March 20, 2008

We Tell Stories - Penguin's interactive web-first literature

We_tell_stories A newly discovered blog from West Lothian led me to a newly discovered project written by the brother of an old(ish) aquaintance, and whose company is also doing some interesting work for Channel 4. If this is a sign of things to come, then we're certainly advising the right thing on the C4 Education Board.

We Tell Stories is Six Stories based on Six Classics (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) told in Six Different Ways through the net and written by Six Different Authors (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), by the brothers Hon's company Six To Start. It's a dream for any English language and literature teacher, with one new story every week for the next six weeks.

The first week has a Google Earth-fresh lit mash-up from top Scot author Charles Cumming. The 21 Steps is based on Buchan's The 39 Steps and takes the reader on an intriguing mystery through the streets of London and up on the plane to Edinburgh. It's all a bit too close to home, but wonderfully done. There's a phone clue in one chapter which I've just called, but gutted that the solution to the clues lies in St Pancras Station - where I've just dashed from this evening on my way home. Had I been playing instead of working today I'd have been unable to unlock a seventh secret story. I just wonder if the Alice character is inspired by one inspiring gamer I work with occasionally.

Almost as intriguing as the story itself is the backstory to how these six (or seven ;-) multimedia Web 2.0-ey ARG-type games have been created, and the challenges both authors and coders came up against. It would make a superb literature project for the 21st Century student seeking out a dissertation subject:

Adrian Hon, chief creative of the online games company Six to Start, says:

“Authors don’t need to be great artists or programmers right now. They ‘just’ need to write. To make anything more advanced than a normal story, though, you need more skills.”

Most authors aren’t also computer programmers, and most programmers aren’t novelists. As Hon says:

“Web people come up with cool ideas, such as telling stories by web 2.0 series, wikis or e-mails. Twitter, but it fails because they can’t write a good story for it.”

This needn’t be an insuperable hurdle. We may see a new partnership added to the traditional artist-and-writer combination for illustrated books, or musician-and-writer team for songs. Writers could work with programmers in this new form of storytelling.

It also kind of puts claims that Amazon's Kindle is the innovation in e-books into stark contrast with where the real innovations can take place.

So what are these innovations? Well, the Hons see them falling into only six categories, around which one could start design one's own interactive literature. To see how this works in the context of the first story, you can read the process involved on the creator's own blog or get into even greater depth in the Gamasutra interview. Better still, see what others make of it from the project's airing at BarCamp Brighton (presentation below). One of my first ever non-edublog pals Rachel covers it all beautifully.

Thanks, Adam, for the initial tip-off and, yes, it's something we could, in theory, adapt for Modern Languages. Watch this space. In the meantime, I think there are numerous possibilities for the Frenchies and Germanists amongst us to exploit the playing/experiencing of the adaptations of  the 1001 Nights, Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales (I know he was a Dane, but his work and 1001 Nights formed the basis of my Honours degree dissertation into the Fairytale Since the Time Of Perrault), and Zola's Thérèse Raquin .

The most exciting development in 21st Century Literacy this year? Probably.

Update: If you're a teacher short of time and want to try preparing something around this, Rachel and others have worked it out and provided some spoilers. Don't read, these, of course if you just want to experience the story.


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I got lucky enough on Tuesday to be just down the road from St Pancras so went along, followed the clues - and videoed a little. The full story is here

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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