Posted by: Stenros | January 8, 2010

Choose Your Own Dark Arts

A friend sent me a link to Personal Effects: Dark Arts by J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman. It is a “a traditional thriller novel with a multimedia-fueled ‘out of book’ narrative.” It was published last summer, but somehow I managed to miss it.

There are two things I find interesting about the marketing. First of all, this is again sold as something completely new. Hutchins’ site quotes Publisher’s Weekly saying that the novel is a “stellar first” and Library Journal stating that the book “may herald the future of modern fiction.” Now, not only has this kind of thing been done, it has been done quite successfully – and by one of the authors. Jordan Weisman has created with Sean Stewart a whole series of books that have ARG-like expanded features: Cathy’s Book, Cathy’s Key and Cathy’s Ring.

The second thing is that Dark Arts seems to be a dumbed-down version of Cathy – at least according to the marketing. The marketing material is very clear about what the reader should do: call the number, visit the website and so forth. Another way of seeing it is as a move from mystery (Cathy) towards a game with fairly clear instructions (Dark Arts). (Of course, I could be completely off since I’m just writing based on the advertisement material. And yes, that move already started with the later parts of Cathy.)

Anyhoo, I’m excited about these kinds of books. In many ways they are internet-enabled versions of Choose Your Own Adventure books – and that form of ludic literature from the 1980s certainly deserves to have a huge comeback.


  1. Anyone want to review that for us? Or even better, anyone who’s read and solved their way through the Cathy’s Books to write a guest entry on the whole form of expression?

    I only read the first Cathy’s Book, and never got into solving the puzzles…

    – M

  2. I’ve read and “played” the first two books, and co-designed a similar book in Norwegian (with Sigbjørn Mostue). It’s called “Mørkeboka”.

    If you want, I could write a guest entry on ARG books. Just let me know.

  3. Oh, BTW: Cathy’s book is now also an iPhone app.

  4. Just got my copy of this. I’ll let you know how I get on. The props you get with the book are numerous – looking forward to it.

    RE Cathy’s Book, I saw the YouTube video but cannot find the app on the appstore – has anyone else managed to find it?


  5. Thanks, Neil, I’m keen to hear if it’s any good!

    – M

  6. Enjoying it so far, although you have to be careful of spoilers in Google searches because there is a wiki for the book already.

    Remember the suspected in-character blog for the games writer pixelvixen707? Looks like she was created for this book.



  8. Okay guys, I think I’ve read enough of this book to be able to comment at least half-properly. Mixed feelings really. Two things to bear in mind before I start – One, I don’t read many novels so I am IN NO WAY trying to be a book reviewer. Two, I’m about 2/3 through the book, so there is a chance (albeit small) that it changes
    drastically towards the end.

    Oh, and three, MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

    I admire the idea of making a book which is enhanced by ARG-like play, and particularly for newbies this book will definitely be fun, novel and interesting. However, because books are inherently linear (apart from ergodic literature, which I’ll talk about in a minute), the out-of-book elements of the story only serve to augment the story, so they don’t really feel like they add much interaction for people who want it. For example, in most ARGs the players are capable of changing the story though their interactions, because the story is only loosely written in advance so namechecks, live events, side plots and such can be made possible. For obvious reasons the book and associated materials would have needed to be finished beforehand, especially because people are paying for the story, but also to meet printing and publishing specifcations. Essentially, you can know in advance how the story ends, so any online elements are bound by this. You might be able to converse with pixelvixen707 about games, but try and affect the story and you won’t be as successful.

    So how could this have been changed? Well, perhaps the book could have been made more ergodic, so there was no one definite route through the text. An obvious example would to be to make the book into a choose-your-own adventure-style affair, but one in which the choices could be made either just from the information given in the book (i.e. pretty arbitrarily, as in the 80s), or by using the online elements to increase your knowledge, and therefore affect your decision. For example, the book might give the player a choice between having lucnh with the TV personality or searching for clues at the jazz club. You know from the fictional jazz club’s real-world reviews that it tends to be populated by seedy characters, and therefore might be the right choice, and you know from the TV personality’s newspaper clippings that he is squeaky-clean, but the player might get a date with him, or something. Without the online content, the choice is arbitrary, but still quite enjoyable, and with the online content, the choice is much more informed and the player can role-play to some extent. Each of the options would make the story diverge and the character experience different things, before the story converges again. The player’s total inventory of events could be assessed near the end to affect the outcome of the story.

    Another option would be to present the story as many smaller optional units, including all of the ‘personal effects’ provided with this book, so players can sift through in any order they choose (in addition to the online content) in order to work out whodunnit, and perhaps sumbit their answer to an automated website to see if they got it right.

    None of these ideas are particularly unique, but I feel they would be more exciting in an ARG-sense than the current state of the book I am reading.

    I do have some other gripes about the Mary-Sue-ness of the characters (The lead character’s girlfriend, of course, is achingly beautiful, tattoed, spunky, has access to loads of Government and Police information because of her part-time job at a newspaper company, is an epic female gamer and game writer who – if I read this right – had a bespoke version of her favorite game made especially for her?!!?) and the badly-disguised research (the lead character describes his brother’s love for Parkour, so the text jumps straight into a generic description of Parkour itself, which wouldn’t look out of place in Wikipedia), but I’ll leave these for a proper reviewer to cover.

    My last gripe concerns the Google-ability of the answers. Understandably this is pretty much unavoidable with books, films, and computer games, but because ARGs tend to be one-off affairs you don’t have this problem as much. Clearly, with mass-market books/games such as this (and the amount of Googling they necessitate), something needs to be done about this.

    In summary, although this post seems quite negative, the plot in the book is actually quite good, and I will definite be finishing it to see what happens, but I don’t think I’ll buy another in future, unless the genre is made far less cheesy and far more interactive, robust, ergodic and personal.

  9. Thanks for the not-review, Neil! :) Does it feel like a book plus or a game minus? Or am I simplifying it too much?

  10. Definitely a book-plus. Cannot really call it a game because you have no control over the outcome. Sorry for rambling back then. Stream-of-conciousness is not always best :-s

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