Here’s a tale from 20 years ago, a cautionary tale, painful for me to tell even, but in the end an exciting one for the future. Back in the mid-1990s, I was the first head of multimedia for Penguin Books UK. I could see what we should and could do: open up storytelling to the new, non-linear possibilities that technology was beginning to offer. We published Peter James’ Host on floppy disc as an enhanced version of the book: a first step, but this was still enhancing the linear book, not changing the form. I knew I wanted to create a work of interactive fiction from scratch, something in which the message matched the medium, as philosopher Marshall McLuhan had predicted years before.
So we engaged the brilliant and versatile science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter, who rose magnificently to the challenge. We worked on an ambitious interactive thriller which would exist solely online, using the language, structure and form of the internet.
The pioneering result was Irina, a conspiracy story about how the Russians put the first person on the moon but could not get him back, so struck a deal with the Americans to save him in exchange for first place in the Space Race.
As a reader, you joined actively, interactively, with the astronaut’s daughter Irina to uncover the truth about her father. The story unfolded in a smoke-and-mirrors mix of clandestine chat rooms, mysterious emails and websites that updated based on your own behaviour as reader. Did I say ambitious? Yet it all worked beautifully…until, that is, my equally ambitious viral marketing campaign to launch the book backfired, the project imploded on the launch pad and, to my grief, Stephen’s world-beating innovation never got the recognition it deserved.
Since then, technology has caught up and we need less smoke and fewer mirrors. Some of the elements we pioneered in 1996 are now ready to be produced for mainstream audiences, and they coincide with new trends in storytelling. Readers are now keen to experience them and technology is ready to support them.
Now consider for a moment stories as a combination of characters, storyworld and narrative. Of the three, interactivity favours characters and storyworld as - by definition - it interrupts narrative. In addition, storyworlds are expensive to build: think Hogwarts.
What works really well interactively is character, because we are used to talking to people, conversation being our natural means of communication. Moreover, the internet itself is a communications medium, so again McLuhan’s law applies: building conversations with characters online means the message matches the medium. The writers I have worked with to date find this a new and exciting way for their characters to develop. After all, having created so much backstory, dialogue and motivation to bring the character to life in print or on TV, it is an enjoyable task to explore how they might have more expansive dialogue.
At the London Book Fair this year, thanks to these converging strands, our team at To Play For is announcing a new artificial intelligence platform called Sentient Stories. It creates open-ended, interactive stories in the form of live conversations with seemingly real people. As the story unfolds, you could be talking to Churchill in the final days of the Second World War, flirting with Mr Darcy or helping a fictional detective solve a crime. Rather than simply watch or read about characters, we can now talk to them and experience the story with them. So at this year’s LBF, we are looking for book characters that are strong enough to make the leap out of the pages and into conversation.
Artificial intelligence is a technology that is at the forefront of most major technology companies, and the conversation engines that are at the heart of Sentient Stories aim to be the creative layer that makes sense of it. It will enable authors to write directly into the system in a natural way, rather than requiring technical skills.
Authors and publishers are better positioned than tech companies to explore this because they understand the human condition and emotions better than tech companies. This is powerful technology and it needs a strong moral compass. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could bring about the end of the human race if developed irresponsibly. As Microsoft’s experience of losing control of its teenage AI character called Tay over Easter showed, we are in new territory. Which is why it is exciting, and why creative people are needed to write for it.
Twenty years ago, the way characters communicated with the reader foretold the rise of these AI conversation engines and what we could do with them in order to tell stories. This year technology, audiences and storytelling have all caught up with each other to create a great opportunity for publishers. A new genre. A new type of imprint. A new way for readers to experience stories and, in these uncertain times, a new revenue stream right in the middle of one of the most rapidly growing digital developments that we have ever seen.
Guy Gadney is c.e.o. of digital entertainment firm To Play For toplayfor.com.