The Slipstream

A degree of the surreal,

The not-entirely-real,

And the markedly anti-real.

The shape of books to come

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My name is Nick and I’m a gamer. I enjoy playing games, and I enjoy making them. I’ve spent the last 15 years working as a video game developer and now myself, and two of my long-time collaborators, have started a new venture taking our lessons from games development and applying them to digital books. If you’re not a gamer and have no interest in gaming culture, then you might be interested to know that digital games have come a long way since they crawled out of the arcades and started ruining the fabric of society. If you can look beyond the killing fields of current generation violent blockbusters, there are plenty of games out there which speak to a thinking and reflective audience. I believe that games have a lot to offer when it comes to methods of narrative delivery. When game developers seamlessly pair elegant storytelling with compelling game-play, then the medium transcends itself and becomes greater than the sum of its parts. We think that some of the ideas from modern video games can be used to create a new kind of digital book.

I’d like to share with you three games which have helped to shape the ways we are thinking about a new form of digital book.

Journey (2012)

Challenging our preconceptions of what defines a game, Journey is an experience which speaks directly to our vision for new forms of story telling. Journey asks very little of the player, your only requirement is to keep moving forward towards the story’s inescapable destination, much the same as turning a page. The sublime nature of the experience is its own reward. Returning to Journey is compelling, the experience is purpose built to be larger than a single play session, and yet the duration is brief enough that the player does not dread the re-investment of time. It is the mystery of place and the thrill of new discovery that invites you to return to commence the journey anew.

Heavy Rain (2010). Dark and deeply moving, Heavy Rain is a stunning, non-linear drama which draws the player into a multi-layered criminal investigation. The game derives its gravitas from the quality of the writing and the choices that one is forced to make within the story. Branch points within the narrative are often made as snap decisions, which, much like real life, leave one to reflect upon the consequences of seemingly innocuous decisions. Multiple protagonists create opportunities to observe the impact of decisions that one must make. While the game is at times intentionally confronting, it is courageous in that it consistently treats the player as an adult. It forsakes action for ambience and emotional drama, and the end result is a narrative that feels that it has more similarity with a novel than a movie.

Animal Crossing (2002)

Colourful and fun, Animal Crossing is a game which simulates a happy village populated by cute animal characters. What makes it unique is the way in which the world of the village is synchronised with real world time. Turning the game on a different times of day meant that you saw different people going about different activities. Adults playing it at night would often find it frustrating, as everyone was in bed and sleeping when you wanted to go an visit them. The notion that a game world could build a bridge to the players world is as revolutionary today as it was when it was released a decade ago.

One of the mood boards for a retro sci-fi game I was pitching a few years back - a cover from a 60s science fiction magazine.

Each of these games has a strong and compelling narratives. Each of them uses game techniques to deliver those stories. For an audience that may be unfamiliar with games, sometimes the game can get in the way of enjoying the story. We also acknowledge that games may not be for everyone. However, we do believe that everyone is interested in storytelling. This is where we believe that a new form of digital book can succeed.

We believe that books can evolve beyond their current form and use digital technology and game design ideas to tell stories in new ways. This is not to say that books will become games but that digital books will evolve into a new media form that we are yet to experience.

What do you think?

I first met Nick Hagger years and years ago when he was a schoolboy. I was billeted by his wonderful parents several times, when I spoke at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar, where Margaret was the librarian. In recent times Nick wrote to tell me charmingly that he remembers me telling him to follow his dreams and passions, which he did. He went on to explain he had been writing for and designing games since the early 80s when he first played Dungeons and Dragon. Thirty years later he has made a career out of exploring the intersections between narrative and game theory. He has published material for pen and paper role playing games, strategy board games, video games, as well as short stories. He’s spent the last 15 years working in the console game industry, as Creative Director at Bluetongue, a Melbourne based games developer. He and his team were nominated for a BAFTA (they were pipped at the post by Little Planet which Nick says is an honour in itself) They’ve also won lots of local industry awards, GDAA (Game developers Association of Australia) and in 2009 they won Best Console game, and Game of the Year.

