[Interview] Vasily Melnik Talks Interactive Horror Novels - Bloody Disgusting!

[Interview] Vasily Melnik Talks Interactive Horror Novels

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NARR8 is a new digital comic/interactive novel company on the rise, doing their best to re-define the reader experience. Although they offer tremendous variety in titles, some of their most predominant works are their interactive horror novels “Fear Hunters” and “The Secret City” from “Midian” Studios. What’s interesting about these digital tales is how they utilize a new medium to create a terrifying atmosphere for the reader, including interactive pages, haunting soundscapes, and subtle animation.

The head of “Midian” Studios, Vasily “Midianin” Melnik, took the time to chat with Bloody-disgusting about the process behind creating interactive horror novels, the future of the medium, his love for the genre, and plenty more.

BD: For our readers who don’t know about “Fear Hunters”, can you give us a quick synopsis of the story?

Melnik: The idea in the heart of the series lies in the fact that all mental illness came from invasion of monsters, the higher energy beings from other dimensions that capture the human mind. Psychosis, neurosis, nightmares are all resulted from influence of these monsters. The series begins with the fact that a group of young psychiatrists led by Dr. Powell developed a new method of treatment of mental illness. They work on Long Island, in the clinic Kings Park famous due to many trillers, now it is closed, but some times ago there was a department for nsane criminals. Dr. Powell invented a revolutionary way of dealing with psychiatric disorders, an effective mechanism for immersion the doctor into consciousness of a patient. It creates a virtual world, where doctors are fighting hand to hand with the nightmarish hallucinations of the patient and the core of his illness. Experiments were conducted illegally, but the team continues to experiment on their own risk, hoping to alleviate sufferings of patients and possibly win a Nobel Prize! Quickly they realize that this practice can be dangerous – the doctors can suffer both mentally and physically. Because psychosomatic damage that the consciousness gets reflects the body also: if a person is sure that he was bitten, then the body reacts accordingly (remember stigmata of Christians fanatics?). But due to some circumstances, the team can’t stop the experiment – they have to help his friend and colleague and save him from deadly danger,. A complicated intrigue occurs, but let me not reveil every secrets, a full picture will be uncovered in a few seasons.

BD: Playing with the idea of insanity is interesting because the NARR8 app really brings readers into story for a more personal experience. How do you try to get inside the minds’ of readers?

Melnik: I’m a big fan of horror movies, horror comic books and science fiction series – drew inspiration from everywhere! I carefully studied the special techniques used by the classics of the genre started with the 20’s of the last century. This series for me was not the first experience in fiction – as “Vasily Orekhov” and “Vasily Midianin” (pseudonyms) I released 10 books in Russia, with a circulation of half a million copies, several have been translated to other languages. So I am professionaly experienced in delivering suspense and generating interest for readers. While working on the series synopsis I studied literature both in psychology and psychiatry, acquainted with the bizarre phobias and their mechanisms – actually phobias play the main role more often in the series, not the mental affections. Phobias, fears – this is what can be effectively and fascinatingly visualized – that is extremely important for interactive stories. Sometimes when I read about some illness or phobia I got the ideas how to construct a plot using it. Sometimes the reverse may be true – some bizarre diseases I built into existing plot of episodes because they perfectly helped to move the whole plot further.

BD: What is “The Secret City” about? I understand You are adapting the works of Vadim Panov. What is like to be working to adapt Vadim Panov’s work to this medium?

Melnik: The Secret City is, to this day, the only series from NARR8 based on a published book. NARR8’s CEO Alexander Vaschenko is a huge fan of Panov’s books. It was his idea to adapt them in the first place. Before NARR8 I have worked as the prime sci-fi editor with Eksmo(Moscow) the biggest Russian publishing house. I know Vadim very well. We’ve worked together for many years, publishing his books exclusively. It wasn’t too hard to strike a deal about adapting his novels. He understood that I wouldn’t involve him in any kind of shady business.

When we were getting ready for “The Secret City”, a few of the Fear Hunters episodes were already out. So I showed them to Panov on an iPad. Vadim instantly became interested. I have to note that out of all the Russian sci-fi writers he is the one who goes with the times and experiments with all kinds of media.

Working with Panov was a lot easier than I have imagined. He has a wealth of experience working with videogame companies as well as the movie industry, so he’s well aware that each branch of media has its quirks. He didn’t try to tell us how to do our jobs, and control the script – we handled that on our own. Handling it this way was the best course of action for us. Our work is very specific as our product is right on the verge of literature, video-games and TV-shows. Right now we have the rights to half of the 18 book saga “The Secret City”, and we are making 5 seasons of interactive episodes. Each one will be 24 episodes long. Take into account that each season does not equal one book, which means we have to severely compress the story. From eight books, we’re making around four. I have no idea what Panov feels deep inside while reading our series, but after he checked out the first episode – he shook my hand and told me he liked what he saw.

