Neverwinter Nights, by BioWare

Neverwinter Nights books

device 6 headerIt was called “the end of days” for literature. Bold doomsaying letters across headlines predicted that with the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the era of books would meet its untimely end, and the larger publishing world would be rendered obsolete. But traditional books didn’t die—they simply fled into the digital world and returned with new forms, the technologically-savvy ebook and digital story app. The need to diversify the medium that arose during this era is, in part, what may have kept sales of books rising through the apocalyptic flames. It pushed against any stubbornness in the publishing world and proved that both page and screen could work in tandem to tell, and sell, stories. There is a similar effort coming from the other side of this dichotomy, in the form of videogames that are experimenting with becoming more literary in nature. The parallels here prompt the question of whether it is imminent that the two increasingly amorphous mediums—books and videogames—may intersect to present a whole new manner of storytelling.

There are those who believe that intersection is already happening. Publishing company Madefire hypothesizes that the innovation of non-visual storytelling that we are most familiar with, such as books, is inevitable—visual, digital stories present a new way to further explore how we can most effectively or most interestingly tell a story. I was curious to test Madefire’s claim. Through the Madefire app, I bought a comic book version of a Japanese retelling of The Brothers Grimm’s Snow White, and sincerely enjoyed the interactivity of the comic. The app panned across and zoomed in on dialogue, like a moving camera that ensured that I focused on the narrative without moving a panel ahead. It felt almost cinematic, or as if it were a magical comic book straight out of Hogwarts. With a tap of my finger, another panel emerged; Snow White is shown walking across my phone screen through falling snow as more text is revealed. The unfolding panels and moving characters are reminiscent of the Emote Lite 2D animation technology boasted by D3 Publisher’s otome games (narrative-based visual novels specifically targeted towards women), where characters are seen on the screen similarly moving their mouths and making subtle gestures. Throw a few dialogue choices and branching story lines into the Madefire digital books, and yeah, you’d have a range of decent otome games.

a reading experience that felt akin to watching a cutscene in a video game

Sure, the Madefire app is meant to tell stories, to bring books to life, but if you were to ask me whether it felt more like an digital book app or more like a visual novel (considered a videogame despite the misleading name) I’m not sure I could decide. The digital comic book version of Snow White, like any traditional book, gave me no dialogue choices and hardly any autonomy—I couldn’t even speed up the pace at which the text and panels moved like you can in most otome games and visual novels. But there were aspects of this digital book medium presented by Madefire that felt very visual novel-esque, in ways no book or ebook I’ve known could be, resulting in a reading experience that felt akin to watching a cutscene in a videogame.

Tapas Media is another company seeking to blur the line between books and games as storytelling mediums through a free mobile app system. Tapas is unique because it uses the concept of “free-to-play” games but applies it to mobile reading. For example, for every chapter (which Tapas calls “episodes”) of a book you read, you can obtain and use in-app gift boxes, or peer-to-peer rewarded sharing. In other words, you can read a free book, and in doing so, unlock episodes of other books—you can also purchase virtual “keys” to unlock certain books. As their website touts, the Tapas app is “Candy Crush Saga meets mobile content”—insofar as Candy Crush was aimed at “casual gamers, ” Tapas’s books are aimed at “casual readers.” There are little to no illustrations or moving images in a Tapas story, unless you choose to read a comic, but the mechanics of obtaining more stories are certainly game-like, and purposefully so.

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