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The Silent History – some thoughts

The App has been available since the start of October, which makes the whole experience a little over a week old, and already I’m impressed at how the Silent History has begun to address some of the fundamental problems of digital storytelling.

If you’re new to Silent History, here’s a blurb:

The e-book tells the story of children who are born silent, but possess powerful skills. It’s narrated via daily updates called testimonials. Each update gives you a glimpse into the characters as the story unfolds over the course of a year. Besides testimonials, the e-book also includes field reports, which can only be read in specific geographic locations.

That’s from TUAW, which managed to make a decent stab at describing what Horowitz and Quinn are trying to do, without resorting to the usual “the future of the book” hyperbole. It’s not a book, it’s actually something that’s designed to exist on a mobile platform and be read in short, daily chunks while explicitly asking its reader to participate in creating the world of the over-arching narrative and experience it through a device-specific, location-dependent interaction. It’s not a book.

So, a week in and what do I think?

It’s my job, or part of it anyway, to evaluate how story works, and how platforms are used, and on those measures they’re doing well.

  • The Testimonials are short, and don’t overload my time to read. They also unlock and propose the next piece to be read. And, thankfully, you know exactly how big the whole thing is going to be. I can’t emphasise how important I think this is. Books, as physical objects are defined to us by our understanding the length of the thing ahead, and how far we’ve come. It’s an intrinsic part of our understanding of narrative. Ask anyone who hasn’t read War and Peace, or Against the Day, why they haven’t read it and see what the answer is.
  • The sense of foreboding (see – FOREboding, that requires us to know that there’s a something in front of us to be boded about) is very well handled. We know this is going to end in 2043 and that 2040 has enough content for a whole section by itself (I almost typed ‘book’ there. We’re going to have to be careful with language from here on in), and that gives me Midwich Cuckoos chills. But all grown up cuckoos. And I’m wondering (because that’s how I approach these things) if the rules for Field Reports are going to change as each section comes on line. And how many of those might not be reliable. And whether there’s a plan for the audience response being significantly different in how they fit into the overall frame. Because that’s how something well designed ought to make me think.
  • It’s very linear-led, which while usually is the first casualty of digital storytelling, here is maintained and that’s reassuring.

There are things I think are, or might be, problems with the overall plan, but it’s early days yet. And there’s a lot more to come.

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