As eReaders become ubiquitous and virtual reality pops its high-resolution head over the horizon, immersive storytelling is starting to look as though it has potential. And, indeed, there are already a number of early experiments into which you can sink your teeth: take a quick look at the Interactive Fiction database for some samplers, or try out iPoe or iLovecraft for some classic material with an immersive twist. Whether it’s a hypertext adventure that allows you to pick your path through the story, or a straightforward novel enhanced by music, video or the occasional quicktime event, immersive fiction is a new genre that’s rapidly finding its feet.
The Frequency Effect is a novel in this vein, and a promising-looking one at that; the blurb paints a picture of an eerily-familiar society in which people all over the world are hypnotised by their phones. Smartly ironic then, you might think, that the story is best absorbed through just such a mobile device. Of course, the existence of the above-named examples belies the back-cover claim that The Frequency Effect is the “world’s first” immersive novel, but it still looks, from the outside at least, like a glossy and exciting prospect.
Here’s the thing, though – it doesn’t quite work. If you’re reading in print the interactive elements are just added faff to get to – you do so by visiting a URL or, I suppose, having the central website open on a handy device as you read. In short, it’s a whole bunch of immersion-breaking effort to access interactive portions that are usually fairly short and often don’t add anything to the story. Reading in the book’s digital format is slightly better, as you can simply follow hyperlinks to each item – but at the same time the interactives are so limited in scope that they tend to do more to interrupt the reading experience than enhance it. Several times, for example, you can view a website from the world of the novel, but each of these is simply a one-page affair with nothing to discover or look at beyond the initial screen (the websites that do have a complete complement of content are actually those of the novel’s sponsors). Most of these elements, one can’t help but feel, would have worked just as well as a static image.
One thing I can say, however, is that the interactives are slickly-produced. The websites may be limited in scope, but they’re put together to a very high standard. They are convincing artefacts – I just wish there was some substance to them. The other type of interactive element is short video or virtual reality clips, and these too are well-produced – they don’t feel as though they were made on a budget, and they feature a real band who play actual music, and play it well. If they were a more necessary part of the story, these high production values would be a real plus.
There is, however, a sharp contrast between the design quality of the interactive elements and the quality of the writing – the latter just isn’t there. The book reads like a first draft. Whole swathes of text are redundant, clumsily-phrased, or technically wrong. It’s glacially slow at times, and needlessly awkward at others. Characters speak in a bizarre, robotic tone that resembles nothing a real human being has said or will ever say. Here’s a short sample taken from a random page:
“Go on…” said Mike, sharpening his gaze.
“Well, I may have come up with an explanation and I would like to get your take. It may sound a bit farfetched…” continued Ben.
“Hit me with it!”
“I have reason to believe that we might be drugged up without our knowledge. Through our use of technology devices, we have all become addicts of consumption. I mean, can anyone live without them? They have sucked us in.”
At times the unnatural dialogue feels like irony – here are characters so consumed by technology that they’ve become cyborgs themselves, the natural flow and tone of conversation long lost to them. I’m inclined to think, however, that this reading is giving the story a little too much credit.
The main thing The Frequency Effect might benefit from is an editor. In its present state it might be wrong to think of it as bad, when really it’s just kind of broken. All the elements of a good story are there. Quite apart from the slick interactive segments, we have a storyline that mixes cyberpunkish adventure with observations of surveillance and corporate control in the present day, along with a questioning look into mental health. We have characters with backstories that would be compelling if they were handled well, and we have a narrative that stretches and compresses effortlessly through time. The interactive elements are basic but could easily be expanded – and there are hints of espionage and hackery that could lead to some seriously fun hidden extras.
In short, the raw material is there, but it’s… well… raw. Any interactive project that draws in elements of video, web, and graphic design is going to be a difficult thing to get right. In this case it doesn’t work, but The Frequency Effect represents a brave attempt, garnished with some great visuals.