He is now part of small start-up collective called Robot Circus, who are focused on creating a new visions for the future of digital storytelling. Then he asked if I would like to see something his collective was working on, to see if I felt I could write a letter of support for some funding.

That this letter came when I was planning this eVolution debate was amazingly timely, because it fell right into the arena I was interested in- the intersection of story and technological possibilities. So I told him to send some material. Nick send a weighty prospectus and I read every page of it, utterly riveted. I wrote the letter, he got the grant.

Meanwhile, I went to Bologna Book Fair and nothing I saw excited me as much as the things Nick had been working on. There were definitely some amazing things being done, but as a writer, there was nothing that elated me as Nick’s ideas had done. Of course I wrote and told him of this, when I returned and we met and have been exchanging emails ever since. I am more and more awed by his knowledge and most especially, by his attitude to the integrity of story and to the way in which technology can embrace and offer up story in new, complementary ways. Knowing him has educated me, and I will post a few of the links he has sent me over time, in the new links page on this website, so you can see why.

Of course I asked him to contribute a piece for this forum and I was really excited to see what he would produce!

20 Responses

  1. Thanks Nick for that mind-boggling “journey” down an unknown street. I’ve never been into games, I have to say. I know a lot of the SF people were aficionados of Dungeons and Dragons lol, but I think I’ve always been too much of a work-a-holic to step off that path. But I loved your clips, especially the fifth segment from the sinisterly-named Leaving Your Partner To Die For Fun … But rather than see these as games or clips, I see them as the forefront to authors making films from their books (or in my case, authors PAYING people such as yourself to make films for their books). Of course, the age-old problem for print books will rear its ugly head: distribution. As I watched the first part of Journey, I was more seeing it as a film clip for my own Jelindel Chronicles. I’m way too commercially-oriented, obviously! But I do see this art form as a vehicle for the print book. See the film! Now read the book!!!! (If you can find it.)

  2. Exciting ideas, Nick, and great trailers. I think that hybrids of this kind, rather than being a substitute for the traditional print book or even traditional e-edition will become another genre within the whole big world of storytelling. Now to come up with a good catchy name for them!

  3. Min Dean says:

    Gosh, The Journey trailer is gorgeous. The music in particular got to me (…yes, perhaps because it’s reminiscent of Firefly…). Thanks for sharing those!

    I think that reading, and learning how much I loved a good story, actually got me into gaming. I tend to only play (for long periods of time) long RPGs that are heavy on story and characterisation. Zelda, Final Fantasy, Oblivion & Skyrim. And I agree that, as someone not from the publishing industry at all (so, as a consumer), I am interested in storytelling, not what form that story is delivered in.

    Incidentally – you have probably already seen it, but just in case you haven’t – you should check out Indie Game: The Movie. It follows three independent game startups – of greatest interest may be the words from the creator of Braid. His bit on how the game was a reflection of his fears and weaknesses made me realise that game developers, at least in his case, are closer to writers and musicians and artists than I had realised. They all want to communicate their story to the world, and be heard.

    • I loved the Journey, Min, and Nick. It is visual poetry and I can see very clearly how delicious it would be to write something for this medium- but at the same time I can also see how, as Sophie says, a new name is needed for a form that is a new artform in the making, set precisely between book and movie…

  4. Deb says:

    Lovely visuals and music to Journey. I’m not a gamer at all, unless you count pacman on the Atari about 100 years ago, but I’d really be tempted by this type of game, or storytelling.

    I am in awe of anyone who can design and develop anything for the web or game consoles. (My son has a huge collection)

    • Thanks Deb. I feel like I’m riding on the coat-tails of greatness here, but I wanted to share the trailer from Journey as it’s qualities shine through, and it’s structure is something that speaks the project that we are working on right now. You should also have a look at Flower, another beautiful game designed by Jenova Chen.

