For anybody who has ever read the post-modern horror novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, few other contemporary novels compare. However, the next evolution of the post-modern novel might just be the interactive novel slash indie game Ice-Bound, a unique experience that combines player-driven narrative choices through an iPad app with the experience of reading and exploring an augmented reality-enabled physical book.
In Ice-Bound, players become storytellers, shaping the narrative about a dying writer at the edge of the world, trapped within an abandoned station sinking into the abyss, consumed by ice. In addition to the digital game, the necessary companion book provides further narrative information for the player, both as a stand alone physical book, but also as something players can examine through the iPad camera while playing the game, revealing additional layers of story and intrigue. The entire experience is cerebral, tactile, and engrossing. If you loved turning the novel House of Leaves upside down and sideways to keep up with its unique graphic design and labyrinthine narrative, Ice-Bound feels like that book's natural digital descendent.
After winning the IndieCade 2014 award for Story/World Design, the game's two creators, Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe, demonstrated the game to festival attendees inside a Culver City firehouse. Even while surrounded by groundbreaking, innovative indie games of all sorts, Ice-Bound still stands out as something like a harbinger of things to come: the future of the book conveniently available in the present.
Here's my conversation with the two men who made this magic possible.
GameCritics: Introduce yourselves, talk about Down to the Wire, and Ice-Bound.
Aaron: I'm Aaron Reed.
Jacob: I'm Jacob Garbe.
Down to the Wire, this is our first game. It came into existence as a collaboration between the two of us.
The project originated when we applied for a grant called Futures of the Book that wanted people to come up with proposals for projects that used a printed book and an iPad app that worked together. We felt that sounded like something we'd really be interested in. So we started brainstorming ideas. We didn't end up getting that grant, but it led to a lot of really deep discussions about what do physical books do better than digital books and what do digital books do better than physical books, and how are those two things going to co-exist after we get past this kind of technological sea change where we move into ebooks.
Aaron: Yeah. So we actually got a very nice grant from The SPIN Studio. That gave us a summer to begin development on it. After that, we were so stuck in the project that we kept going and fully built it out. Now we're starting our Kickstarter to help get the books printed up. One of the challenges of doing a physical and digital project is that to publish something digitally is relatively cost-free. But for us, we're doing the Kickstarter to try to get enough money to get the printing going. We kept it very small because we wanted to make this first part happen. We crunched all the numbers, and it seems like it's going pretty good so far.
And you two did everything on the project?
Aaron: That's right. Yeah.
Jacob: It's kind of interesting because Aaron and I have creepily similar backgrounds. It really is 50/50 labor on everything. We're both digital media MFAs. We're both currently computer science PhDs at UCSC. We both came to the digital media MFA from graphic design and web design backgrounds. So really, yes, the coding, the graphic design, the AR, everything is down the middle between the two of us.
And the writing as well?
Jacob: Oh yeah.
Aaron: We also are both writers.
Jacob: We've both published some works.
How long have you been working on Ice-Bound?
Aaron: About a year and a half almost. We started working on it in earnest in June 2013. We worked on it full time that summer. And we've been working on it where we can find the time since then. A few months ago we got into a pretty solid state where the first two chapters were really polished, and that's when we submitted to IndieCade. So the technology is all finished. Most of what's left to do is finishing the artwork for the book and finishing the rest of the chapters for the game.
Jacob: The fun part.
How long is the book? I know it's not really a set length, but what are we talking about?
Aaron: It's actually pretty interesting, because the amount of time people will spend with it varies a lot. We haven't had enough user testing yet to answer why this is, but some people will sit down, play with the level, very quickly find a story configuration that they really like, and say, okay, I'm satisfied with that. Whereas other people will spend an hour and a half or two hours exploring all the alternatives for a single story.
And one of the things that I think is cool is that the game is okay with you playing either of those ways. There's not a right or wrong way to play it. But it makes it interesting for us to come up with a number for playtime.
Jacob: We're thinking of having eight levels, for what it's worth. Some people will play through the first level in 20 minutes. We had another person who took an hour and a half for the first level and only really moved on because we were doing playtesting and we told them they would not be able to get all of the combinations. You'll be here too long. And they got the idea.
Aaron: I think we were hoping that it would provide the same entertainment value as reading a novel would for the average person. Roughly that amount of engagement and time.
Jacob: And there's a lot of replayability, too, which is something that we're trying to figure out the best way to communicate from a design level. Because each of the levels is actually generated based on the types of stories you've made in previous levels. So if you really like horror stories like I do, and terrible things happening to people, then as you play, and you start getting progressively lower in the station, you'll notice that the stories start being more about horror and horrible things happening.
Somebody played it and they really liked sci-fi a lot. All of their choices had to do with aliens and mind control. By the end, it became a sci-fi story. So there is also that replayability value.
Is there a way of saving the combinations you come up with to share with others?
Aaron: There isn't right now.
Jacob: It's all recorded, because the system is responding to you, so the data is there.
Aaron: Yeah, it's saved within your own version, but you can't share it with anyone, which seems like a really natural thing to want to do. My last project was a thing called 18 Cadence, which was all about making stories and sharing them with people, so I think we would really like to figure out a way to work that into the final release.
Jacob: I think what it will come down to is figuring out whether there is the desire, when we have people playtesting through the entire experience, to tell all your friends about the story you made, or is it something that is personal. This is my thing that I made.
So a personal experience versus a social experience. It's an amazing product, but how do you envision getting people the physical book? Through the Kickstarter, you can produce a certain amount, but eventually won't you need a partner?
Aaron: It's unique enough of a thing that I think it will boil down to word of mouth. House of Leaves is a good example in some ways. So many people loved that book that they told their friends to read it, and those friends told their friends to read it, and it spread.
We've talked about partnering with people, but it's so different from what most people know how to do. We think a book publisher wouldn't really understand that the game part is an integral part of it. It's not just an optional add-on. Similarly, there is not really an existing model to sell a game on Steam that requires shipping somebody a physical product. So for now our plan is to do it ourselves.
But the Kickstarter is nice, because it's a good way to build a community of people and get the word out.
Jacob: If the Kickstarter is successful, then we're going to have a certain number of books in excess that are going to be able to be printed. That will create the initial stock. From just a pragmatic standpoint, the current state of technology in publishing is amazing because we can potentially set up a print-on-demand system. But the reason we're doing a Kickstarter is because the books are actually cheaper if we can do a print run. Through Kickstarter, people can get the books for $20. With print-on-demand, it will be somewhere between $25 and $30. We'll have to figure it out and run those numbers. Ultimately, the Kickstarter will be the first groundswell. Then once that stock is exhausted, we'll switch over the print-on-demand, and I think that's how we'll handle that. So for all intents and purposes, it will probably work like going to a website and ordering a game.
It's structured so you can play the first part on the iPad without the book just to get a taste of how the combinatorial narrative system works. So I can imagine buying Ice-Bound. Okay, the book is shipping, so I'll play the first part of the game. Oh, I need the book. Oh, my book arrived in the mail today!
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