Liza Daly on Stone Harbor

stoneharborcover.pngI spoke to Liza Daly about her 4th-place IF Comp 2016 entry Stone Harbor. In full disclosure, Liza is a friend, and we have worked together in the past; she commissioned me to write First Draft of the Revolution.

On this occasion, she was kind enough to talk with me about where her project came from, her ambitions for IF in general, and how she sees interactive fiction relative to the world of publishing and ebooks—including some thoughts on why interactive ebooks didn’t become the cutting edge of interactive fiction.

What were your goals for the Stone Harbor project when you got started?

I work in publishing, and I’ve long been frustrated by how little awareness there is of interactive fiction, or born-digital writing in general, in the publishing community. At best, people think it’s all Choose Your Own Adventure books, or Zork, or navel-gazing avant-garde experiments, or big-budget apps like Arcadia. The objections I’ve heard about IF range from “those are for kids” to “they’re games not stories” or “they cost thousands of dollars to make.” So on one level my goal was to write a relatively conventional genre story—something publishers could could recognize—cheaply and quickly.

Meanwhile my personal projects tend to be short or abstract: Twitter bots or computer-generated “novels” that are devoid of meaning. I wanted to see if I could do the hard work of writing believable characters and sustaining a storyline.

Both goals pulled Stone Harbor in the direction of being longer (by word-count) and less branch-y than is typical for IF Comp entries. I hoped that it would be received as “minimally interactive” rather than “slapped-on interactive,” but I think it’s a fair criticism that I could have made the interactivity deeper without compromising the story-ness. I’m inspired to do better next time.

That’s cool — are you putting this in front of publishers?

I will, opportunistically. Most of my interaction with the industry now happens on the fringes—university presses, grad students in publishing programs—audiences which might be more receptive to small innovations. 

StoneHarbor.png

Where did you get the idea of writing with/around object emotions?

Originally this was a purely functional choice. I wanted the Stone Harbor interface to be minimal and bookish, but also knew that underlined links can get overloaded in a hypertext UI—readers never know whether a link will just inform, like EXAMINE, or transform, like GO. I tried to resolve this tension in two ways:

1. I made sure that browser navigation works as expected, so the user can always go “back” like they would on any web page and undo the previous choice if they didn’t like it. (Many hypertext games don’t offer this affordance, which makes the ambiguous-link problem more fraught than necessary.)

2. I decided that the psychic flashbacks would occur only when the protagonist touches an object. There’s one visual clue—the object links are bold—but I also wanted a narrative clue, so there’s the juxtaposition of an object name and a contextually surprising adjective like “angry” or “frightened.”

Once the concept was in place I enjoyed playing with it, especially in the climactic scene. Since the protagonist isn’t law enforcement or some kind of superhero I didn’t want him punching people out, so dialing up the emotional-object bit seemed like a good way to build tension at the end. 

I really liked the sense of urgency that came from that, though it’s only now as I’m typing this out that I’m realizing why: I tend to feel strong emotion in my vicinity as a call to action. So having these assorted objects — even if they were just gloves and dolls and receipts — projecting feelings did make me feel like I needed to respond to them. As a piece of fictional framing, it felt a lot more compelling to me than many kinds of click-to-continue link, even if I wasn’t significantly altering the narrative as a result.

Thanks. One pacing problem I didn’t solve adequately is that I decided that the protagonist wouldn’t try to cold read people he cared about. This means that as the story progresses and he gets closer to the detective, or meets up with an old friend, the blocks of uninterrupted text get longer and more frequent. 

As an author, this felt natural to me, but as a reader/player, long blocks of text can be wearying. It’s notable that several reviews of Stone Harbor both complained about long blocks of text, and said they’d have been happy to read the story as a static novel. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s really not—the interactive medium brings its own pacing expectations and that’s something I’ll be more mindful about in the future. 

I hadn’t realized this until someone else pointed it out to me, but I gather Stone Harbor is a real place — were you riffing off the setting from the beginning, or did you have the story and then decide to put it there?

It was always going to be the New Jersey shore where I spent my summers growing up. All of my memories are pleasant and uneventful, but as an adult I’ve come to recognize how economically and racially segregated the region can be. Stone Harbor itself is 97% white but its nearest neighbor, Wildwood, is only 68% white and has half the per-capita income—I don’t name it explicitly, but that’s where the protagonists would likely live and work. 

I was one of those tourists who would flock to the cheap thrills of the boardwalks in Wildwood and Atlantic City and then return home to the “safe” communities just a few miles away. So while the story isn’t explicitly about race and class, it was an undercurrent I wanted to explore. (“Stone Harbor” is also a weirdly unwelcoming name for a resort town, and reflects the theme that the protagonist’s social and emotional development is a bit frozen, so it seemed natural for both the setting and the title.)

I have to confess I’ve long been curious about what it would be like to visit one of these boardwalk psychics, but since I don’t actually believe in the process it feels sort of disrespectful and I’ve never followed through on that impulse.

