Rob Sherman: a new kind of narrative experience

Rob Sherman, the creator of Random House’s latest interactive fiction project Black Crown, talks to Canal Lector and says, “digital devices have the potential to be something more than a novel”.

Rob Sherman, the creator of Random House’s latest adult interactive fiction project Black Crown, talks to Canal Lector and says, “digital devices have the potential to be something more than a novel”.
Random House published Black Crown on the 30th of May 2013. “It’s not so much about Random House wanting to get into gaming”, says digital publisher Dan Franklin, “than meeting with Rob and feeling that a narrative-heavy experience with gaming mechanics was the best fit for the story and world he wanted to create”.
The publishers partnered with Failbetter Games for the technical aspects, and decided to work with Sherman after he turned up at the Random House offices with a suitcase full of curious artefacts. In this interview for Canal Lector, Sherman, born in Oxford twenty-three years ago, reveals how his work developed, his vision of the future, and his views on digitalisation.
What are the most valuable skills when creating a piece of immersive fiction?
I think that a writer needs to expand their skills specifically for this medium, from the traditional set that was, once, sufficient. A different sort of structural logic, one that is far more binary, plays a larger part here, as it does in traditional videogames, and this logic is the backbone of how you can develop your plot. Being organised certainly helps, to keep track of how players can experience your world. For your own sanity, conciseness is a virtue!
How do you use the resources on web 2.0 to help your professional career?
I use most of the traditional tools to both promote myself and work with the team involved in Black Crown – spread all over London and south-east England, all of our jobs would be impossible without them. I maintain my own website, and try to interact with people as much as I can on Twitter, though I often find the pressure to be witty or erudite on there, especially if you are a professional writer, a little daunting.
How do you approach the process of writing a story in a digital format?
I tend to have a very broad outline of plot in my head, and then very roughly draft out the flow of the experience before committing it to the system. I try to involve as many optional experiences that the player may have experienced beforehand in my plotting; this way, players feel that the choices they make will become relevant again at a later date, and add a greater value to each choice in the moment.
What value do you think a digital creation like Black Crown can add to the reader's experience?
I think that it is a different experience, and so additions are not really what we are looking at here; though reading narrative is still the blood and bread of it, the story that Black Crown tells would be restricted by another format. I suppose that the web gives an effect to the narrative not unlike mushrooms popping up in a field – you can take things in many different, seemingly random directions and readers can see the growth right there in front of them. We are also less restricted by things such as the cost of printing, word count, or the vagaries of the market. Once the site is set up, it is trivial, in terms of cost, to add new content. 
Do you think the possible publication of Black Crown as an e-book could affect the contents of the creation or the reading experience?
I should say that Black Crown, as it stands, could not become an ebook through direct translation; I am interested in extending the story in different mediums, however, and creating new slivers of the story, as ebooks or videogames or films, only lends credence to my “mushroom” theory.
Who is your target audience and why? Do you think this sort of creation will stimulate readers?
I think the content is adult, completely, but I don't tend to write for an audience. Maybe I should! I certainly hope that it will stimulate readers; I feel that it is engaging, at the very least. I think the opaqueness of it could put some people off, but I try not to worry too much about that. As I mentioned before, an internal logic will keep your work sound, and I am quite pleased with the logic, here.
Do you think digital tools are a useful way to communicate with readers?
I have certainly had good experiences communicating with my readers via the forums, and seeing reactions in real-time to new content, or new developments, really improves the panorama of the author; they can oversee what they have created, and how it is affecting people.
What do you think of reading on digital devices?
I still prefer reading on paper, but that is merely because my eyes get tired looking at screens very easily. I have an iPad, and I use it for reading more often than not. I think that reading on digital devices needs to differentiate itself a little more. The ease of storage and cheaper prices are certainly attractive, but digital devices have the potential to be something more than a novel.
Why do you think a traditional book publisher like Random House UK has taken on your project?
Random House have been looking to work with Storynexus again for a while, and my project, I think, just happened to fit their remit. They certainly like the story, and the writing, however, so that gives me hope! Big publishers like Random House are looking to diversify, and this seems like a natural step.
What value do you give the work carried out in schools from the perspective of building readers that are competent with the digital book?
I am not very experienced with work being carried out in schools with digital literature, but I think that, given the current landscape, schools are merely supporting what it is already happening in the landscape; a generation with assumed mastery of a technology that, at the moment, is still in its infancy. Working in this style is one that will perhaps become obsolete very quickly, we cannot tell; but what we can tell is that it is part of a ladder, and integral to whatever comes next. I'm looking forward to growing that mushroom patch!


© Copyright Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruiperez, 2010