The project is subtitled “Digital Fiction”, which immediately brings back memories of dreary academic “hypertext fiction”. Those projects often amounted to “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style short stories with multiple endings, where clicking on words to move through a branching plotline was deemed sufficiently interactive to be interesting.
Film critic Roger Ebert famously doesn’t see the appeal of videogames, but he’s astutely observed that a story with multiple endings really has no ending at all: as soon as he (the audience) realizes there are multiple endings, he’ll want to experience them all, and then loses the pleasure of knowing what “really” happened. Interactive fiction has grappled with this too, and as a player I generally side with Ebert. Once I’ve “won” a game by achieving an obviously acceptable ending, I lose interest in finding any other good or bad endings. I’m ready to move on the next story, not traverse the whole plot tree. (Admittedly I’m also the kind of player who wants every modern videogame to be twice as easy and half as long as it is.)
Some blogs are calling the first We Tell Stories episode “interactive fiction”, but The 21 Steps is not really interactive at all. It’s a linear story told through new medium: short text overlaid on the Google Maps interface. It’s an interesting idea that, like many kinds of experiments, could be compelling once the novelty wears off and an author really dives into the medium. Unfortunately the actual “story” behind Steps is pretty thin, with an ending that reads like a clever high school writing project, and the plot didn’t feel like it truly made use of the map paradigm. Conceptually, co-opting a straight information-based API for use in storytelling and gameplay is definitely intriguing — I’d love to see what someone could do with Google Street View. No doubt stories told in short blurb-bursts are here to stay, given all the attention that mobile phone fiction has been receiving.
I imagine the Google Maps component does work well when combined with the story’s alternate reality game, but the ARG requires one to be in the UK. I’ll be interested to read reviews from people who’ve played it through.
The next episode of We Tell Stories comes out tomorrow, March 25th.