I think we could make a great interactive story or game out of The 21 Steps engine; it wouldn't be hard to do. But it was a good start, and for us, it reinforced the notion that writers and game designers really need to respect each other. We did not mess with his story. He did not mess with our design; but we both talked frequently about how to adapt on both sides.

Slice by Toby Litt

Our next story was by Toby Litt, and it was called Slice. Like all the other stories, it was inspired by a classic, in this case an MR James story called The Haunted Dolls' House (PDF). I see Slice as a slow motion horror story that took place over five days, across two weblogs and two Twitter feeds.

This was not, by any means, the first time someone had told a story over blogs, and I'm not about to take any credit for new ideas or technology. But the story was very popular and well-received, and that's because Toby did such a good job of writing to the shape of the medium; in a way, it wasn't much different from epistolary novels, told through letters, like Pamela; but you have to keep other considerations in mind, such as the length of the posts, and exactly when to publish them to create suspense, and that's something we worked on together.

Fairytale by Kevin Brooks

Our third story was by Kevin Brooks, and it was a 'Fairytale Maker'. This one was interactive, but only in a shallow way. Basically, you get to tell your own Fairytale story - you get to name the characters and decide what happens. We don't make any illusion that you only have a few choices to make - they're all very explicit - but the structure meant that it was very easy to make the experience intuitive. None of our stories had any more than fifty words of instructions, and Fairytale had precisely zero.

As you can imagine, it was very popular amongst children, even though it went with Kevin's typically dark style - the final decision is ‘What kind of ending would you like?' with ‘Some Happiness’, ‘Almost Happy’, ‘Very Sad’ and ‘Just Plain Sad’.

Your Place and Mine by Nicci French

Your Place and Mine was a psychological thriller about the life and death of a relationship, written in real time, an hour a day, over five days. Unusually, it was written by a married couple, Sean French and Nicci Gerrard - their books are published under the name Nicci French.

This was an interesting experiment for everyone involved. We've run alternate reality games in which multiple writers create and convey a story in real time; that wasn't new. But this was different - this was a standalone story by two authors who didn't know anything about games.

A few days before the story went out, the BBC got wind of what we were doing and wanted to send a TV crew over to film them writing. This would've been very cool, but understandably the writers were very nervous, and putting a camera crew in front of them would've just made matters worse. Normally writer's block is something that readers see, but in this situation, it would've been pretty fatal.

And we were nervous as well. We had very little involvement in this story, only creating the interface and design of the story, with the two columns. We did talk to Sean and Nicci about what worked well - keeping the lines short and quick, keeping things moving - but we really didn't know what was going to happen. Clearly they had worked out the story in advance - it would've been disastrous if they made it up completely on the spot - but I do believe them when they said they wrote it in real time.

In the end, it turned out well - the readers loved the story. We set up a chat room for them to discuss the story in real time, and over the five days, a real camaraderie set in amongst them all, predicting what might happen next and commentating on what was going on; a bit like thousands of people crammed into a virtual living room, all listening to a radio play at the same time.

Beyond the readers,  I think the people who got the most out of it were Sean and Nicci. When I called them up at the end, they were absolutely ecstatic. It was a really thrilling experience for them, and I think writers don't often get the opportunity to be creative in front of their readers - normally you write a book, and then a year later, it comes out, and the only feedback you get are a few letters and some reviews. Here, the feedback loop was only seconds long. The experience is a bit like jazz improvisation, or improv comedy - improv storytelling, perhaps. And in fact all the writers who've done this sort of live writing with love it - it's like crack. So I would definitely recommend it – in moderation.

Hard Times by Matt Mason and Nicholas Felton

Hard Times was not really a story, but an ‘infographic essay’ (like a graphic novel) about intellectual property and piracy by Matt Mason and Nicholas Felton. Matt wrote the text, and Nicholas did the infographic design. This was an interesting experiment, and I think one that only partially succeeded. People certainly found the essay interesting, and the infographic design was commented up in a number of players, but the fact is, it probably would've looked better printed out rather than displayed on a screen.

The (Former) General in His Labyrinth by Mohsin Hamid

I want to spent a little longer talking about this final story. This is how we ended our album with a bang.

Right at the start of development for We Tell Stories, Penguin expressed a strong interest in doing a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA)-style story. On the one hand, I can completely see why - it’s a fun style and it certainly fits the web, what with hyperlinks and so on.

