aaron.pngAs Indiegames.com was quick to let you know, Ice-Bound by Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe is a properly unique interactive storytelling project. One that combines the physical joys of the printed book with the dynamic nature of digital gaming and then, just to make sure everyone's impressed, adds some augmented reality tech and excellent writing into the mix.

It's a project you should support via Kickstarter and then come back here and read what co-creator Aaron A. Reed has to say about both it and interactive storytelling in general.

You are Kickstarting Ice-Bound; an interactive piece of sculptural fiction and, uhm, what is sculptural fiction?

It's a term I've started using to describe a break away from the "branching path" model of interactive narrative. I also sometimes call this the "rat in a maze" model, because a) you can't usually see the big picture, b) often have no way of knowing what, if anything, you're missing when you make a choice, and c) it's usually difficult to go back and try again: you either have to restart from scratch, or laboriously retrace your steps.

Some of my recent projects, including Ice-Bound and 18 Cadence, are experiments towards a different approach: one where you can see the whole story at once, and make small, reversible decisions about its form, rather than big, high-consequence choices. The analogy is to the act of sculpting: iteratively making changes, large and small, until you arrive at something you're satisfied with. This is interesting to me because it pushes the player away from being an "actor" within a story, to something more like a "director" or "editor." I've always wanted my players to feel like they're collaborating with me in telling a story, and sculptural fiction is a move closer towards that ideal.

And what would that make Ice-Bound?

Ice-Bound's the next step in sculptural fiction's development, I suppose. In 18 Cadence you had a lot of control over shaping a story, but the system didn't respond at all to what you made: it was pure sandbox. Ice-Bound actually reacts to your changes, and feeds them back into the subsequent stories it tells. There's a lot of complex details, but we've been blogging about the specifics of how the system works (http://ice-bound.com/news/combinatorial_narrative/) for anyone who's interested in diving deeper.

So, you are playing/investigating using both the printed compendium and your iPad or PC. What was the inspiration behind this frankly exciting idea? How will the thing actually work?

We got the initial inspiration for the project from an artist's grant calling for proposals envisioning "the future of the book," that specifically wanted projects that combined an iPad app with a print book. This led us down a long philosophical rabbit hole about the long-term strengths and weaknesses of physical versus digital books: we don't think either will go away, but how will they co-exist, fifty or a hundred years from now? What things do they inherently do better than each other, specific technological implementations aside? This in turn inspired the future world in which Ice-Bound is set, and the project evolved from there.

The way it ended up working is that you use the digital book to interact with an A.I. character, a "simulacrum" of a long-dead writer, with whom you're exploring dozens of permutations of his unfinished stories. But to complete them, he wants you to show him evidence that his human original would have made the same decisions. This evidence is found in the printed book, the "Ice-Bound Compendium." In this future, there are human-level AIs but they have no human rights. One of the ways information is restricted from them is to keep it purely analog: stored in physical books, with legal and technological infrastructures in place to prevent their digitization. Early on, the AI KRIS attempts to get you to "break the law" and show him pages from this book he's heard about, with information about his past that somebody didn't want him to find out about.

I really love the idea of trying to piece together a convincing story based on clues and half-finished texts. It sounds a bit like that classic Sherlock Holmes board game. Am I at all close at guessing the feel you were aiming for?

You're definitely tasked with piecing together the story of the original writer, Kristopher Holmquist, and the future world his AI simulacrum was created in, from hints in the app and information in the printed book. In the app, though, where you're exploring the interior story (Holmquist's unfinished novel), there's not one right answer: unlike a puzzle game, any configuration of the story can be justified using something from the Compendium. So it's not finding the "right" story, just the one that feels most right to you.

This is another core distinction between physical books, which can't ever change, and digital ones, which can (though, so far, still rarely do). The unchanging parts of our story are more in the printed book, while the ones the player can shape and respond to are more on the digital side.

With Ice-Bound being developed and written by two people, well, how did you two decide to work together?

We're both graduate students at UC Santa Cruz who came up through their MFA in Digital Arts & New Media, and are now in the Computer Science PhD program. It's actually been an incredible collaboration: usually when I've worked with someone in the past, there's been a clear division of labor, i.e., one person does the coding, the other does the art, or whatever it is. Jacob and I both have eerily similar background: both of us are writers, coders, and former professional graphic designers. So we've really been able to create everything in tandem, from the UI to the story-assembly code to the written story to the design and layout of the Compendium pages. Some bits are more Jacob than me and vice versa, but there's a lot of Ice-Bound that I'm not sure any more who made it or who edited it, which is pretty fantastic.

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Would you say that interactive fiction has once again become an artform that's financially viable?

More so than in a long time!

It's been so exciting to me over the past few years to see this incredible rebirth of text-based story games. If you look at Simogo's Device 6, inkle's 80 Days, "Black Crown" from StoryNexus, Emily Short's Blood & Laurels, Choice of Games' The Orpheus Ruse, and something like Porpentine's "climbing 208 feet up the ruin wall"--- those are six games that are all amazing experiences, all incredibly different from each other, and all different from what people thought of as "interactive fiction" even five or six years ago. That's a pretty clear sign we're in the midst of a wonderful renaissance for the medium.

On the commercial front, the high-quality work these people are doing has really raised the bar to the point that there's an audience willing to pay for interactive text again. I think also that the success of beautiful storygames like Kentucky Route Zero has given text more credit in gaming circles lately as the powerful storytelling vehicle it's (of course) been this whole time.

What would you want everyone to know about Ice-Bound?

I'd say if you think it sounds cool, definitely consider becoming a backer on Kickstarter, since we're able to give our backers a better price on the printed book than it will be listed at once it officially goes on sale.

Beyond that, I think the biggest takeaway I have is that there's so many things we can do with interactive text that, even after forty years, we're only just starting to explore. The future of the book is going to be amazing.