Interactive multimedia storytelling is probably older than recorded human history itself. The famous cave paintings of Lascaux, for example, date from about 17,000 years ago. While we do not know their exact purpose, one can easily imagine a narrator or shaman using them to describe a successful hunt or enact a ritual. Holding a torch, the narrator walks along the walls, recounting a sequence of events, in a kind of early form of cinema.
Closer to our own era, in the European Middle Ages, the cathedral was the popular multimedia narrative experience of its day. Most worshippers could not read, and the Latin masses often did little to illuminate things for them. But the giant stained glass windows, illustrating stories from the Bible, would have been explained to them since childhood.
Today, we have interactive digital narratives, also known as video games. This relatively new form of interactive media has evolved into a mature form for the presentation of narrative, and may well represent a possible future for storytelling.
Why should this be interesting or relevant to book publishers? Because it is worth knowing what readers are into these days. According to a 2015 Pew internet study, about half of all American adults play video games: 50% of men and 48% of women play them, and about 10% consider themselves to be gamers. Mary Meeker’s highly regarded “Internet Trends 2017” report describes video games as more engaging than popular forms of social media such as Facebook and Instagram, driving an increase in deep engagement in “an era of perceived disengagement.”
Culturally and commercially, we can’t afford to be unaware of what is going on in the worlds of gaming. At the same time, however, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the noisy gaming world and all its commercial hype. Many of us are not gamers ourselves and have not played video games since we were teenagers.
The first thing to know is that digital interactive storytelling has matured in recent years. The depth and quality of the writing and emotional experience in some games rivals the best literary narratives—and some are even drawn from them. The international hit Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, for example, is based on a series of novels by Polish novelist Adrzej Sapkowski, adapted for the game medium by developer CD Projekt Red’s Jakub Szamalek.
Second, despite book publishers’ fears that mobile apps are a form of digital distraction, taking readers away from books, interactive digital media can actually drive readers toward text-based storytelling. Twine, for example, bridges the gap between interactive fiction and gaming; it’s an open-source software tool that allows users without programming expertise to create and publish interactive stories. Twine has become so popular that it has begun to be noticed by book publishers. In many ways, it is the digital offspring of the popular Choose Your Own Adventure book series.
Because Twine is free and does not require coding skills, it has become a platform for writers who want to try their hands at interactive fiction. Many Twine games are composed entirely of text. Some are also visual, but in many cases, a branching narrative composed of text is the final published product. As this shows, gamers are open to and interested in text stories.
It has become clear that books and games are not in direct competition for reader attention. Gamers are hungry for good stories, in any form or medium, and they will pay for them. The Witcher games, for example, continue to drive global sales of Sapkowski’s novels, which have now been published in more than 20 languages. Dark Horse Comics reports that many of its bestselling titles are based on or adapted from video games, including a compendium of Witcher lore and a series of graphic novels that extend the Witcher stories. (Nonstory books such as critical analyses and how-to books about Twine have also been put out by publishers including Que and MIT Press, and printed strategy guides for games, published by Future Press, Prima Games, Brady Games, and others, can extend to more than 500 pages.)
There is a large and insatiable audience that plays games and buys books, including graphic novels. Games and books have an overlapping, synergistic relationship, not an either-or, zero-sum competitive relationship.
Michael Greer teaches online courses at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, edits the digital journal Research in Online Literacy Education, and serves on the advisory board for mobile publishing startup Gadget Software.