The Math of Level 26: Book + Video + Web Site = What, Exactly?

The heroes of Anthony E. Zuiker’s “digi-novel” Level 26: Dark Origins, in bookstores today, face off against the most grotesque serial killers known to man. Zuiker, meanwhile, has a less malevolent but more complex nemesis in real life — the user experience. For it’s one thing to create a hit TV series, but an entirely new genre of storytelling? Definitely another.

The Level 26 experience consists of a 400-page hardback book containing codes that, once you log into level26.com, you can use to watch “cyberbridge” video installments that dramatize in-between moments. The web site, built by EQAL, offers further information about real crimes on top of a discussion forum and other interactivity. So taken together, how does it all add up?

Well, the book component (co-written by Duane Swierczynski) doesn’t skimp on the Saw-esque suspense and gore as jaded-as-hell “crime scene tactician” Steve Dark attempts to hunt down, once and for all, the notorious serial killer Sqweegel. In addition to the dubious choices in character names, Dark doesn’t agree to sign onto the case until more than halfway into the book, and the over-the-top effort to create murderous acts worthy of Sqweegel’s alleged monstrosity offer more shock value than genuine horror. Otherwise it’s a competently written crime novel with a few decent twists and turns.

The video portion, which as Chris reported from Comic-Con was shot for $200,000 out of the book’s $1 million advance, is well-produced and sufficiently ominous. However, the acting is somewhat hit or miss. While contortionist Daniel Browning Smith brings an inhuman edge to Sqweegel, and Michael Ironside is effortlessly badass as Riggins, Daniel Buran as Steve Dark seems to confuse “dark and tortured” with “laconic and mopey.”

There are also some odd glitches between the novel and the cyberbridges. In the third short, for example, Riggins complains about having one ex-wife and three kids who don’t care about him, while the book more than once notes that he has three ex-wives and two kids. A minor detail, but the sort of thing that creates notable disharmony in this kind of experience.

Meanwhile, the glue of the concept — the web site — features a clean design and no shortage of content. I couldn’t immediately locate a complete listing of how many people had joined the site so far, but crime blogger Kristine Huntley, who’s the network’s equivalent to MySpace’s Tom and contributes true crime blogs to the site as well, had 790 friends as of Monday night.

But what does all of that mean for the consumer experience? Speaking from my own perspective, I started reading Level 26 while sitting outside, and thus was unable to immediately watch the “cyberbridges,” instead experiencing the novel as someone like, say, my grandmother (an avid reader of crime fiction and a relative computer illiterate) might.

When I finished the book, I was inside, sitting mere feet away from my laptop in a comfortable armchair. Despite my proximity to the Internet, though, it was the rare occasion that I came upon a cyberbridge and felt truly compelled to get up, log into the web site, and watch it — especially when I knew that the information contained would be encapsulated down the line. It had nothing to do with the quality of the cyberbridges: I was simply enjoying reading a book in a comfy chair and didn’t feel like moving.

Then again, when it comes to reading my focus is pretty good, and the Level 26 approach does reward those with short attention spans, including Zuiker himself. From a 2008 Variety article that goes into detail about the project:

Zuiker came up with the idea when he set out to write a crime novel and realized he had problems with the traditional format. “I personally don’t have the attention economy to read a 250-page crime novel from start to finish,” he said. “I realized that the way I’d like to consume a novel is to be rewarded every couple of chapters by seeing something visual that enhances the narrative.”

From that perspective, the concept works, and in the eternal struggle to find balance between the various components of a multiplatform storytelling experience, I think Zuiker has hit a nice balance, especially by prioritizing the novel (aka the one guaranteed revenue stream for the project) over the other elements.

And it’s a format that may see more success in the coming years, especially if the Kindle and similar devices take off as predicted, and the other planned books in the franchise (the first due out in 2010) see the light of day. Because the biggest obstacle Level 26 will always face is the relative distance between the book and the computer.

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