Last weekend, I finished reading Aldous Huxley famous dystopian novel, Brave New World. It was as good as I remembered and was a pleasure to re-read it during in my “Year of Classics.” But, this isn’t a post about classic dystopian novels; this is a post about storytelling and swag. Say whhhaaaat?
Allow me to explain how I got here. Within the novel, Huxley references “feelies” a sort-of hybrid source of entertainment where all senses are stimulated. While musing over this, I decided to do a little research. So I quickly googled the term and was surprised to learn that “feelie” was not only a Huxley invention (or a college-rock band from the eighties) it was also a slang term used in video games, particularly for a type of swag.
A feelie was the name given to the bonus content included with the boxed versions of video games in the late eighties and early nineties. Props, booklets, coins, runes, histories, cloth maps, and much more. These started with Infocom titles such as Zork, Planetfall, and the game version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Now, I realize that tchotchkes or swag is common across a lot of industries, and it’s something that crops up in the book industry as well. Go to any convention and you’ll come away with a haul, bookmarks, pens, bottle openers, tote bags, stickers, rubber bracelets, flyers. It’s popular and plentiful. I always have loads of swag at my table; I know many other authors do as well. Swag in its most rudimentary form is effectively an advertisement; feelies go a step further. They add a little something extra.
For example, Brandon Sanderson sells vials of allomantic metals similar to the ones allomancers imbibe in his Mistborn series. Hugh Howey once gave away Fallout Shelter passes (that doubled as USB drives) from his Wool series. In my own work, you can picture the dust-covered roaders of Bell Caravans wearing patches while on the trail. You get extra information from Wal’s notes scrawled on the Map of the Known Territories. There are hints at the history of the city in the illustrations on the Syringa postcard. These details are what separates a feelie from typical swag, a good feelie helps to expand its world as well as enhance it, they assist in making a fictional world feel real, they establish it as a place you can touch.
I’ve been a big fan of this approach for a long time. To me, it’s another aspect of worldbuilding. Only instead of with writing you’re doing it with objects. The feelie reminds me of an alternate reality game, going beyond the page to establish a real-world presence for our fictional creations and increasing immersiveness. My books have always been seeded with a little something extra so why not carry that over to other outlets as well? I’ve scattered extra stuff throughout websites, in bookmarks, in posts on this blog, and on Tumblr. The Bell Caravan patches come with Caravan Employee Registration documentation, stamped by the Lovaine Caravan Authority, of course, and signed by Wal. (It’s also full of subtle little references.) I find this attention to details adds little extra for the reader who is willing to put in the time. There’s something very engaging when you introduce someone something tangible to connect them to a piece of fiction. To me, that is much more interesting than a tote bag or tee shirt with a book cover on it.
I’m cooking up a few new ideas as well, so there’s always more to come. I’ve been dreaming up feelies for my secret fantasy project, and I have some great ideas for the Coal Belly series, and The Bell Forging Cycle (as I mentioned, some of the latter is already out there, providing one is willing to put in the legwork to discover it.) I love making stuff associated with my world, and I love sharing those creations with readers. (I even give away swag packs for free.)
Now, how about you? What do you think of feelies? Do you prefer them to regular swag or do you find them silly? What has been your favorite feelie you’ve purchased or received? Are you a creator who has made something extra for your world? I’d love to see your creations, and I’m sure others would as well. Feel free to post a link in the comments and share them with all of us.