The Rise of the Interactive Novel

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Black Crown is creepy, weird, and made me and 6,000 other readers contemplate slaughtering a pig. It's also the bravest and, potentially, most game-changing effort that the publishing world has concocted to not merely counter the digital revolution, but actually embrace it.

The interactive, online-only novel/game's sales figures were reported this morning by The Guardian, suggesting that while it has not, perhaps, gone viral, it is being embraced by a large enough audience to make experiential online novels viable for the publishing industry.

The encouraging figures for Black Crown come as buzz continues around Marisha Pessl's Night Film, arguably the biggest book of the late summer. Night Film — which, like Black Crown, is a Random House release — comes with an app of its own. And then there is The Silent History, Eli Horowitz's widely-praised serialized iOS novel, which Sam Sacks called "terrific" in The Wall Street Journal this weekend while criticizing Pessl's sophomore effort.

Black Crown is free-to-play, unlike The Silent History, whose app costs $1.99. As Wired described the venture when Black Crown was first published:

The experience puts you in the role of a clerk working for the Widsith Institute, a mysterious organisation undergoing a digitisation project. As a result, your character must categorise and analyse archival material relating to exploration of the world.

The idea is that, rather than leading you by the nose through a story, having a non-linear collection of documents, artefacts and interactions will encourage players to gradually tease out a story of tragic love and exploration while uncovering more about the nature of the Institute and its Black Crown project.

In other words, Black Crown does what a traditional novel can't, which may account for its nascent but indisputable success. Catering to a reading public that is increasingly distracted by other media, it unfolds not unlike Choose Your Own Adventure (which is also being digitized— you create a character, answer basic questions, then choose a series of actions that determines how the plot progresses.

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The process is unlike reading a novel, as is the way it has been published. The game-novel (govel?) is borrowing a page from games like Candy Crush, offering premium content  to people who want to upgrade their experience. "[A]round 5 percent of [Black Crown users]  – so around 300 people – having made a payment of some kind," The Guardian explains. Not bad for a game that's only been out there for three months. One that is also, it is important to remember, pretty much completely free of the burdensome legacy costs of traditional publishing.

The Guardian compares Black Crown to Fallen London, an interactive novel that has over 200,000 registered readers—though, to be fair, it has been around for four years. Not only that, but Black Crown is only 65% complete, meaning that writers and developers are still responding to readers' requests, making the kind of tweaks that traditional writers could only dream of.

"[I]t's a brilliant piece of storytelling," the Random House publisher responsible for Black Crown told The Guardian, which makes that case that this is not only still very much a genuine book, but, digital considerations aside, actually a very good one:

The point about Black Crown is that it's not a whizzy piece of technology applied to so-so writing and a predictable storyline. It's a great book that happens to be published in a different format.

And it could be a portent of the future, too. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.