BD: How has the response been from Panov’s fans?

Melnik: It varied. To be honest, I expected a lot more negativity from our readers. To this day I have not seen a single adaptation of a literary work that did not receive any criticism from the core fan base. This time their biggest qualm was that the story set in Moscow, was taking place in New-York in our adaptation. We were accused of being Russophobes and bowing down before the west. But I think that we did the right thing, as it was very important to convey a sense of familiarity to people around the world. To that end Moscow, the city that I love and that happens to be my birthplace, dims in comparison to New-York who everyone knows, even people who never visited it. Secret organizations work in buildings known around the world. The Great Court of fantastic beings wages magical battles on streets, and so on.

Mostly, the popularity of Panov’s books is about that feeling that the streets you know and even walk on daily, are actually much more than they appear. What makes New-York the perfect scene for our play is that it’s a place everyone in Tokyo, Berlin, Moscow etc. knows from movies, comic-books and TV.

However there were a lot of positive comments from our Russian readers – for example a lot of them like our dynamic graphical design, gameplay elements and interactive dialogues with an option to manipulate the outcome to a limited degree.

BD: I imagine most people are unfamiliar with the process involved in creating interactive novels. Could you tell us about what goes into this process?

Melnik: I believe that it’s mostly the same as making an animated series. First we write the overarching plot. What we took away from big TV series (like Lost) is that it’s a very important step. It looked like the guys who created that series were trying to overwhelm the viewer with the first season and then close off the franchise. But when the series acquired fame around the world and the second season started looming on the horizon, they had to find a way to maneuver around the mountains of plot they have set up. The creators of Lost handled their task well and explained all the story elements in the seasons that followed. But it was not without its problems, because the overarching plot and ending was confusing to most viewers. Perhaps that is why when the same team took on “Fringe”, they’ve planned everything from start to finish beforehand. There are no red herrings in that series, everything that happens – does so for a solid reason.

Afterwards the plot is divided into smaller arcs and situations. A plot has to start from a seemingly simple situation and develop into something bigger and better over time. Forces competing for the McGuffin are introduced gradually and come 5th season we will reach the full picture that will present itself to the reader in all its glory.

After developing the concept, we create a synopsis for 5 seasons to see the full picture and the foreseeable future of the series. Taking a shorter timeframe is dangerous because in the end we may have to face a situation where we have to hastily come up with what happens next. This does not work in the series favor, unless you’re a writer for “Lost”. Taking more than 5 seasons is unreasonable because by that time the series may die out, and if we are faced with success, we will have enough time to plan our next move.

The ending of every season has to be a real cliffhanger. Something overwhelmingly awesome and unexpected has to be revealed in the last episode and we have to decide exactly what that is.

An episode by episode breakdown comes next. For every season and for each of the 24 episodes. Of course each one of the episodes has to have an ending that will leave the reader hooked and make him count every minute until the next episode comes out.

Each series has to have at least two establishing shots and its unique ups and downs. With the season summary finished we create individual episodes. Every episode is about 20-30 thousand symbols which amounts to about 22-24 pages on an iPad. After all that is done me and our lead artist, and senior programmer take the script and make a storyboard with sketches of future pages. We discuss each illustration in detail along with sound, music and animation. I take the role of the director, making a decision as to how the product will look and feel in the end.

After that our lead artist takes the approved storyboard and divides tasks among a team of artists. By the way, the monsters and covers of the Fear Hunters series are created by our lead artist himself. It’s his favorite part of the job. The art assets are then handed over to our team of programmers and animators. The programmers compile everything into a moving picture along with text, backgrounds, sound and finish the book. Our sound and music is all original, and created by a separate team. The new episode is done and ready to read and enjoy!

BD: How does creating an interactive novel differ from creating a comic book or novel?

Melnik: Conventional comics by definition rely on fragmentary dialogue and stopped motion to convey the necessary emotion to the reader. It is different with interactive novels and motion comics: dialogue is not constricted as it can span the entire page, and our heroes get to enjoy the full range of actual motion. Because of this, working on an interactive novel is not unlike creating an animated cartoon series. We also design and implement interactive elements on every page to take advantage of the tablets’ versatility in displaying various effects. The concept of interactivity does not necessarily imply a variable plot that the reader can choose, because each plot fork would substantially increase the overall amount of text. That is not to say we are not considering a choice-driven plot for some of our future projects, but for the time being the concept of interactivity in our novels is to actively engage the readers with special effects that are triggered by them directly. We use special effects liberally, and you will not find a single page that is not painstakingly programmed to entertain you in a way that is relevant to what you just read, and in so doing enhance your reading experience. If it’s an abandoned building, lights are going to flicker and electricity will crackle, and if it is, for example, a murder scene, bloody fingerprints will appear whenever you touch the screen. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The possibilities are endless, and we make use of far more sophisticated effects: zoom, parallax, and so on.

