When the Best Books of 2013 are listed, the most important may not make the cut. That's because the most exciting literary innovation of the year is not a book at all, but a video game for iPad and iPhone.
Device 6 is a metaphysical thriller in which the world is made almost entirely from words. Playing it is like reading a book—except, in this book, the words veer off in unexpected directions, rather than progressing in orderly fashion down the page. When Anna, the game’s protagonist, turns a corner in the narrative, the text does too, swerving off to one side at a right angle, forcing the player to rotate the screen.
Our story begins when Anna awakes in an unfamiliar room. She is alone on an apparently deserted island, with no recollection of how she got there. The runaway words of Device 6 relate the story of Anna’s attempt to unravel the mystery and escape from the island, but as you swipe to follow them, you realize that they are simultaneously drawing a map. Long, trailing sentences make corridors; blocks of type form rooms. As you move forward in narrative time, you also advance in geographic space.
Sound, the reader's traditional enemy, proves essential to Device 6. Creaking doors and snatches of dialogue guide the player through the space and offer vital clues to the mystery. Rather than interfering with the reading experience, the soundscape enhances it, just as music does in a film. (One earworm song, written specially for the game, has been released as a single.) The whole thing is done in an impeccable 1960s style that draws on Hitchcock, Saul Bass, and Penguin classics covers. The interactivity is integral to the plot—but to say more would give it away.
With its riddle and puzzle gameplay, Device 6 is more Le Grand Meaulnes than Grand Theft Auto. “It’s got a pretty slow pace,” explains Simon Flesser of Simogo, the small Swedish studio that developed the game. “It doesn’t have the instant gratification that many games have. This is something that you play and take your time to digest.” Like a book? “Like a book.”
Slow and wordy—hardly the recipe for a smash hit. Yet Device 6 has sold well, even at a relatively expensive $3.99. Released on October 17th, the game made Editor’s Choice in the App Store and reached second on the overall app chart in the US. At a time when most apps are sold “freemium,” with users getting the core product free and paying to unlock add-ons, its success proves the existence of a market for quality text-based games.
Other new gaming apps are working a literary angle. Type:Rider, a game by French developer Cosmografik, has the unique distinction of being the first game played from the point of view of a punctuation mark. In Stride and Prejudice, an animated Elizabeth Bennet runs and leaps over the text of Pride and Prejudice. Within 24 hours of its release, the game had jumped to 14th place in the Education category of the App Store.
Gaming isn't about to go all-literary just yet. Fighting and running to the next fight remain gamers' favorite forms of activity—and as long as that’s the case, literary games will be a niche interest. The true legacy of games such as Device 6 is more likely to be in book publishing. For an industry in a state of flux, these apps mark a path to follow. They might even change the way people read altogether.
For all their noises about exploring and expanding the market, publishing companies have been slow to embrace the possibilities of interactive texts. “We're becoming a progressively more digital industry, a digital company, but that's because we're mirroring our business in digital,” says Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Random House. “We are a digital company in that sense, but we're not publishing much digitally native work.”
Franklin is responsible for one of the more intriguing developments in publishing this year. Working with debut author Rob Sherman and developer Failbetter Games, he put out Black Crown, a free-to-play web game formed almost entirely of text. Not since the glory days of the 1980s, when Choose Your Own Adventure books sold in the hundreds of millions and future US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky penned the text-based computer game Mindwheel, has interactive fiction had such mainstream interest. “It's a thrilling time to be working on this stuff,” says Failbetter co-founder and Chief Narrative Officer Alexis Kennedy.
For Random House, which recently merged with Penguin to create the world’s largest book company, the move was a first foray into gaming. “We put ourselves out on a limb with it,” Franklin says.
Measured by readers, Black Crown remains a marginal operation. Three months after its launch, it had attracted 6,000 users, 3,000 of whom had paid for extra content—respectable figures, but hardly the next Dan Brown.
Wider consumer trends, however, make such experiments increasingly relevant. In August, E Ink Holdings, the company that manufactures the displays for e-readers such as the Kindle and the Nook, announced a loss of $33.6 million, with sales down 46 percent year on year. (It recovered this quarter to register a $15.5 million profit.) Five years after they were first introduced, e-readers are in danger of becoming this generation's PalmPilot, as readers opt instead for tablets and smartphones. Analyst Benedict Evans calls it “Mobile Eating the World.”
As gamers and readers come together, and devices offer new possibilities for interactive texts, books may come to resemble games. Eventually, reading a novel could be like playing something like Device 6. Imagine Philip Glass writing a creepy-as-hell score for the new Stephen King, with music that comes in just at the right moment: Such a thing could be done, right now, because when a reader is reading on a smartphone, it is possible to know exactly where they are in a text. Or imagine a novel that takes over your phone and starts sending you text messages. Once writers and publishers start to engage seriously with tablet technology, the possibilities are vast.
Franklin and Kennedy emit a palpable sense of excitement about the collision of gaming and reading. For all their optimism, however, they cannot predict the future. Waiting for big artistic leaps is like waiting for unborn children. Until they arrive, no one can say what they will be.
“There's got to be a big breakthrough which will make everyone snap awake and go, 'This is here now,'” says Franklin. “I don't know if Device 6 is it, it is to a point, it's definitely upped the ante. I could see us—I could see someone—coming up with something. Who knows?”
For all Device 6’s slickness and ingenuity, in pure prose terms, it is still “only a game,” too tightly bound to the mechanics of its gameplay to qualify for literary laurels. “She had never played with dolls,” runs the clunky, if functional, opening. “Yet it was the first thing on Anna’s mind when she came to.”
For Kennedy, though, it is a glimpse of the future. In an email, he quoted science-fiction writer and game designer Greg Costikyan: “The future, we are told, will be interactive. You might as well say, ‘The future will be fnurglewitz.’ It would be about as enlightening.”