There is a very embryonic form of storytelling emerging from the creative world at the moment. We are perhaps on the threshold of a totally new field of storytelling, and that’s an exciting interesting thing. That said, I remain a little unsure whether The Melbourne Review of Books is even the right venue to be reviewing these storytelling experiments, as they are not books exactly… although on the other hand, a podcast or audiobook or eBook isn’t a traditional book either, and the storytelling urge and principles in these new story objects is closer to novels than to film or TV.
I keep referring to them as these ‘things’ because there is no good name for them. You know a field is young when no-one has even named it yet. But they are definitely a thing and they definitely need discussing. The chief examples I know of are Ruins (and other games by Cardboard Computer), Dear Esther and Gone Home. The mode of the storytelling is through a computer, and superficially these look like games, but they are fundamentally not games. This has lead game reviewers to be confused and sometimes give these ‘games’ poor ratings because they lacked challenge or only take thirty minutes or a couple hours to complete (most hardcore gamers are paying for at least thirty hours of distraction and probably more when they buy a title). But these games have no puzzles, no twitch-agility tests, no shooting of moving targets and no jumping, running or leaping. If it is possible to ‘die’ at all it will be self-inflicted, you quickly return to exactly where you were and stop doing stupid things like walking off cliffs.
Now, these are also very definitely not Interactive Fiction (IF to aficionados), which has been around for years, and is the grown-up word for text adventures. Interaction Fiction by its definition is interactive. The story depends on what you do, and some high end roleplaying games have achieved really quality Interactive Fiction. But the thing with all of the titles I mentioned above is that you are a passive observer in the story. You do not actually change or alter anything. Instead you wander about and discover bits and pieces of the story. It would be very much as if someone wrote an experimental novel in which there were hundreds of separate passages and the reader was encouraged to read them in a semi-random order that revealed an overall story. You might get one piece of the story before another piece by reading it one way instead of the other, but eventually, you have a single, whole coherent story. These are stories written by thoughtful, contemplative people, and it is perhaps not surprising that Ruins, Dear Esther and Gone Home are all introverted, quietly contemplative pieces of storytelling ranging from nostalgic and frightened, to a meditation on death, to a hopeful story about love and being true to oneself.
I’m planning to review each of these three Found Stories in turn, and although the reviews will be short, I wanted to start this by giving this field a name. That’s arrogant of me, but I can’t go through three reviews calling these things ‘story objects’ and ‘story things’ and other vagaries of phrase. So, I’m going to call them Found Stories because the reader doesn’t interact with the story, rather, he or she finds it and uncovers it. I’ll review the three Found Stories I’ve already mentioned over a few weeks in chronological order starting with Ruins. In the meantime, you can always download Ruins and explore it. It is free, short, rather brilliant, and it might give you a chance to consider whether you agree or disagree with my assessment of these hidden tales over the next few weeks.