We Tell Stories, our alternate reality game and digital storytelling exercise finished 3 weeks ago - here Naomi Alderman explains the mysterious seventh story and the difference between writing books and writing games.
Last week, I went for a drink with some of the characters in a story I'd just finished writing. Or at least, that's what it felt like. It's a feature of writing Alternate Reality Games that the boundary between players/readers and story-effecting characters becomes perilously thin.
As part of the We Tell Stories online storytelling project, I wrote the Secret Seventh Story; one which you'd only find if you went looking for it. On the main site there was a white rabbit icon. Clicking on the rabbit led to a blog called "Treacle and Ink", written by novelist and bookshop owner, Alice Klein. Over eight weeks, Alice's story unfolded. She found a black mirror in a junk room above her shop – looking into it gave her wonderful ideas for that difficult second novel. But she began to spend more and more time staring into the mirror, and the effects on her life became increasingly troubling.
Meanwhile, within the six stories of We Tell Stories, clues were appearing. "Alice, call 020 8133 8141" read a message that flashed up during Charles Cummings' The 21 Steps. A pattern of dots in an image in Toby Litt's story Slice led to information about a black mirror. Clearly someone was trying to contact Alice Klein via these stories – but who, and why?
The hunt was on. The blog's readers became more engaged in the story than I could ever have hoped. They emailed Alice telling her about the messages – she didn't believe them at first, so they had to find ways to convince her. They went to St Pancras station to unravel a coded message hidden there. They wrote online stories themselves to communicate with a character in the story.
In perhaps my favourite part of the story, the readers discovered that another character, Jacques, had crucial information they needed. But Jacques had recently broken up with his girlfriend. He said he was just too desolate to talk to the readers – he'd only give them the information they wanted if they came to a London pub and gave him trinkets to win his girl back.
True to form, a band of readers turned up at the Jerusalem Tavern one Thursday night in April. Claire Bateman from Six to Start had briefed an actor, who waited in the pub while giggling, excited readers presented him with their gifts. One had baked muffins, another had painted a picture, another had bought a little ring from Argos, while another had written poems for Jacques to recite to his girlfriend. Duly impressed, "Jacques" gave them the information they'd come for, while I lurked round the corner, trying to be inconspicuous while overhearing the odd snatch of conversation.
It's this level of engagement and immediacy which makes this kind of story so much fun to write. Working on a novel is a marathon: perhaps several years of effort, and no one to cheer your progress week-by-week, let alone day-by-day. By contrast, much of an Alternate Reality Game has to be written quickly, to respond to the readers' actions. Very frequently, on this kind of project, I'll be writing something in the morning that goes live online in the afternoon and is then busily discussed by readers on their forums in the evening. That kind of instant response is intoxicating – and the most-engaged readers end up influencing the story so much that they can come to feel like characters themselves.
Is this the future of storytelling? It's too early to tell – we're only just beginning to explore the storytelling potential of the internet and computers. But instant communication makes reader involvement a real possibility – and in a much more subtle way than the horrific "vote on what should happen next" TV experiments of a decade or so ago. Many writers might feel that reader involvement could only sully their stories. But as for me, I'm excited by all the opportunities the new technology brings.
Naomi Alderman is the author of the prize-winning Disobedience and was lead writer on pioneering alternate reality game Perplex City. She is currently working on her second novel. If you want to read the players perspective and watch how they solved the clues, the unfiction forum provides comprehensive coverage.