Seven Fables: an Interview with Mark Stephen Meadows

Mark Stephen Meadows is the author of several books on interaction, including Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative. Mark is currently in the process of Kickstarting his new project “Seven Fables”, an interactive ebook with a companion volume in old-fashioned codex form. (Leather-bound, no less.) Being a sucker for retellings of classic stories, I was curious about the project. Mark has kindly agreed to talk a bit here about the interaction in “Seven Fables” and what he hopes readers will take away from it.

ES: Who is your ideal audience for “Seven Fables”?

MSM: The same folks that read the Grimm fable collections, back in the 1800s. I’d like those folks to be reincarnated, iPad in hand! That would be adults, mostly in their 30s. In the 1960s and 1970s Disney did a fine job of both sterilizing and infantalizing fables like Snow White, but the real, undiluted fables are pretty intense. There’s real horror and joy in old fables, so I like to think that we adults can read them, too. Fables have generally been read by many generations, because they can be read on many levels, so I hope we can span that gap.

The Grimms did it, and I’m mostly copying them. I went out and collected nautical fables from Japan, India, Europe, North America (generally while visiting those countries), and I’ve rewritten some of the words, changed a few of the characters, illustrated them, and now i’m trying to get them into a modern outfit. But the stories are wicked old, and
already quite popular in some ports, so I like to think they’ll be enjoyed by many people as they’ve already been proven to be valid tales. I think this will naturally both attract and filter an audience.

Ideally, I’d also like hard-core fans of fables to read this work. There’s a terse language, a tight form, and a meaty metaphor in the fable genre, which is why I like them so much. From a literary perspective, a good fable is a bit more like poetry than anything else (there’s often even repeating stanzas), but if that’s true then it’s a lazy-poet’s poetry, and its for a reader that wants a little sugar with his philosophy. The genre is very constraining, and I look forward to knowing how people think we’ve done, if we’ve preserved that tightness and form in these interactive versions, or if we’ve flopped by expanding reading options. That’s a big challenge, and it will also determine who our readers are.

So it’s an experiment for those of us that were raised outside of Disneyland.

ES: What is the experience you want to create for your player/reader through the interaction?

MSM: Exploration punctuated by moments of surprise. I want the reader to enter an amazing world, a world where even Jim Woodring would be wide-eyed, and to explore things, test things, evaluate their actions, and try to suspend judgment until the outcome of their actions are clear.

There’s this fable about the old Chinese man whose horse ran away. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s bad!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” then, two weeks later, the horse came back, and it brought another horse with it, and all the villagers said, “Oh, that’s good!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” Then, two weeks later, his son was out riding the new horse, and it threw him, and he fell and broke his hip. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s bad!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.” Then two weeks after that, the army came and they were recruiting young men for a war, but the old man’s son could not be recruited because he had a busted hip. All the villagers said, “Oh, that’s good!” and the old man said, “We will see, we will see.”

ES: How does that experience go beyond what could be done with a conventionally written story?

MSM: This gets us back to our first question as I think that’ll depend on the reader. At the simplest level, for a kid, say, it should be more fun. For a more concentrated reader, maybe someone in their 20s, more immersion. For a serious reader, in their 30s or 40s, more introspection. I hope this material is well enough written to generate that, anyway.

But for me, it means that we can pick our own moral. We can pick our own morality, in a way. It gets a little heavy, at these academic altitudes, but maybe its possible for a fable’s moral to be chosen, or modified, by a reader, and the reader then can see more of themselves that way? Let’s see. We still have to build it, remember. That will be when we can really evaluate these questions.

ES: You mention that yours is “a narrative with consequences”. What aspect of the fable does the player affect? Does she determine the outcome, change the moral, something else entirely?

MSM: In this first version the reader affects the plot and therefor the outcome of the fable. The fables follow a branching structure that leaves the reader at a leaf-node. From there some stories are available, others are not. There are a number of ways to branch the story, either by poking, shaking, swiping or otherwise abusing your iPad. People can drown, boats can sink, foil-characters might never appear. So the activities of a user change what’s going on of course. The ending is often tied to a moral that’s implicit (as opposed to explicit … so there isn’t some narrator’s voice that starts saying, “THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS: ALWAYS BRUSH YOUR TEETH BEFORE BED” or somesuch drek).

ES: From your description of the game elements in your project, it sounds as though the reader faces certain challenges (“physics simulations”, “mind-benders”, “treasure-map navigation”). How do these challenges dovetail with the story elements?

MSM: If there’s too much wind a boat sinks (or not enough then it doesnt move foward). If the chickens run around too much the golden egg is never laid (but if they dont get good exercise the egg isn’t ever laid, either). Things like that. They’re just means of helping a reader open or close narrative gates. The mind-benders are there as much for dumb fun as anything (so far, with what I have written, most of the puzzles are for sideline amusement and rarely affect the plot, but some of them are needed to open a windmill, get some pigs out of a pen, etc). These things can influence the story. The “treasure-map” is just a navigation device, an interface.

In short, I think the story elements dovetail with the challenges.

ES: You mention including conversational characters in a future version of the book. What would you like these characters to add to the experience?

MSM: A sense of personality, attitude, and contextual information about the world, for starters. I’d also like them to add information that helps a reader run the story in the direction, and with the pacing, they want to have. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about Jiminy Cricket, as he’s a good NPC for someone that is playing or following Pinocchio. But there’s a million uses for conversational characters in IF. NPCs (or NPGs) are about the best way to build a story possible, because most stories are about personalities, and personalities in conflict. So I think we live in an era when the role of characters in narratives is getting totally rebooted. Personally, I’m more interested in character than story structure. I think it’s a harder problem with larger impact for literature, and I think it’s also something that is going to take a long time to solve (it’s been my work for a while, anyway). But I’m a portrait illustrator before I am an author, so I have a skewed view.

It’s important to footnote two things here. First, this technology has been running, we’ve done a good deal of work on it, and I can see some important ways it can influence the story. Second, and probably more imporantly, what I’m talking about implementing here, with conversational characters, is in the v2 of 7Fables. We need to get the basic landscape set up before we can really populate it. So for now it’s still steamware (vaporware hasn’t been prototyped yet!) and this is why we’ve got it on Kickstarter.

It’s one of the main reasons we need people’s help! So we can get this dream flying.

2 thoughts on “Seven Fables: an Interview with Mark Stephen Meadows”

  1. It sounds like an interesting idea — I hope that he has the wisdom to not restrict it to the iPad, since there *are* still plenty of folks that don’t own a tablet and/or chose a non-Apple device. (I’m currently in the “I don’t own a tablet but will save up for one that runs Android Linux or a similar OS someday” category.)

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