Tuesday, June 4, 2013

And then, in 2013, DC Comics discovered hypertext fiction

If there's any doubt that DC Comics has moved to a number crunching behemoth of creative despair, today form Randy I received a link pointing me to a story about DC's latest effort, Multiverse Comics.  Basically, digital choose your own adventure comics.

At this point in the tenure of Diane Nelson, any hope for a creative renaissance at the company should be replaced with more of a visual of someone selling t-shirts outside the Louvre with a picture of Mona Lisa in a bikini top with a knife gripped in her teeth.*

There's a lot of reasons to sort of want to put your head down on the table about this one.

In 1991 or so the first hypertext fiction appeared, which promised branching narratives and the ability to dig further into a narrative - all in standard prose.  If you were going to raves and enjoying smart drinks in 1994, it all sounded like a nifty part of our bright future of this series of tubes called "the interwebs".  Just get yourself a 1600 baud modem and go nuts.

"But, hey The League," you might say.  "It's 2013!  Where can I purchase some of this hypertext fiction that's clearly the wave of the future?"

Tragically, it went the way of the Dippin' Dots and may not have been the ice cream/ preferred narrative construct of the future.

By 2000 or so, the movement had died out when it turned out that choosing how a story works isn't really how we engage with fiction.  We absorb the story and then break it down to understand the writer's intent.  We don't make arbitrary choices and wait to see how we're surprised.  There's a reason we all quit buying Choose Your Own Adventure books after we turn 11.

Comparing the experience to videogames is maybe a bit disingenuous, but I can see why they're trying to sell a concept that doesn't fit particularly well in a particular mode of entertainment.

There's a cost factor there, too, which DC acknowledges in this other article:
The interactive elements “are part of the experimental nature of all this,” Lee said. “With every split of the story, you’re creating a geometric increase in the amount of work that needs to be done.” Yet DC has developed ways to save production coin by repurposing backgrounds, for example.
DC can re-use its art however it likes, but I'm hoping they don't re-use too much art in the race to save pennies.  As folks click through and click through again, it's gonna get a little repetitive.

What I find most alarming is that Diane Nelson has clearly been pondering "big data" and how DC Comics can collect and exploit the idea.  Surveys and the web aren't going to do get you past what they already know about dudes like me talking way, way too much about Superman.

Is it wrong to see if people click on the Catwoman thru-line?  Well, maybe not.  But that doesn't necessarily tell you much about what people actually want or will pay for.  It certainly doesn't tell you if it was the better story option.  And, hey, if they throw Crazy Quilt into a story, I'm going to click to see what he's up to every time, but I'll be honest, I don't see any location in the multiverse where I'm spending a lot of money on Crazy Quilt comics.

There's also the "linkbait" issue of how to generate clicks on one option or another.  Will the 18 year old boys click on the link which promises boobs (and if that's worth something, why don't Catwoman and Power Girl comics sell better?).  It seems like a system that's easy enough to rig or which is just going to get a lot of flat statistics at first as readers click through all the options, and then kind of get tired of the whole enterprise and disappear.  Because we don't interact with stories, naturally, by wanting to get material that isn't there.  We may wish for more of a character in an ongoing TV series, but it's not all that often that the criticism is "this story would have been better served told from the cop's viewpoint rather than the robber's".  The story either works or doesn't.

Anyway, I see a lot of potential pitfalls, not the least of which is that this is the same sort of cynical, Poochie-ification of the DCU that's been going on for the past few years.  It all feels like a sort of weird Rube Goldberg corporate strategy to be able to crack the code of what superhero-comic-readers are really looking for.   And that if we can just properly mine the data...

We've got two thousand years of western storytelling to give us a general idea of what beats in a story should work, so how granular would the comics get in the decision-making options give DC data on what story factors that people like?  And if they have that...  what then?

*actually, I'd wear that shirt, so maybe they know what they're doing

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