  5. Thanks for link to the excellent trailer for the Journey. It seems to me though that the sales would need to be huge, which I believe is the case with Journey because of the time and people to develop the work. I have read that 18 people (plus musicians) were involved in its development and it was commenced in 2009 and released in 2012. As to this being an indication of who was working full time on the project and the time it was in production is clearly a result of conjecture.

    However, for most writers having a story converted or purpose written for this medium would it seems be financially not viable for the writer and would mean they most likely would need to be contracted by a company like yours or “published” by one of the big publishers.

    Whereas the EPUB is a medium where writers can reduce their costs and offer independency.

    EPUB 3 devices are being released this year, which will give access to new inclusions, Java scripts, media support, such as, movies, animation, music, and access to the net to name just a few functions. Once fully supported (not just because Apple says it does) it will also mean the reader can make choices as to the path they follow in terms of what text and media they are presented. They would not have the range of choices and interactions capable in the Journey; but they would have some choice.

    Thanks for contributing this thought provoking and very interesting piece.

    • You’re right Peter. Journey is a big title, but it is brave, and an 18 person team is very small in the gaming world. Myself and my colleagues have come from a collaborative environment, and one of the things we want to champion is ways for traditional authors to work with diverse creative teams. In games, writers are often forced into narrative compromises to fit in with gameplay. We believe that we can offer writers a different collaborative model where their vision is realised and enhanced by the people they are collaborating with.

  6. Heather says:

    I have always enjoyed computer games, but until I met my current partner I never found the time to play. Now when a new game comes out we play together (he on the PC me on the laptop – multi-player if possible just side by side if not). I loved Skyrim… it was the first game I had really played that had so much detail – you can literally walk the whole map and interact with things on the way – collecting herbs and plants for alchemy. picking up books to create your own library at home. While the main plot line was fairly basic there is more than enough side stories to keep you entertained for hours upon hours.

  7. nick bland says:

    Impressive stuff Nick. You are further ahead in digital publishing than those of us converting existing picture books because you are exploiting all the technology has to offer rather than trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole. I don’t really like to see a game within an old favourite simply because it takes away the essential rhythm. But starting with a game and carrying it forward with a story is so sensible. We (at wheelbarrow) tend to add a small game at the end as a bonus so it is still value adding without disturbing the flow. But most of the current picture book app makers are losing the story in favour of the point-of-difference gaming aspect and it is not working in my opinion. You are almost making choose your own adventure books. If writers like you are involved in this amazing new age, the future is very bright. Impressed.

  8. nick bland says:

    Can I just say, Isobelle, you are putting a lot of us in a very fertile paddock together here. Most of us are quite isolated practitioners who form opinions in solitude. Are the rest of you like me, improving and refining your ideas just by participating? you should be very proud of what you’ve done here.

  9. Catherine Bateson says:

    I’ve been thinking for a while now of the possibilities of using gaming techniques to create an interactive virtual reality in which to explore and teach poetry. I think with the proper skills one could create something compelling and wonderful – a journey undertaken by versegirl and poetboy into the landscape of the heart, taking in along the way some shady poets’ hangouts, an emo nightmare or two a la Edgar Allen Poe, some haiku snapshots of cherry blossom and frogs and some concrete poetry architectural forms.

    I live with a gamer son who has watched me chop up my allies on Skyrim, fail to do anything other than design my avatar and park the repair manual in the proper place in EVEonline (with phone-a-friend assistance) – and, many years ago, – have flies plague my Sims kitchen while the (Sims) welfare took my virtual baby away. So clearly I’m not the right person for this job! (However, if anyone else is interested, I’d be delighted to wield a sonnet rather than a sword and exercise the craft of the poem, rather than fly a space craft! It would be great big fun!

  10. Great post Nick and love your work!

    Look forward to seeing more of what you create in the future.

  11. David Andrew says:

    Nick – great, creative ideas … & I loved “Journey” A huge project when you think about the work of many over a couple of years. Congratulations. And thank you for the links to more …