“Some of what I'm about to say is real information,” novelist James Frey tells the audience at San Diego’s Comic-Con one afternoon in July. “And some of it is not.”
To those who know Frey for having fabricated parts of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces (and later admitting to it on Oprah), his statement could be mistaken for a legal disclaimer. In this instance, though, Frey is referring to the plot of his latest storytelling endeavor, Endgame, a trilogy he is creating with the help of an internal startup at Google called Niantic Labs. In any case, the crowd of sci-fi obsessives at Comic-Con isn’t much interested in Frey’s past. They have come to hear about the future: the fictional future presented in Endgame, an apocalyptic thriller; and, more broadly, the future of fiction, which Frey ambitiously hopes to define with this project.
In fact, while Frey’s previous books were by nature confined to the page, Endgame is a sprawling, interconnected multimedia universe encompassing three novels, an augmented-reality game created by Niantic, and a movie currently in development by 20th Century Fox. As Frey explains to the Comic-Con audience, an online treasure hunt will be woven into each book of the trilogy, with links embedded in the text that direct prize-seeking readers to dozens of websites, each seeded with clues. The first person to solve the puzzle in The Calling—published this month—will win a half million dollars in gold.
The moderator of the presentation interrupts Frey. “So, just to clarify,” she says, “that is a literal fact? There will be gold for the winners?”
Frey, who is by now accustomed to blurring fact and fiction, answers in the affirmative. Later, speaking after Comic-Con, he says that he considers a certain porosity—between real and fake, digital and physical, commercial enterprise and literary undertaking—an artistic goal. Sometimes this means transitioning from the author of the book to a character in the game: At one point during Comic-Con, James Frey—the character, that is—leaks part of a fictional document. Later, asked how it fits into the larger Endgame plot, Frey says, “We don’t know,” sounding very much like a character who’s unsure of how the plot will unfold.
A few days after Comic-Con, at Google’s SoMa office, Niantic’s founder, John Hanke, expands on the Endgame vision. Niantic primarily builds mobile-phone products, which makes the literary collaboration seem all the more unlikely. But in Hanke’s view, video games and books are beginning to converge as forms of entertainment. “A-list creatives,” he says, “want to use these different tools to tell a story in a more immersive way.” And while he doesn’t see projects like Endgame usurping novels as we know them, he’s expectably confident about their future: “I think they will become the standard,” he says. “They feel organic—less artificial than sitting down and reading a book.”
They’re also, presumably, more lucrative. At a moment when traditional publishing is experiencing a prolonged crisis of confidence, it’s easy to see the commercial potential of a project like Endgame, which, after all, comes with its cross-marketing, licensing, and film franchising baked right in. With Google, Fox, and HarperCollins behind him, Frey is unabashed in his ambitions for Endgame. He hopes, rather audaciously, to sell between 10 and 20 million books and rack up as many players of the mobile game. Of course, all this gamification and mass-marketing could easily come off as crass or counterintuitive to Frey’s peers in the literary community, but he’s characteristically unconcerned. “Writers are incredibly hesitant to embrace this stuff, and it’s foolhardy, to be honest,” he says. “We should be rushing toward the future, not raging against it.”
Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco