In 2013 Boyd Multerer was leading development on the Xbox One, a console Microsoft hoped would become the standard platform for cable television, streaming video, and next-gen games about gladiators and martial artists. It was one of the most high-profile product launches of the year, with billions of dollars and the reputation of a multinational giant at stake.
He was also working on a tiny, self-funded e-zine of interactive romance and erotica.
Subscription-based fiction site Silkwords, which launched on Valentine’s Day, is a curious and inadvertent outgrowth of Microsoft’s quest to own the living room. "It goes back a couple of years," Boyd says. "I was working for [Microsoft chief software architect] Ray Ozzie and looking into future of TV stuff — where is TV going? How does interactivity work?" Then his wife Keri brought up a category she felt would appeal to women outside his normal audience: romance novels.
Buyers of romance novels — who tend to be older and female — are a far cry from the young men Microsoft is publicly courting with the Xbox One, but they’re a powerful voice in the publishing world. Romance writing consistently brings in more money than any other fiction subgenre, and it’s easily made the jump to e-readers as a substitute for mass-market paperbacks. "Romance readers read a lot," says Sharon Fisher, self-described geeky romance writer and editor of Silkwords. "When they find an author they love, they are very willing to buy books, whether it’s ebooks or print books. They go through a lot of them."
Silkwords isn't interactive fiction in the traditional sense
The Multerers don’t pretend to have a deep familiarity with the genre, and the stories on Silkwords seem aimed at a general cross section of readers. Their focus is on the interactive element. Where game developers were looking for plots to go with their time-tested gameplay, the Multerers took what they saw as an obvious step for traditional fiction. "In video games, you’ve got all this interactivity, and they’re trying to find ways to bring more story into games," Boyd says. "Well, let’s experiment with going the other way. Here’s a story. Let’s bring a little bit of video game in and see how we can make it more interesting."
Interactivity can be a sore spot for writers. The gaming community sometimes treats readers like passive receptacles waiting to be blessed with multiple-choice endings, ignoring both the rewards of close reading and the rich tradition of fan interpretation and response. For some women, romance novels are similarly sensitive ground. The factual "most romance readers are women" easily turns into the sweeping, stereotypical "women like romance" or "women only like romance" — a trap Boyd and Keri Multerer can occasionally, if accidentally, slip into. If you don’t fit the category, it becomes tempting to loudly and mockingly reject romance novels, which all too often plays into a pattern of treating anything traditionally feminine as frivolous.
By and large, however, Silkwords is an interesting combination of online magazine and Choose Your Own Adventure series. Lightly interactive stories are selected, paired with illustrations, and edited by the Multerers and Fisher, who they brought on while building the site. At select points authors offer two choices, which might be as small as leaving a bar with a handsome stranger or as large as avenging your father’s death. Like flipping backwards in a physical book, though, you can scroll up and easily undo any or all of the choices. "When you read a story, there’s always that ‘Oh, god! Why did she do that?’" Keri says. "This gives the reader the chance to say, ‘Okay, what is she going to do?’"
It shares far less DNA with dating sims, video games, and interactive fiction engines like Emily Short’s Versu. Decision points in games, for example, tend to be either stupidly obvious or maddeningly opaque. Defuse a bomb rather than setting it off, and you’re the hero. Keep saying nice things to someone, and they’ll like you. But accidentally misread a sarcastic option as a friendly one, and they’ll hate you forever. Getting it right is stressful — the antithesis of what people often look for in romance. Silkwords authors are unabashedly guiding readers through a narrative, using choices as a way to organize scenes and story lines.
I never got eaten by snakes
The fun of interactive romance is playing matchmaker by shaping your character’s choices. It’s an antidote to the Ron and Hermione problem, or any of the unsatisfactory endings that have launched a thousand revisionist fan stories. But the site’s erotica — more sexually explicit and less focused on relationships — is almost a more comfortable fit. "It’s sort of like ‘What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?’" says Fisher. "There are very natural choice points. Does she go with him? Does she go with her? Do the three of them go off together?" No matter how simple or complex a story line, it’s useful to spin as many sexy scenarios out of it as possible, some of them mutually exclusive.
Despite the site’s strengths, it’s clear that Silkwords is in its infancy. So far stories tend towards conservatism, sparingly sprinkling "do or don’t" links between scenes. To put it very unromantically, it’s a collating mechanism. Want to find the scenes you like? Here’s your path. The submission guidelines also stipulate a long-held genre rule: everything must be able to end well. My worst-case endings tended to involve going home alone or being unable to convince an old lover that I’d changed my errant ways. I never got eaten by snakes or hit with a karma penalty. I just furrowed my brow, clicked back a few steps, and accepted that date with the cute ‘50s secretary.
Interlocking stories could all share a world
Over time, this could evolve into something more like a traditional game. The Multerers imagine sets of interlocking stories set in the same world, where how players act in one place will shape how people respond to them in another. But authorial control is central to Silkwords, and it will need to be maintained carefully if the stories get more complicated. "We could have tuned it the other way" and added complex, choice-based narrative changes, says Boyd. "You’d get to the first node and it would say ‘Hey, I see you’ve been here before! This person has left the bar and is no longer available.’" Make it too hard to reverse course, and you’re just back in an RPG.
Ad-free, SilkWords runs purely on a subscription model: $49.99 for a year, $4.99 a month, and $0.99 for two days, a scale that’s not far off self-published ebook prices. Subscribers get access to the site archive and any new stories, which are published about once a week. Right now, that archive is pretty paltry, at some half-dozen titles. But with time, it’s meant to hold a variety of works that go beyond white, heterosexual women or any particular genre, while still holding enough appeal for anyone who visits.
The Multerers declined to say precisely how many visits they’ve received in the two weeks since launch, but their next step is building connections with the larger romance community — something that will largely determine the project’s success. It’s also something they admit to not being completely prepared for, though they’ll have the help of veteran author Fisher. "Perfectly frankly here, I’m probably better at writing code than doing a marketing campaign," says Boyd. He and Keri hope that by steadily building the story base, they can convince readers to take the leap for a subscription. For now, they’re placing a risky bet while Boyd is on sabbatical in the wake of the Xbox One’s release. How do they finance the site, we ask? "One, you keep your costs as low as you possibly can," says Boyd. "And then two... we’ve done fairly well in the video game business."