On the other hand, it really doesn’t fit the web. People have made CYOAs on the web for a long, long time, and they are uniformly irritating to read. Whereas CYOAs in book format work, since you can keep your finger stuck in all of the branching points that you know you’ll have to backtrack to later, the traditional navigational metaphor of web browsers - back and forward - is just too basic. Coupled with the fact that pages on the web are free-floating rather than in a specific physical order, CYOAs on the web just don’t make much sense.

What’s more, most web-based CYOA implementations are depressingly unoriginal. Why slavishly copy the conventions of book-based CYOAs, with text at the top and a few links at the bottom? Why not use what the web has to offer - state-tracking, animation, graphics?

So I agreed to do a CYOA, but only if we could do something different. After a few hours of brainstorming, we came up with the architecture that you can see in The (Former) General. Essentially, the idea was to create a hybrid CYOA/text adventure/dungeon map. Readers would physically navigate a map of interconnected cells, which each contained a piece of the story. By going through the cells, readers could choose their own path through the story - but unlike other web-based CYOAs, they would easily be able to see where they had been, and what other paths were available, due to the explicitly spatial navigational metaphor we used, plus the nifty minimap in the corner. The story would record which cells readers had visited, and could display different cell text based on this. Finally, people would navigate using the arrow keys on their keyboard, to give it a more seamless feel.

In the space of a day or two, our front-end ace Andrew Hayward had coded up a prototype, which I was hugely impressed by, and Ben Burry was hard at work on the backend. The question now was what sort of author and story we should pick. In a remarkable coincidence, around that time Mohsin Hamid had mentioned to someone at Penguin that he wanted to write a CYOA. Clearly this was meant to be. We met up for lunch and discussed story ideas. The fact that Mohsin managed not only to understand the story architecture but also come up with some really fantastic ideas on the spot, convinced me that this one going to be one of the best stories in the project. I hope we have the chance to tell the other stories he came up with.

Anyway, after the lunch, one problem became clear. The architecture, as we had designed it, was immensely flexible and quite powerful, to the extent that you could do a number of things in it. You could certainly tell a normal CYOA, and you could try to create a fully-fledged text adventure.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about the story being a normal CYOA, by which I mean a branching narrative that has mutually exclusive endings. I always find it annoying that I have to read a CYOA book about twenty times in order to read it all - the first few reads are entertaining, but after those I generally resort to flicking through the back of the book to read the endings, then backtracking. This is not a good way in which to read a book. I suspect that most people never even see half the endings, which is a terrible waste of effort on everyone’s part.

Obviously our design could support a branching CYOA; it would be trivial to code. The only problem is that it would’ve been quite boring, since you would’ve had to do an awful lot of backtracking. At the end of the day, I was prepared to do a story like this given the time constraints, but it would’ve been a slight disappointment.

Doing a text adventure seemed rather more exciting, and we spent a lot of time talking about how this would work. Since the story tracks your ’state’ and can alter the contents of cells accordingly, you could theoretically create a fully interactive story, in which you walk around, pick up stuff, unlock doors, kill grues, and so on. In practice, it became apparent while I was writing the game design document that this would be horribly complex and that Mohsin would have to write down so many rules and bits of conditional text that he might as well become a programmer. Still, we left the door open to this possibility.

Before Moshin began writing, I called him up to discuss the capabilities of our story architecture. I thought it was going to be a quick five minute call, but we ended up talking for about an hour, trying to work out what would be the most interesting - and achievable - style of story. Ultimately Mohsin decided not to do a traditional branching narrative, and settled upon doing… something else. Maybe a ’still life’.

‘Still life’ is a term I came up with earlier on, to describe one possibility in which readers could navigate around an essentially frozen world. There would be no branching narrative, but there would be branching paths, and readers would need - and want - to read all the cells. Imagine if you froze time - you could walk around and look through rooms in a building. Collectively those rooms would tell a single story - not a dozen different stories - and there would be no end.

In any case, Mohsin went off to write the story and shortly returned with a Powerpoint file in which everything was beautifully detailed. I recall Ben marvelling over the fact that all the information required to implement the story was included in the file. Soon after we received it, I called up Mohsin to clarify a point about one of the ‘conditional’ links in the story - we weren’t sure whether we could implement it.

At this point, I have to admit that I hadn’t read the story properly. In my defence, it’s rather hard to do when it’s on paper, but that’s a lame excuse and I know it. So when I spoke to Mohsin, he told me that he would really much prefer to keep the conditional link in, and then went on to explain exactly how the story worked.

(If you haven’t read the story yet, do it now, since this is a spoiler)

The (Former) General is essentially three different methods of storytelling in one. From the central point (with Shaan Azad) you can access each of the three.