We are in the process of conceiving a new series with many more interactive elements than before. It’s going to be truly amazing!

BD: Creating a horrific atmosphere must be easier because you can rely sound effects and visuals to scare. How does your team go about creating horror for readers?

Melnik: It would be wrong to call Fear Hunters a solely horror-based novel as it’s more of a fusion of horror and sci-fi like the TV series Fringe. Scientific advancements have made it possible for the team of Fear Hunters to stand up to horrible hallucinations in the patients’ minds, plus we get to watch the chemistry between all of them gradually develop.

Sci-fi and chemistry notwithstanding, we gladly take advantage of the classic ways of creating and maintaining a horrific atmosphere. Thriller techniques work just as well in interactive novels as they do in Hitchcock’s movies: suspense and tension merged with adventure and horror. We also make extensive use of original music which is custom-composed for every scene—for example, ambient noise music for our Gloomy Metro scenes, “haunted” circus soundtrack for the Cannibal the Clown battle, and so on. Time-honored cinematography scares, like when a monster, baring its fangs, jumps out of the darkness straight at the reader’s face, or when the lights go out, and a woman screams, are employed as well. We have invented some scary effects designed specifically for touch-screen. In the first episode there is a lamp which breaks when you touch the screen, and to an unprepared reader it looks very convincingly like the tablet’s screen actually broke. There’s a scare for you! ☺

BD: Because this is such a new and innovative form of storytelling, do you find yourself having to develop new storytelling techniques?

Melnik: Of course! Innovation is everything. I am firmly convinced that interactive novels such as the ones we produce are the future of the book-publishing industry. After 12 years in a traditional publishing house I can say with certainty that paper-based books are way past their prime. Their time has passed. The readership has moved on to social networks, to Internet, to audiobooks, to e-books—in other words, in every direction that’s away from paper books. This tendency is somewhat slower in the Western countries as compared to Russia, but noticeable nonetheless. I left the publishing house, the industry of yesterday, to start work in the industry of tomorrow, and I never once regretted my decision. I’m sure that the next few decades will see literature evolve as interactive books, with paper books relegated to a collector’s item, a luxurious and expensive symbol to be shown off and kept on a shelf but never read. The casual reader will prefer interactive digital format. The novels we write are purely entertaining. They are not the forefront of Booker-winning literature, but they are the first of their kind, the heralds of changes to come, and with them we are paving the road that Booker winners will follow tomorrow. Our readership now includes young computer-savvy teenagers who have historically always preferred video games to books. We are breaking this trend, and once we have established interactive novels as a familiar, convenient, and easy way to read, other companies are sure to follow in our tracks with their renditions of interactive classics and modern prose. Actually, we, too, have considered a series based on classic works.

BD: How do you see the interactive novel progressing in the next few years?

Melnik: Reader feedback is crucial to how the interactive novel will evolve. But we also experiment on our own with adding game content and interactivity, and also forking the plot for the reader to choose a line according to his or her preferences.

Interactive novels and motion comics hold a promising future not only as free entertainment, but as an industry shaper, a crucible that forges tomorrow’s literature from today’s preferences. At the moment it is a heavily commercialized production, but it sets the wheel in motion. Consider Avatar and what it meant for 3-D filming as an industry. Certainly there were 3-D movies before Avatar, in fact, the first stereoscopic movies were made as early as the 1960s! But Avatar was a watershed event, a movie that revolutionized 3-D industry and made 3-D the de facto standard for most new productions today. It raised 3-D to a new level in quality, and some of the best movies today are produced exclusively in 3-D to a much higher quality standard than ever before. We intend to follow the same scenario with interactive novels, which are certainly not our invention, but which are something we are taking to new heights in terms of quality. Other companies will follow suit and before long there will be premium quality content everywhere. This industry will blossom and thrive—up until the day they invent something even more entertaining ☺

BD: Is there anything else you want readers to know about MIDIAN or the interactive novels you have going with NARR8?

Melnik: It is a given that we only work with themes we are enthusiastic about, and that excellent quality is our everyday quality. Things horrific and mystic, fantasy, and sci-fi, are our preferred genres, and our third series will be along similar lines.

17 talented people—scriptwriters, coders, composers, and artists—make Midian what it is. We enjoy doing what we do, which is collectively working on what hundreds of thousands of readers around the world will then experience (not just read, but listen, interact with, and, most importantly, enjoy). We are a passionate team who does a fascinating thing for a thrilling future. And that’s that.