Earlier this year, Random House made their first foray into online gaming, in the form of Rob Sherman's grossly physical interactive fiction, Black Crown. Putting the reader in the role of a shambling clerk working for the Widsith Institute, the narrative plunges you into an exploratory world of Victorian squalor and obscene body-horror. Themes of archeology, entropy and infection pervade the story, offering branching story-paths that open up over time as your ghastly metamorphosis progresses. Calling the experience original would be an understatement. Black Crown is a mesmerising, disgustingly immersive journey into the bowels of a brave new world.
Author Rob Sherman created Black Crown in collaboration with Random House Digital Publisher Dan Franklin and Failbetter Games, using their interactive story platform StoryNexus. Starburst's P M Buchan caught up with Rob Sherman and Dan Franklin about the inception of this innovative, Cronenbergian nightmare.
Starburst: Could you tell us specifically how Rob Sherman, with his suitcase full of ideas, found his way to you at Random House?
Dan Franklin: I took a call from Rob’s creative writing tutor at Exeter University, Sam North in Summer ‘11, and he advised me that I should meet a student of his who had delivered a suitcase as his final piece of work for his creative writing MA. At the time I was working with Failbetter Games on the digital marketing experience at www.nightcircus.co.uk and wanted to explore a fully-fledged digital publishing project using that platform with an original piece of IP. Rob came in and talked me through the suitcase, I asked if he could ‘write it up’ in as linear a fashion as possible so I could fully engage with the story (and see if Rob could write ‘one the line’) and I gave that document to Alexis at Failbetter and we went from there. What the case represents is the heart of the mystery of Black Crown, and it was really a question of turning that experience inside out, putting the peripheral comments and editing of the Widsith Institute as the main game framework, and a lot of the objects, text and art elements of the case into the ‘Miasma’ zone around it.
At what point did it become apparent that you could support the Black Crown project?
Well it wasn’t the Black Crown project to begin with, and it was when Failbetter and Rob spent a month working up the creative and business proposal for the project last summer that I became sure this was something that Random House could get behind. But then I wasn’t fully certain until our publishing strategy board approved it. The key thing was from the start that I felt Rob was a raw talent whose work was publishable, up to that standard. It was a question of defining and refining exactly how.
If Failbetter Games provide the platform, and Rob provides the content, how much involvement would you say that you have in the project?
If I hadn’t been introduced to Rob the project wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form. I know he had conversations with other people in the industry, but it came at a moment where it made sense in terms of what I was focusing on, where Random House wanted to be, how our relationship with Failbetter was developing. I am the patron of this project from a financial perspective, Random House has taken the risk, and we’ve provided editorial, marketing and publicity support. Not to mention involving Popleaf, our art department, and other resources to bring it into existence. It’s properly creative, commissioned publishing…
Where do you see digital literature in ten years time? Do you have any wild ideas that you can't bring to fruition yet, but that you envisage as becoming possible in the future?
It’s almost impossible for me to say. Even a year ago things looked very different. I think the idea of web-based, yet somehow ‘bound’ narrative experiences is going to get looked at hard in the coming year or two. Does the ebook inevitably collapse into the web? Questions like that. It will be dependent on technological innovation and how storytelling adapts to that, or reacts against it. Wearable technology, and Google Glass etc, have real implications for participatory narrative, with all the utopian and dystopian ramifications. I fully expect our notions of reality and fantasy to collapse into each other. If reading is an act of hallucination, then hallucination can now become an act of reading the world around us. It’s brilliantly terrifying. But books (ebooks) have always functioned as an escape, so I can see a counter-trend away from immersion to full-on self-expulsion. That’s why print will never die; the book that isn’t reading you as you read it, that isn’t capturing your data. Paper will seem classy and stupidly friendly.
Nobody at the forefront of digital publishing could ever be accused of being conservative professionally - does this extend to your tastes? What do you read for fun?
I’m not sure that statement is a given, actually. The risk is that as the digital book market matures we play it safe under the illusion of stability. Right now I think it’s upheaval all the way into the future and we need to push the envelope. I’m reading Red or Dead by David Peace, who I think is the most important writer in the UK in the risks he takes formally in his writing and the way he constructs mythologies in his work. I generally like contemporary or classic fiction and non-fiction which sits at the margins, but that draws the mainstream to it. So, David Vann is such a writer and I enjoyed the first book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series.
The contents may cause queasiness. Is this overt physicality a symptom of your writing style in general, or a product of the world that you're creating in Black Crown?