To the west is the ‘branching narrative’ in which you have three moments you can ‘remember’. Depending on the order of your choices, you will get a different experience - but once you’ve read them all, you’ll realise all three memories are related, and that each informs the other. What’s more, the text actually changes in each branches when you exit them, further illuminating the story.

To the south is a narrative which can be read in forward or reverse; each direction gives the story a very different meaning. I have written these types of narratives, and they are exceptionally difficult to do well.

Finally, to the east is a ‘infinite loop narrative’ that describes a figure-of-eight. You can choose a number of directions here, and after you’ve read it once, a new branch opens (the ‘conditional link’) allowing you to keep looping around forever.

I was genuinely impressed with the structure. To be honest, I think he understand the possibilities better than I do, because this is not a structure that I would have come up with myself. In a comparatively small number of cells, Mohsin managed to demonstrate three different styles of interactive storytelling, and link them together into a single overarching ’still life’.

The (Former) General is not as visually impressive as some of the other stories, but I’m immensely proud of it. The interface, art design and story all meld together beautifully, and I believe it’s the most innovative and original piece of storytelling in the six weeks. It’s not quite a game, and while it does have branching, it doesn’t allow the reader to affect the outcome of story - only their own experience of it.

It truly is something that you couldn’t do in a book, and here, it tells a powerful tale as affecting as any novel.

Games and Stories in the Future

We Tell Stories wasn't just a popular success - it was a critical success. It got people thinking about nature of stories and how they can be represented online.

While we were designing and creating the stories, I talked about the process with all of our authors, and I came up with two broad conclusions.

Firstly, online stories (and interactive stories) can, and should, be consciously designed. There are many different forms that interactive stories can take, and thinking of them simply as 'games' or 'text adventures' is unnecessarily constricting. The ubiquity of the web, and the development of new web technologies, means that it can be very cheap and quick to create new ideas and present them to the world. We Tell Stories went from an idea to a reality in under three months, including writing, design and artwork. The cost was less than most homebrew games - so why isn’t it done more? (I leave the answer for this as an exercise for the reader)

Secondly, many - if not most - readers have little or no pressing desire for interactivity in stories. I am talking specifically about non-gamers here. Let me digress for a moment. I feel there are two, equally mistaken, views of games. One is that stories in games are basically mediocre, and will remain mediocre, due to business reasons. There is no doubt that many publishers are demanding juvenile and  dumbed-down games, and that this makes it difficult to write a good story, but it shouldn't make it impossible.

The other view is that the stories in games are already more than a match for books and TV. I would disagree with this as well. When Grand Theft Auto 4 came out, there were several reviews praising its story - one reviewer even compared it to the Godfather. Another compared it to the very best that HBO could offer, putting it in the same league as The Sopranos, The Wire, or Band of Brothers. That's just not true.

The world of GTA4 is breathtaking; I love just driving around town, checking out the sights. The technical accomplishments of the artwork and animation are the best in the business. But the story is so clichéd, and the characters so stereotypical, that if the story of GTA4 were a book, it would not be published – and if it were a TV show, it would not be filmed. It is not a good story, and the dialogue is average at best.

The fallback position from this is that stories in games are better - or at least, they will be better – simply because they are interactive. I would say that they are certainly unique and interesting because of that, but that doesn't automatically make them better. Interactivity is not an excuse for a poor story. That said, it’s not easy to write a good story in any medium - if it were, we would all do it.

So if I think that both of those views are wrong, what's right? I think a good story in a game relies on having writers who have independence, and the trust and respect of game designers. If I treated our novelists like a production line, getting them to do a dozen revisions of ten thousand lines of dialog in an Excel spreadsheet, they would've thrown me out of the room, and for good reason. That's how you write a dictionary, not a story.

Writers are important. When a game's graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that's left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves.

And if we can't do it on videogames because of commercial constraints, then look for other places where you can write. There are so many other possibilities out there for telling stories in new ways, thanks to the web. What we did just scratched the surface.

When I compared videogames to the development of books and novels, I was being serious. Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world.

It's hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it's already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we'll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people's lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities. We just have to open our eyes to them.

What we did with We Tell Stories was just a small step, a small exploration of what's possibility with storytelling. It worked because we had programmers and game designers and authors working hand in hand. There's a quote I want to end with, from Mohsin Hamid's story - it's at one of the branching points of the story.

“…There are always at least two ways to tell a story.”

There are a hell of a lot of ways to tell a story. Let's figure them out.