I passed by a few in various towns while the story was germinating but didn’t visit them. The most useful research turned out to be Yelp reviews (!); it was obvious that for some people, psychics can act as ad hoc therapists and give advice to the same clients for years. That ended up directly informing the distinction between the protagonist and his mother—both are frauds, but one of them made herself genuinely involved in the lives of the local community. 

You mentioned having something else in the pipeline — what’s that project?

I spun out the framework that I used to build Stone Harbor into an independent library, called Windrift, which I intend to use for other narrative projects. Stone Harbor‘s interactivity is straightforward and could’ve been written with a hypertext-specific library like Twine, but I’m interested in stories that require exploration or puzzle-solving beyond just hypertext.

For example, while it’s not a web-app, I loved that the mechanism for discovery in Her Story is neither clicking text links nor object manipulation. What I’m working on now is similar in that the puzzle-solving will emerge out of rifling through an archive of documents—like a long day spent at a research library—but the overall narrative is still wrapped in a genre yarn. 

What do you wish to see more of in IF or interactive narrative in general?

I wish there were a better way to pay authors. It’s sad that ebooks didn’t become the distribution channel for interactive narrative (I could go on at length about why), but the fact is that while it’s technically possible to wrap up a Twine or even parser story in an EPUB container, in practice nobody can author an interactive story and put it up on the Kindle store. As a community I think we should support and encourage Patreons, Kickstarters, and other ways to pay authors; it’s important to establish that these works have an economic value, especially as more marginalized folks look to our medium as a means of expression. An easy way to do that is simply to make it OK to ask for monetary support. 

I’ll bite: why didn’t ebooks become the distribution channel for this? I remember a period where it felt as though the future of IF was going to be collaborating with conventional publishers; Varytale was built around the idea of doing something that felt like an interactive book for people who viewed themselves as readers; inkle was collaborating with conventional publishing houses. But that’s not where we wound up, and it’s pretty clear that e.g. Arcadia is more of a one-off than a sign of things to come. What happened?

It was controversial to suggest that interactivity belonged in ebook standards at all. Most people on the standards committees worked at ereader companies; it was understandably in their interest that specifications be declarative and specific: given markup X, the ereader should render Y. Obviously mutable text doesn’t fit this model at all. A hideous compromise that ended up in some spec versions required that interactivity be limited to specific bounding boxes—this was meant to satisfy digital textbook producers who wanted to include equation editors or editable graphs, but assumed that the prose was immutable.

To the extent that book publishers advocated for standards innovation, it was overwhelmingly presentational: adding support for drop-caps and page spreads and other bookish layout controls—all nice things to have, but nothing to do with authoring. So things got off to a bad start when there was basically no one advocating for format innovation in storytelling other than a handful of us, none of whom could make a convincing economic argument. Ebook standards were developed to support the commercial publishing supply chain.

So with only crippled support in the standards—it was agony for inkle to port First Draft to iBooks—publishers who did try to make “enhanced” or interactive ebooks circa 2010-2011 shipped them as ebooks bundled in app wrappers and sold them through the App Store. Apple saw this as flooding the market and responded by banning the practice, directing publishers to the iBookstore unless their review team deemed the SKU sufficiently app-like. 

That left lightly interactive ebooks with no viable commercial store: developing them as interactive EPUBs was painful, buggy, and fragile (and often rejected by the iBookstore team!), and releasing them as apps meant overengineering them, making it impossible to recoup the costs. (Plus, the economics are upside-down: it’s hard to convince anyone to pay more than $.99 on the App Store for an actually-expensive iOS application, whereas $9.99 is average for an ordinary static ebook.) And while Android never had these restrictions, Google was late to the game with the Play store, and Android tablets never captivated consumers or publishers the way the iPad did.

The final nail in the innovation coffin was when the big publishers lost their price-fixing case—as they absolutely should have, because they were totally guilty. Since the settlement expired and publishers were free to set ebook pricing again in 2015, prices have skyrocketed—yesterday I saw a perfectly ordinary Penguin Random House ebook selling for $19.99 on the Kindle store—and ebook purchases as a percentage of book sales have flattened. Surprise! So now the narrative has become that “consumers don’t really like ebooks after all!” when it’s probably fairer to say that “consumers expect boring ebooks to at least be cheap,” and now they’re both boring and expensive.

TL;DR there was neither the supply nor the demand for interactive stories back at the dawn of the modern ebook era, nor did any big players on the publishing or distribution side step up to create the niche. 

(I’ve been surprised that Amazon hasn’t filled the gap; they have never supported EPUB directly due to a bizarre vendetta, and unlike most publishers, they have a direct relationship both with self-published authors and consumers, so they could just make up their own interactive standard and some authors would try it. Similarly, Wattpad, who’s done a great job of reaching an underserved community of young writers, and who controls both a reading experience and an audience. I could totally imagine them supporting Twine, for example.)

Fascinating—thanks for the long history, and for the interview!

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