News

Digital doesn't mean losing the plot

Posted on Tue 9 Apr 2013
The book you will receive in These Pages Fall Like Ash

Writer and Pervasive Media Studio resident Tom Abba is the co-creator, along with artist Duncan Speakman, of These Pages Fall Like Ash, a first of its kind narrative experience that will allow you to become part of its story, to explore Bristol, and discover a whole new way of reading.

The experience, which received creative input from award-winning authors Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway, begins on Sat 20 April and involves a gorgeous wooden book, digital content, walking, secrets and stories. Lots of them.

Here Tom gives a little bit more background on the story of These Pages Fall Like Ash, explaining how Bristol inspired him and how he is exploring the curious ground between book and app, reading and experiencing. Does it peak your interest? Book your ticket and be part of its story now.


I've always wanted to tell a story that explores what cities do, and how they function as engines for story.

I've been working with the form of interactive fiction since the early 2000s, trying to shake it out of a choose-your-own adventure torpor.

I've been looking for an excuse to work with Duncan Speakman again.

Spending a day sitting in a room with Neil Gaiman and Nick Harkaway, writing for an untried medium sounded like fun.

I really, really wanted to make this project.

I moved to Bristol in 1992. I was an illustrator, starting a career that would lead me in a few decent sized circles before returning me to ideas I'd had when I first lived in this city. I moved here from Grimsby, and while there are some parallels between the two places (neither have a working bus service, both have docks), what struck me instantly - and I can remember this feeling even now, nearly 21 years later - was the 'unfamiliarity' that Bristol gave off.

I'd look up at the facades of buildings and not know what they hid. I didn't know where streets led, and wanted to find out. When you've lived your life to date in one relatively small town, that sensation of palpable mystery is a godsend. Also, Twin Peaks had aired a year or so before and changed the way I thought about storytelling, and while there're no backward talking dwarves in Clifton (as far as I've ever found), there is a White Lodge in the city.

Flash forward twenty years, and the other piece of this puzzle is an App on a smartphone. Hipstamatic takes photos and applies 70's influenced lenses, filters and developing effects. It's undeniably over-used by people who should know better to make photos of otherwise mundane things seem more interesting, me amongst them. But sometimes, when the right combination of filter and lens drops into place, it can take a picture of something that was never there.

These Pages Fall Like Ash is the result of several years planning and thinking about what digital writing might have to do with physical objects. It's an honest attempt to describe - by making - something that I've been trying to articulate for a while - a hybrid form somewhere between the book and the App, between reading and experiencing. I'm firmly of the opinion that the book - as an artefact we value, want on our shelves and will re-read with increased pleasure - isn't going anywhere. I'm also convinced that the eBook is nothing more than a pale imitation of the book. It's a bad parody, mimicking the things it thinks the public wants - see page turning animation and % counts of progress - while sacrificing everything that might be interesting and possible about digital media in the process. eBooks aren't books, and they're not digital writing either - they're the worst of all possible worlds.

We also wanted to get as far away as possible from choose-your-own adventure. That model of storytelling had its day in the mid 1980s, and while to read any contemporary editorial summary of digital storytelling is to be hammered over the head with the surety that commentators and publishers have barely moved an inch since the days of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, there's always more to new mediums and new technologies than just repeating the mistakes of the past.

Multiple ending storytelling isn't only incredibly dull*, it seems to me that it abandons the first rule of writing - story has a beginning, middle and an end. Not several endings. Unless you're Italo Calvino, then you're probably not a good enough writer to juggle multiple interpretations of a single narrative and have each of those be wholly satisfying to your reader. And readers interact with story in printed books too - conventional, traditionally written printed texts afford just as much interaction as a computer-mediated simulation. Moreso, arguably.

So that's where we began, a reasonably lofty set of intentions that were supported by our enthusiasm and a belief in our process evidenced by the REACT Hub having funded us, alongside the other seven Books and Print projects. What you'll have in your hands after the 20th of April is pretty much what we intended it to be in those early days in January. There are two cities, a narrator who's fate is tied up with the fact that two cities are there at all and there's a large degree of audience involvement in the final unfolding of the narrative.

We've tried to keep this as simple as possible though, and to recognise that reading is a very specific activity. We're adding a technical layer to the storytelling in the shape of wireless, non-networked drives (they're not connected to anything other than your phone or tablet - no Facebook, no Twitter feeds interrupting the storytelling) distributed across the city. You'll find them because you'll have a book, and what's on them will make sense because you have a book. The book will make sense of, and be clarified itself, by the digital content. The two mediums behave interdependently.

Duncan and I wrote an outline of the story, and Neil and Nick rewrote it and made it better, more complex and certainly more satisfying. Then we changed some of it again to reflect the way in which you're going to read it. Text on a digital device in a public space doesn't work *quite* the same way as a novel. We designed and wrote the wooden books and sent them to print. Watershed offered to manage the booking and we had some very valuable technical, project management and historical assistance.

So there it is. I've tried not to give anything away, but you'll need a pencil and you'll have to pay attention. We hope you enjoy it, and tell us what you think. We'll be listening.

Then we start thinking about what we do next.

(*personal opinion - others are available, although they're wrong)