Summary: Voice first fiction describes stories designed to be told and interacted with on smart speakers. This post examines the emerging categories of voice first fiction and discusses the pros and cons of each type.
Voice first fiction is a new art form. The technologies it requires have only become available to consumers within the last few years.
As a new art form, it makes sense to explore the various expressions of voice first fiction. These expressions are evolving and will presumably become clearer in the years to come. Voice app designers and writers are only beginning to explore how people want to interact with stories being told from smart speakers. They’re also learning which interaction models work better than others.
In my view there are currently three main categories of voice first fiction. Others may see this differently and I would enjoy hearing other viewpoints. It should be noted that I’m focusing on voice first and not addressing fiction that relies on both voice and images. All three of these categories already exist in story-driven video and mobile games. In voice first fiction the opportunities and constraints are somewhat different, forcing creators to re-evaluate the pros and cons.
Audio books have gained traction in recent years. Many people enjoy listening to human narrators read a book aloud. The transition of streaming audio to the smart speaker platform is seamless. Smart speaker owners can ask Alexa to play an audiobook that they’ve already purchased and added to their library.
It makes perfect sense, then, that some content creators are publishing shorter, more bite-sized audio content to smart speaker platforms. Amazon’s own Storytime service is an example of streaming audio stories in a snackable format. These stories are typically narrated by human voice actors and are reminiscent of radio plays from the golden age of radio.
Content is intended for passive consumption.
Early entrants into the voice first fiction space quickly discovered the potential power of the smart speaker’s interactive capabilities. Voice assistant platforms seem well suited to bringing to life the much loved Choose Your Own Adventure (registered trademark of Chooseco LLC) story.
This type of interactive narrative, often referred to as choice-driven in the world of gaming (also called branching, non-linear, or role-playing stories) evolves based on choices made by the participating listener. The outcome of the story can be different, based on the paths chosen by the listener.
There are already many great examples of interactive choice-driven narratives on the dominant smart speaker platforms. Some use human narration and others leverage text-to-speech.
Requires the listener to participate in the story experience, typically by acting as a character in the fictional world.
Story game is the term I use to describe an interactive voice experience that is narrative-driven and requires the listener to solve a problem or puzzle. The narrative component of a voice first story game is typically thin, often providing a veneer on which to hang the elements of a mystery the listener needs to unravel.
Voice-driven story games can share features of board games, verbal puzzles, or interactive fiction. It remains to be seen whether story games can support truly engaging fictional experiences. It should be noted that there are often overlaps between choice-driven narratives and story games. For example, many choice-driven stories involve some sort of mystery the player must solve or quest the player needs to complete before advancing to the next chapter. Story games are more likely to use text-to-speech (artificial voices created via speech synthesis technology) rather than human narration.
Transforms the story into a game or puzzle that the player can win or lose.
I’ve described what I view as the three broad categories of the current generation of voice first fiction. These categories all overlap with narrative structures being leveraged in interactive gaming. But interacting with intelligent assistants via spoken language creates an entirely new dynamic. In the fall, I’ll be attending and speaking at Digital Book World. The conference is bringing together a diverse group of authors, publishers, creatives, and technology providers. It will be a great venue to explore this topic further and get fresh ideas on the future roadmap of voice first fiction structures. I hope to see you there!