[Interview] Digital Adaptations – Literature Reinvented for the Digital Age?

Adaptations are often the elephant in the room, they’re one of the most commercially viable and risk free ways of getting a new story into theatres, cinemas and our living rooms.

Sadly gaming and digital media in general often get the short straw here, the most prolific form of adaptations we see being soulless “tie-ins”; often lacklustre adaptations of big-budget Hollywood films simply made to rake as much cash as possible. With this in mind it’s hardly surprising that the most people look on at adaptations with little or no affection.

Digital Adaptations The Thirty Nine Steps

Dante’s Inferno, EA’s take on the first part of the Divine Comedy, is the highest profile literature to gaming adaptation we’ve seen recently, and there aren’t many who’d consider this a “faithful” rendition of Dante Alighieri’s epic. The highly graphic setting of hell was adequate fodder for the developers and they truly made it their own, however recreating the narrative clearly wasn’t high on the priority list during production.

Story Mechanics, a Scottish based studio may well be working on the “missing link” between literature and digital media, one which has the promise to restore faith in this lowly regarded area. It is their objective to look at how the novel can, and should become truly part of the digital media age, not as a tie-in or ideas repository, but rather as a celebration of the great stories novels have offered us in the past. Simon Meek, Executive Producer at the studio, was kind enough to discuss their ambitious project, and consider what it could mean for digital story telling in the future.

The Digital Adaptations project has set out to craft interactive versions of novels, which Meek notes is “something other than a ebook or enhanced ebook”. Adaptations of cherished novels that capture the original storytelling magic present in the book and updating it into a truly digital medium. Meek’s main issue with digital storytelling is on the trajectory the book has taken, “so far this pure storytelling experience, the deemed-natural path from pencil to pixel has been embodied in the ebook.

Digital Adaptations The Thirty Nine Steps

The fundamental stalling point of digital adaptations in this fashion is that the ebook is still based on the physical format of the book – just digitised. The reasoning behind this stalling? “Safety”, Meek assures, “there’s a huge risk in reinventing the way stories that already exist are told, and it’s hard (commercially) to take risks in any industry… Until there is a robust business model that proves that something more ambitious can cut through for a digital audience, they’re happy where they are”. In this sense the Digital Adaptations team are breaking rank and venturing off into the unknown, intrepid pioneers in the oft volatile and potentially lucrative world of digital media.

When asked about how the project came about Meek wanted to make it explicitly clear that they are not claiming to be the first moving in this digital storytelling in direction, even so, “the stark reality means that no one has done it right – in a pure storytelling capacity at least… While countless books have provided inspiration for games, not many books have become games”. Of course there have been recent movements in the production of “interactive media”; Meek notes that titles like Heavy Rain have taken positive steps in laying the ground work, and in their wake “the time seemed right to take a stab at some grade-A books and transforming them into interactive story experiences”.

Digital Adaptations, in this sense are more explorational by nature, rather than inherently “gamey” creations like Heavy Rain where you’re being led by the collar through the whole experience. Meek and his team are looking to create something, which is more faithful to their source, “what we are making is a version of a story that immerses the audience in the world in which it is set – allowing the audience to see, hear and feel the world that the narrative exists in.” Meek cites the inspiration in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, “the beautiful descriptions of the room and the items in them, also presented itself as something akin to a piece of installation art – and certainly a piece of installation that I would love to explore”.

It is planned that Digital Adaptations will occupy a middle ground between (e)books and gaming, but Meek is out to create something different from both; “the driving factor in the experience is the story and its progression and route from beginning to end is not dictated or derailed by skill… There are game like elements, and the story is translated in game mechanics (which we are calling story mechanics), but as a whole I don’t think the product should be called a game”. This clearly reflects back upon David Cage’s assertion that Heaven Rain shouldn’t have been considered as a game in the traditional sense, however Quantic Dream’s genre-bending approach lead to criticisms from both film and games press.

Digital Adaptations The Thirty Nine Steps

There is clearly a certain hope that by pitching in between the literati and gaming audiences there will be a degree of cross-over, but of course there is a chance that the opposite could in fact come into effect. It is team’s intention that the DA project would have the appeal above and beyond gaming and literature, rather that it offers a new potential for lovers of story, updating storytelling for the digital age. Meek says that readers (rather than “player”) “can expect the story with bells and whistles. We basically take the core text and interpret the words in a multi-sensory way.” In this convergence of two mediums Meek and the team plan to use the strengths of text, voice over, sound effects, art and of course varying degrees of interaction when they’re required, to work with the mediums they employ rather than in spite of them.

Of course, a project this ambitious wouldn’t be without its challenges. Meek identifies “keeping control of the pace of the story and not overloading the audience” as one of their chief concerns. “The story mechanics, as different approaches to translating the story to screen, each have a different sense of involvement and associated pace. Since we were making Digital Adaptations from the ground up, there was also a sense of not knowing if they would work in context to one another until we actually had them up and running”. These story mechanics have promise for other genres and Meek and his team have the potential to reach out and grab any text from centuries of literature rather than looking fledgling field of gaming for inspiration.

Their first project The Thirty Nine Steps, John Buchan’s espionage thriller set in 1914, gives them chance to flex their storytelling muscles with an atmospheric storyline and intriguing setting. But what was it that drawn the studio to Buchan’s novel? “The Thirty Nine Steps is a great story!” was Meek’s resounding response, “but the choice of book was more considered than that… The Thirty Nine Steps ticked so many boxes – the first being that it is as well known, if not better, as a film than a book. In this way, the title avoids any negative connotations to non-readers, yet still appeals to those who do and know the book”. Meek also adds it is missing an copyright baggage a more recent or “heavy-hitting” novel may bring, giving them a far greater level of freedom. Once it has been brought to market there is a certain excitement within the DA project as to the future and the fact that “can then look to the rest of the book shelf” for the next title.

It is hoped that in working on this kind of novels to digital media approach that developers of interactive and digital media will all gain confidence in the storytelling capacity of their medium and help push more ambitious projects which aren’t afraid to experiment with the telling of tales. Although it must not be forgotten that with the DA project Meek and his team are working on is centred around reinventing one of the oldest entertainment forms, a highly ambitious task indeed. But truth is the storytelling brilliance of centuries of literature has seldom found a home worthy of its achievements in the digital generation, perhaps this is a significant step in achieving that?

We can expect to see The Thirty Nine Steps Digital Adaptation released in June and it will be available on PC, Mac and iPad.

This is a slightly diversion from the norm here, but it’s in keeping with Chris’ preoccupation with adaptations and storytelling. Chris Green is a narrative designer, games writer and creative copywriter depending on the direction the wind is blowing.

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A writer-meets-SEO with a passion for all things creative and digital marketing. Chris is interested by all things interesting and will write about almost anything (interest not required - but it helps!). SEO & Content Manager at StrategiQ Marketing by day and new Dad of one and writer by night; previous work includes a BAFTA award winning game, self published short story collection a ton of verbose articles about games, international eCommerce websites and more.

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