All writers have their tendencies, from pet subjects to grammatical tics. I use em dashes (these things — ) a lot and begin paragraphs with conjunctions, particularly "but." Read someone enough and you begin to feel like you could write in their voice — or at least spot an impostor. That's the point of Every Book Ever, a clever puzzler that just went into open beta today.
Every Book Ever requires players to guess the opening sentence of novels ranging from classic to obscure. So let's try that, right now. I'm a 40-year-old guy with an M.S. in journalism and a heavy reliance on ancedotal ledes. What is — or, well, was — my original opening sentence to this story?
1. Lightning flashed outside as I opened a new tab in my browser.
2. Like so many evenings, I'm hunched over my keyboard fighting writer's block and the disruption of a barking dog next door, only this time, I'm supposed to be doing it for fun.
3. While wingsuiting over the Patagonian Andes this summer, during downtime on a foggy day, my sherpa/jump coordinator introduced me to an online game already popular in remote regions of coastal Chile.
4. This article started, like so many others, when my cat Paw Stanley fell asleep on my Macbook and brought me to the landing page of a web game.
5. I need the perfect opening for a subject I've neither written nor read in my life: the "culinary whodunit."
Three of those sentences were written by Sean Gubelman and Benjamin Johns, of Drizzly Bear Games, the creators of Every Book Ever. They studied my habits — though they might be a little wrong about wingsuiting — and tried to come up with at least one lead sentence to fool you.
That's the purpose of Every Book Ever: impersonate a writer.
The browser-based game pulls the description of a novel — fiction or nonfiction — from its Amazon listing and serves it to a group of up to six players who are matched at random. First they are tasked with writing what they think is the first sentence to that book, trying to fool the other human players into choosing it. Then they have to pick the actual first sentence out of the pool of forgeries their opponents have written.
Five books form a game of Every Book Ever. The guesses proceed asynchronously (with email nudges sent to those who have yet to put in their submission). Players score by both guessing correctly or fooling others into choosing their ringer. The most points at the end of the round is the winner.
Can you write a 'culinary whodunit?' Have you even read one?
With up to six competitors, creating a false positive can be more essential to winning than guessing the correct opening.
"You're not just delivering a laugh, you're delivering something that lines up with what they think this writer might write. You're kind of teetering this line of quality," says Gubelman. "It's not exactly what this person might write, but what these players think this person might write."
Gubelman and Johns met about six years ago working for Microsoft Game Studios, on projects such as Kinectimals and Kinect Star Wars. Johns left in 2010 and took time off from his career to travel. Gubelman left the next year and started Drizzly Bear. When Johns returned, the two teamed up to perform contracted work for other development studios while working up their own games ideas. They think they have a sharp one with Every Book Ever.
Every Book Ever grew out of an informal game that Johns played when he was traveling and staying in youth hostels which typically had a library of crappy, beaten-up books. At one, hostel residents played something called "Paperback." Someone selected a book, jotted down its opening sentence, and challenged others to do the same. The winner wasn't necessarily those who chose the correct opener; someone with a clever lead could score, too.
"Handwriting came into play, and there were a lot of flaws with the game," Gubelman said. "But we wanted to deliver the hilarity of that kind of experience."
The hilarity of Every Book Ever often comes from a library of books no one would think to pick up in real life, like the beaten-up paperbacks found in a hostel or a beach house. Or The Whole Enchilada, by Diane Mott Davidson, whom Entertainment Weekly calls "today's foremost practitioner of the culinary whodunit." A murder mystery paired with food writing was my first playthrough and the original lead sentence of this article.
So give yourself a point if you chose No. 5 above. I also wrote No. 2 in an earlier draft. Gubelman and Johns supplied the other three entries.
For now, all of the books used by Every Book Ever are submitted by users and screened by Johns and Gubelman for suitability in play. (No cookbooks, for example). "Some of my favorite genres are 'paranormal romance,' which involves shapeshifters and/or werewolf-vampire relationships," Gubelman said, deadpan. "Another is the cat mystery novels, and those things sell like crazy. It's always the same characters, the guy's a detective and the cats help him solve crimes."
