Friday, March 21, 2008

Penguin UK: "We Tell Stories"

On Tuesday, Penguin UK launched an interesting new interactive fiction project called "We Tell Stories."

Over the next six weeks, six classics books will be reworked into a series of short stories, each written by a notable contemporary author. The first story, by thriller writer Charles Cumming, is inspired by John Buchan's 1915 mystery novel "The 39 Steps" (currently the subject of a comic adaptation on Broadway, incidentally.) It uses GoogleMaps to tell a story about a young man with a shady past who gets embroiled in a scheme involving Renaissance art, a family of Greek shipping magnates, and a murder in London's St. Pancras station. You click on little pop-up balloons to advance the text, and a little blue line traces the protagonist's path through London and, eventually Edinburgh. It's a neat concept, but it gets a little old after a while.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next five stories, which will apparently use different kinds of web technologies. The whole project is designed by the alternate reality game firm Six to Start, who were behind the massive-scale ARG "Perplex City," so I have faith that it'll develop into something more substantive.

[ARGs--which I wrote about for Alyssa Katz's class last semester--are sort of a cross between a story and a game. They're multi-media narratives that play out in real time, using the web, email, phones, and sometimes live events to transmit elements of the story. "Perplex City," for example, had a staged event that involved an actor getting whisked away in a helicopter after leaving a bunch of clues for players. They're usually played by hundreds or thousands of people at once, who gather to share clues and solve puzzles on message boards online. See ARG Network for more info.]

As an added bonus, the Penguin project has a hidden surprise, according to the "About" page:

"[S]omewhere on the internet is a secret seventh story, a mysterious tale involving a vaguely familiar girl who has a habit of getting herself lost. Readers who follow this story will discover clues that will shape her journey and help her on her way. These clues will appear online and in the real world and will direct readers to the other six stories. The secret seventh story will also offer the chance to win some wonderful prizes in addition to the prizes on offer on, including The Penguin Complete Classics Library, over £13,000 worth of the greatest books ever written."

Americans aren't eligible to win the Classics Library, but maybe there'll be some fun stuff for us in the "secret" cache of prizes.

Penguin has been doing a lot of digital experimentation over the past few years, with varying results. (A Million Penguins, Penguin USA's collaborative writing project, fizzled quite spectacularly.) Still, "We Tell Stories" is really exciting, and I'll be tracking it with interest over the next month and a half. It's great to see traditional publishers playing around with the Internet for more than just marketing or distribution.

[Side note: Scholastic will be launching a similar, ARG-ish project in September. It's called "The 39 Clues"--not to be confused with "The 39 Steps."]

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