Stories, Games, and The 21 Steps

Today we launched the first short story at We Tell Stories, called The 21 Steps. It’s a thriller written by the acclaimed spy writer Charles Cumming, and it’s set within Google Maps. I’m genuinely pleased by the way in which the design of the experience meshed with Charlie’s excellent story, and so I’d really recommend you to read it.

We Tell Stories has been – and still is – an interesting challenge, because what we’re trying to do is tell stories in a way that can only be told online. We aren’t adapting stories – we’re working with authors to create entirely new stories that are native to the web. In the past few weeks, I’ve called the process ‘designing a story’, and I talked a little about it in a Gamasutra article published today:

The first story looks to use Google Maps in some way – how did you work with the author to make this happen?

What the Google Maps story does is force us to think about the reader experience. While they might not realize it, authors simply don’t have to think about this when it comes to books, since they already implicitly know the ‘design’ of books – it’s words on page, divided up into chapters, and you can flick back and forth pages to look at the ‘story history’, and bookmark pages to keep your place.

The design of books is so great that it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, and so we just don’t think about it any more.

When we had the idea for a story based around Google Maps, we knew that it had to incorporate a lot of movement – otherwise what’s the point of having a map? So one early idea was a travelogue – a little like Around The World in 80 Days. Another was a thriller, like The 39 Steps. We ended up taking the latter option, due to its frenetic pace, and we asked Charles Cumming, an acclaimed British spy thriller author, to write a story for us.

To begin with, we simply told Charles to ‘bake movement in’ to the story. However, from early on, it became clear that this was rather trickier than any of had thought; it wasn’t enough to have the protagonist walking and driving and flying around the place, they had to do it all the time.

Early drafts of the story saw the protagonist having a very tense discussion for a couple of chapters – riveting stuff – but it was all in one room. Luckily we had a great relationship with Charles and we worked together to incorporate more movement, or references to other locations, in every chapter.

We would often give suggestions about scenes that would fit the design, and Charles was always very open to revising the story and coming up with new ideas. Ultimately, I think it was his flexibility that really made things fit together.

Something that is worth mentioning is that none of the authors we’re working with are particularly tech-savvy – some of them are the completely opposite. And while it does help, it only helps up to a point. From my point of view, I can teach an author about technology and interaction, but I can’t teach someone how to write.

I spoke about the subject of stories and games at Barcamp Brighton on Sunday (incidentally I wouldn’t call The 21 Steps a game, but it is an interactive experience). The Barcamp was a wonderful experience, and I’m sure to repeat it again. Rachel Clarke did a great writeup of my presentation on her blog, and I’ve also included the slides below:

Finally, Anne-Marie Deitering has written an insightful post about digital storytelling and her thoughts on what we’re trying to do with We Tell Stories.

8 Replies to “Stories, Games, and The 21 Steps”

  1. Interesting new idea, well executed. The writing style was just right for this sort of romp. One tiny suggestion would be for the reader interface to have a pause button. This would allow google maps to catch up when on the move. Its not much fun ploughing thru matt grey cityscapes and countryside.

  2. I tried writing about this on the Sandpit blog but ended up going on for 1800 words. Turns out it’s quite difficult to write blog posts about one’s area of academic study; note also the apparently random oscillation between referring to you as “Adrian” and as “Hon”. No works cited list, though, which is something at least.

    But to summarise: ooh, this looks interesting.

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