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Interactive game mixes classic novels with Web 2.0 mashups

Known as 'We Tell Stories,' the new game from Penguin Books and startup Six to Start will take players through new story lines based on six classic books.

We Tell Stories is a new alternate-reality game that tasks players with finding their way through six story lines based on classic Penguin novels and a seventh story that ties them all together. Penguin Books/Six to Start

The alternate-reality game genre has a new friend, and a new format, thanks to Penguin Books, the famous British publishing house.

On Tuesday, Penguin and startup Six to Start launched their new ARG, We Tell Stories, a new-style game that its creators say is a hybrid of traditional story-telling, Web 2.0-style mashups, interactive games and classic novels.

We Tell Stories is actually a seven-part adventure, said Jeremy Ettinghausen, the digital publisher for Penguin. It will begin with six weekly installments, each of which is based on a classic novel--and written by a different Penguin author--and which tasks participants with finding their way through the story using tools developed for the game.

After the six installments, We Tell Stories will continue with a seventh weekly piece that will be a game tying the six stories together.

"There is a seventh story, where the game element exists," said Etthinghausen, "and it links the other six stories."

Added Adrian Hon, the chief of creative for Six to Start, "the seventh story is a more traditional ARG, and it sort of feeds into the other six stories and binds them together. The seventh story gives you motivation to read all six stories, and explains why they're written."

Six to Start was founded by veterans of Mind Candy--a UK company that produced the well-regarded but ultimately financially unsuccessful ARG, Perplex City--including Hon and Mind Candy's former COO Dan Hon and

In the case of the first installment, which went live Tuesday morning, players will use a Google Maps mashup to work their way through a brand-new story line based on John Buchan's famous novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Ettinghausen explained that the story incorporates Google Maps in such a way that participants can work their way through the narrative not only through the text but also by using the map mashup.

"We knew when we came up with the idea that using Google Maps (would allow) lots of movements," said Hon, "like running down streets and driving down roads. It's a bit like The Bourne Identity."

Hon explained that the game's creators imagine players using Google Maps as a way of locating themselves in the larger narrative. So, for example, at a moment in the story arc where the protagonist finds himself locked in a shipping container and doesn't know where he is, a player could turn to the maps mashup and see dozens of points where he might be.

But while We Tell Stories uses Google Maps for its first installment and will continue to leverage Web 2.0-type tools in the following chapters, players shouldn't expect those tools to be the same.

Further, the entire body of work, while derivative, was created strictly for Web users.

"Each of the six stories has a completely different mechanism for telling them," Ettinghausen said. "But as a whole, these are stories that couldn't have been written (in the past). They're native to the Internet."

"What we tried to do here," Ettinghausen said, "is create a native Internet experience. The stories couldn't exist on paper. But it's not a gimmicky thing. We pushed our authors to look at how viewers and readers are going to view them, thinking about different points in the story, and about how the mechanism in the story is going to effect their writing."

At the end of the game's rainbow is a prize that any erudite player would certainly desire: Penguin's complete library of 1,300 books.

And while the game is based in England, the organizers expect thousands of players from all around the world. They said they expect a third of participants to be American, a third from the UK and a third from other countries. However, only UK residents are eligible to win the library grand prize.