Rob Sherman: Some of my friends chide me for adoring words like "larynx". It is a pretty accurate picture of my own literary universe, the body and its various extrusions as a major interest. I have always been interested in my own disgusting form, but its functions are not really designed to make people feel unwell, or titillate; they are designed to be a grounding mechanism in a fantastical setting. Everybody knows what it feels like to have eyes full of sleepydust, or a cut on their leg, or a stomach ache, or ingrowing hairs. That we find these things disgusting rather than admit that they are interesting and fundamentally human is something that I write about a lot. Black Crown is, then, perhaps the equivalent of hoovering up cheese from the fridge at 2am; a glut of everything on this shelf that interests me, at least at the moment.
What was the origin of the project? Would you say that the narrative itself or the idea of telling an interactive story came first?
The project came about with me trying to be a big clever arsehole. I was in my Master's year at university, and wanted to impress the tutors for my final project by creating something different. So I took the last of my student loan, and went to Otto Retro in Exeter, a now-defunct (I think) junk shop that completely replenished its stock every week. With a previous project in mind, which involved old photographic portraits paired with captions describing an abandoned town, I bought an old suitcase and began, just... filling it. With shards of life from this ruined town, which came to be called Loss. I created the character of the Miasma Eremite to provide an impetus for these things being collected, and the Widsith Institute as a reason for my tutor being given such a collection of things. Through a combination of novelty and a direct threat of infection with a fictional disease, my tutor recommended it enough to help me begin the process of getting it picked up for development. It was always interactive in the sense of ergodic exploration, traversing through these items to work out what happened. The current format of Black Crown is just a projection of that original "artefact fiction".
Do you identify the Black Crown project with any particular genres?
A microbiologist contacted me the other day and proposed that we call it "biopunk", which delighted me. People have called it "body horror", but the horror is secondary to my interests; as I stated above, I think that these things are more human than anything else, and our reaction to them is fascinating. I have just sat here for a few minutes trying to put it into traditional terms, and I am getting a headache. Just give it a whirl, I say.
Who would you say have been the biggest influences on your writing?
Victor Pelevin is a humungous touchstone, in his verbosity and happiness with transformational insanity. Ted Hughes is my godhead, if I can have one. However, the biggest influence and impetus is probably the constant, anxious fug that surrounds me, telling me I am not original enough, and must crawl out further on the yardarm. It will get too much, one day.
Is there an end in sight to Black Crown? Is this the kind of story that we can ever finish reading?
Just because of the very real dangers of fingerprint erosion and nervous exhaustion, this is most definitely a story you can finish. We did consider having it dissipate or augment itself down and down and down through reader discussion and theoretics, but a solid ending provides a quite real chemical to the human brain that I feel benefits the experience. It also justifies the at-times maddening opacity of the story. It will be ended. I hope that it will be satisfying; I think that it will be the ending it needs, after all that comes before.
Do you ever see yourself adapting the Black Crown project into a conventional novel, or revisiting the story in a different medium?
I am not sure that the world would work as a novel. It is so segmented, suspended all along a narrative rope like little lights, but the world could certainly expand along that rope. There's a fairly crunchy amount of backstory and extra material, and I would like to bring that to light in as many different ways as possible. A videogame, a coffee table book of background material, a themed Angry Birds spin-off... I'm rubbing my hands maniacally now. It makes it difficult to type.
Any tips for playing Black Crown?
The game is designed to be traversed as a constellation - hubs of light leading to weaker, yet still integral stars. Read the forums. Read the item descriptions and mouse over the qualities that your character accumulates, as the text there are mostly quotes from books which are not quite real. Try and cause a game error and read the resulting screen. Go through the text shards and objects with a fine, enamelled comb. This all presupposes interest in the game to begin with. It requires some patience and tolerance for mystery and words. There are a lot of words. I'm aiming for holy-book length. Given what Alan Moore is doing at the moment, it seems like a good marketing hook.
What's next for Rob Sherman?
I would love to continue spending my days doing this sort of thing, but I am more than aware of the limitations of that path. I have about three stage plays bubbling away, a Brummie science-fiction short film called Kings Of Mercia which we are filming in winter, maybe a novel, and a randomly-generated boardgame about 14th century explorers. I'll keep chipping away at these, as long as I can, and if I get paid, I can chip a little quicker, and enjoy myself a little more. If Irrational Games want to give me a job, fly me to Boston, put a bib on me and feed me Atlantic lobster, I might like that as well.