Right now, I'm in a game involving "dinosaur erotica." You read that right. I'm supposed to come up with a lead for Taken at the Dinosaur Museum by an author named Christie Sims. The protagonist is a night watchperson at a natural history museum, whose specimens come alive and ... you get the idea.
The most devious feature of Every Book Ever, however, is the way it shows your work in the end. Once all the players in the game have made their selections and the scores are tallied, the final screen shows how everyone's opening sentence was composed, character by character, with every deletion and rewrite. In many cases you can see the author's thought process as he or she backtracks, scraps an earlier idea, replaces it, buffs up a word here or there, then corrects a typo.
"It's the Dark Souls note on the floor," joked Gubelman. "It's the letter to the past. It is a written history of the construction of your downfall. Presumably, you're reading it because you chose that sentence, and now you're beating yourself up over it as you watch them craft your demise."
On the writer's side, knowing your work will be shown leads to some pressure packed openings. And proofreading is a must, because obvious errors are a sure tipoff the sentence was written by someone who didn't have an editor.
You can get caught in some brilliant mind traps trying to guess what's real and what's impersonated, too. In another playthrough my group was tasked with guessing the opening to Love, Lust & Faking It by Jenny McCarthy, the notorious Playboy Playmate. One lede described her at the moment she removed the bandages from her first boob job. The language was so coarse I couldn't think anyone would be so impolite as to actually write that for mixed company, so I picked it. McCarthy, after all, can be rather frank.
But it wasn't her. The author got my vote and fooled another player, racking two points to tie me for the round. (My phony open was a joke about kids playing doctor, and McCarthy intervening when they pretended to vaccinate one another.)
Down the line, Gubelman and Johns imagine Every Book Ever offering segmented games — fantasy, detective, biography, etc. — and offering badges and achievements for doing things like, say, using the words "dark" and "stormy" and "night" in a five-book round. For now they are focused on acquiring users, because the game's format is dependent on a lot of people participating. There is a Daily Challenge, in which players guess lead sentences to three books but don't write their own. It's a good way to kill time waiting for others to answer, but the real fun in the game is in crafting a good beginning.
So how does any of this make money? Right now, it doesn't. Every Book Ever isn't backed by crowdfunding, nor does anyone have to pay anything to play it. (Theoretically, Drizzly Bear could get a little change from a referral if someone was intrigued enough by dinosaur erotica to click on the book cover and buy it.) Johns and Gubelman figure they can keep it running for 100,000 users on a $500 per month budget, with the other contract work they do keeping the lights on and food on the table. Currently, it's coming out of a closed beta with about 250 monthly active users, and 50 daily actives.
Gubelman is blunt that the game needs users more than anything else, and that it's positioned as an acquisition target. After PAX Prime, the studio began talking with Amazon, in a conversation that began with trying to get deeper access to their book database. Amazon has been suitably intrigued enough to give Drizzly Bear a development kit for the new Fire Phone, with an eye toward porting Every Book Ever into an app for it. (As a browser game, it'll still play on mobiles now.)
"We have a lot of options for providing ways that a user could pay us, but we still need users," he said. "Our No. 1 goal is to make a game that we want to play, and if we make a high quality product, we will make money off it."
Every Book Ever went into its open beta a few days ago and is accepting new accounts now. Signing up is free, and players can immediately start crafting an entry in a five-book game and then go to the daily challenge to test their ability to spot fakes.
Gubelman says people start to get the hang of the game pretty quickly, but don't get too cocky. He was playing in a five-book game with a party that included a friend who is a rather hardcore Dota 2 player, a very competitive guy who was ripe for a literary takedown.
"He was winning about halfway through, and starting to get really cocky and talking trash," Gubelman said. "And then we got some book, this cheesy sci-fi about a sentient war tank. I made up a Sun Tzu quote for the first sentence [this is The Art of War guy quoted to death by so many salesmen.] I just completely bullshitted it. He picked it, and afterwards he said, 'There's no way you would know a Sun Tzu quote!'
"And I said, 'Yes, you're right, I completely made that crap up.'"