Electric Book Works Publishing reinvented for the digital age

You choose the story: a climate-change adventure

Survive the Century is a book and a game: on every page, your choices determine how the story unfolds, and whether humanity survives till 2100.

For this innovative publication, award-winning author Sam Beckbessinger worked with an international team of scientists and writers to tackle a pressing problem: a feeling among young people that the battle against climate change is lost. They wanted to show, in a fun and engaging way, that it’s possible to shift the zeitgeist, and to make a difference before it’s too late.

We worked with Sam to produce the book as an interactive web app and a collectible print edition.

As the reader, you play the editor of the world’s most influential news site. Your decisions – about what and who to publish – shift the way people think around the world. Your decisions will determine humanity’s fate. The story is fun and irreverent, while staying firmly rooted in sociology and climate science.

On the web

After spending months crafting the branching narrative, Sam teamed up with Electric Book Works in early 2021 to turn it into a beautiful, slick web app. From the start, we wanted it to feel more like a game than a website, and to have the immersive quality of a book. We knew we’d also want to produce a print edition eventually – more on that below.

For projects like this, we recruit specialists to work alongside our in-house team. Sam had already collaborated with illustrator Annika Brandow, whose bold, bright comic style would give readers a strong first impression and sustain a sense of levity in the face of some scary futures.

To refine the text we brought in Louis Greenberg, a world-class copy-editor and a best-selling novelist himself.

And for the visual design, we worked with our long-time collaborator Karen Lilje. Read her own write-up about this project for more about her process.

Our team worked with Karen and Sam on the user experience, sharing sketches and draft designs till we had full mockups for our dev team to work from. From there, we could turn the text and design into code, and a fully functional web app.

The print edition

We’d been looking forward to turning Survive the Century into a printed book, too. In early 2022, that work began, and today you can buy the book at any good online bookstore.

Sam commissioned the book’s illustrator Annika Brandow to design the print edition’s front cover. We needed it to convey the fun, game-like nature of the story, and also be readable as a thumbnail, since that’s how most people first see a book’s cover. In addition, we needed to tell readers clearly what kind of book this was, without using the trademarked phrase ‘Choose your own adventure’. We eventually settled on ‘You choose the story!’ That phrase seems obvious now, but it’s surprisingly hard work crafting something simple and effective.

Back at EBW, we had to reimagine Karen Lilje’s fabulous web design for paper. The challenge here was that the web design was built around a dark background. While we wanted to stick with Karen’s look and feel, the existing colours and typography didn’t work as-is on square, white pages. Also, where the web has hyperlinks, paper needs page references everywhere, and these had to be designed to be clear without overwhelming the pages.

Earning badges

One of our favourite features of the printed edition is the page of badges at the back, which doesn’t exist in the web edition.

They’re a fun feature: while reading the printed edition, you’ll occasionally earn one of these badges. And if you can handle defacing a book, you can even cut them out of its pages.

Interestingly, we developed the badges with Sam to solve a very specific problem: how to make a reader’s earlier decisions affect the story much later on. For instance, you might decide to disband all armies, only to be invaded by aliens thirty years later. How do we know whether you disbanded your armies?

On the web, we store relevant decisions in your browser’s memory. Then when that early decision matters later on, we can change the story accordingly. A printed book can’t remember anything.

But the reader can! We just have to give them a reason to remember what they decided; for instance, by earning or not earning a badge. If you earned a given badge earlier, you turn to one page. If you didn’t, you turn to a different page.

Not all your badges affect the story, and that’s the joy of an unpredictable branching narrative.

Turn to page …

If you’ve worked in traditional publishing, you’ll know that page numbers can be a headache. A choose-the-story book depends on page-number references, and this one includes over 320 of them.

If you’re adding those numbers manually and one page shifts, all subsequent page references need checking or updating. A book like this is only feasible and accurate because we can automate page references. This is a major advantage of our digital-first workflow. In the source text, we store the links between choices, not the page numbers. Then, as the design changes or we add and remove text or reorder pages, all the page numbers update automatically.

This approach makes it far more efficient to produce choose-the-story books. And we’re certainly looking forward to producing more of them.

If your team is thinking about creating a choose-the-story book, do get in touch. We’d love to introduce you to our team, and our network of brilliant collaborators.

Play Survive the Century online here, and find the print edition here.

1 October 2021
Digital-device mockups and web-UX sketches by Karen Lilje