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‘CSI’s’ Zuiker on ‘Dark Prophecy': The Fate of the Digi-Novel

Inventing a whole new kind of interactive book requires trial and error — here’s how we’ve made ours better

A little over three years ago, I walked into Dutton Publishing in New York and pitched the idea of the Digi-Novel. The Digi-Novel, as defined, is an interactive crime thriller, which allows the reader several levels of engagement: (1) you can read the book cover to cover like any traditional novel, (2) every 30 pages or so, you enter a “code,” provided in the book, at Level26.com, to watch a “cyber-bridge” – a five minute motion picture scene which continues the story cinematically, and (3) the Digi-Novel will have a website dedicated to aggregating a robust community into the mythology of the “Dark Series” and give people access to the creator of "CSI." 

A year later, "Level 26: Dark Origins" achieved “international best-seller” status, but internally we didn’t consider ourselves a success. And like any self-respecting perfectionist, I put the project under a microscope and asked the toughest question:  “Where did we go wrong?”  More specifically, “Where did I go wrong?”

First off, "Level 26: Dark Origins" is dark. The cyber-bridges were even darker.  Back then, I was of the opinion that “I wasn’t going to do TV on this project.”  I was really going to push the envelope. However, I might’ve pushed it off the table. The villain, Sqweegel, was very violent.  Our hero, Steve Dark, a “Special Circs” CSI out of Quantico, took a back seat to my uber-villain. The cyber-bridges were directed by a first time director:  me. Not to mention, the website allowed "CSI" fans direct access to yours truly, but I wasn’t prepared for all of the different types of people that live on the net.

So, to admit that I was a bit overwhelmed after launch was an understatement. Nonetheless, I was determined to get it right.  Why? I believe in the interactive experience as the “future of reading” and the “future of cross-pollinating content.”   

I never wanted to rob the traditional reader of their imagination.  It’s one of the greatest gifts of being human: the ability to get lost inside your mind with a little help from our world’s most profound authors. I wanted to give the reader something new and engaging that they’ve never experienced before.  For "Level 26:  Dark Origins," we gave the reader 20 five-minute motion picture scenes with recognizable actors and high production value. We wanted to give the Digi-Novel consumer full ability to meet other fans, create profile pages, exchange content, and build a home for the Dark Series fan.

Despite feeling underwhelmed by "Dark Origins," I was given a chance to improve upon the Digi-Novel with the second book of the series, "Dark Prophecy: A Level 26 Thriller Featuring Steve Dark," which will be released Oct. 14. I believe this to be the more defined iteration of the Digi-Novel format. Version 2.0 if you will. Even the cover is more commercial and engaging to the traditional book reader. To make it less confusing, an explanation of how to consume the book is right there on the inside flap.

We’ve also decided to focus more on our hero: Steve Dark. The point of view of the book really takes place through his eyes.  It is his “coming out party” so to speak. Unlike the first book where you knew who the villain was, front and center, we’ve kept the villain a mystery and let Steve Dark unravel who this new Level 26 killer is, allowing you to join him on this investigation. And although the storyline still takes the position that the world’s greatest serial killer catcher is hunting a diabolical murderer, we’ve smartened up the drama and have gone deeper with the message.  

One of the biggest changes we’ve made to the Digi-Novel are the cyber-bridges themselves. In "Dark Origins," it was as if we just lifted scenes straight from the book and filmed them. If you were on a plane, you either had to stop reading and wait to get to a computer, or keep reading, and when you went back to watch them found that seeing one after another didn’t really make sense and the information from the scene was in the book anyway. I know that it frustrated a lot of people and it also made the cyber-bridges somewhat redundant and limited.

With "Dark Prophecy," we’ve changed all that. We’ve shot a one hour-long narrative film that has then been cut up into 11 cyber-bridges. You’ll continue to be given a code and prompted to log in to watch the bridges at specific points, but the cyber-bridge film is a separate storyline about Steve Dark. You can watch them all at once, or none at all, you can read several chapters ahead and go back and watch four bridges at a time. Now it will all make sense.

This, I feel, it one of our biggest improvements to the Digi-Novel format: taking a specific moment in the book (that may only last a chapter) and expanding it into an hour long cyber-bridge film that is provocative and emotional and reveals a side of Steve Dark you never knew existed.

"Dark Prophecy" takes place five years after "Dark Origins."  Steve Dark has just completed his indentured servitude from unlawfully axing white Sqweegel to death. Now he finds himself a single dad, raising a young daughter and no career. The problem for Dark: he’s not allowed to catch killers by order of the DOD. Part of his agreement for being let out of service. But catching killers is in Steve Dark’s blood. So when a mastermind slayer starts leaving his victims in elaborately staged, occult like scenes, Steve Dark can’t help but take notice. He discovers that the scenes may connect to Tarot Cards and realizes that the killer is giving a reading to the world explaining the injustice that has caused this individual to kill.

As the bodies pile up, Steve Dark starts connecting the cards: “The Hanged Man,” “The Fool,” “The Devil,” and “Death,” to name a few. The through line of the book’s narrative is for Dark to decipher the cards, the connection, and follow the evidence that leads to whoever is behind this, all while avoiding his former employers who may consider him a suspect. In "Dark Prophecy," Steve Dark is going rogue.

About midway through the book, Steve Dark gets a Tarot Card reading in an effort to learn more about the occult world of Tarot. We’ve decided to carve out this scene for the cyber-bridges. In the cyber-bridges, Justine Bateman plays Hilda, the Tarot card reader, and Daniel Buran is back as Steve Dark. This will be a private reading about Steve Dark’s fate and a recap of the road that will lead him there.  In the end, Dark will either break down or break through and carry the courage further to catch “TCK” – the Tarot Card Killer.

So here I am, one year later, launching a new and improved Level 26 novel on the same day the “Sqweegel” episode airs on "CSI." I’ve successfully extracted the villain, Sqweegel, out of "Level 26: Dark Origins" and launched him on "CSI." The hook for the episode is “CSI meets their match. How do you catch a forensic proof killer?” Our fan base will watch the show that night, and when it’s over, the story of Sqweegel will continue in "Dark Prophecy," which launches nationwide the same day.  

I think it’s the first time an author has extracted a villain from a book and put it on a TV show only to continue the story in the book’s sequel – all by the same creator.

Lastly, my production company, Dare to Pass, is working on the "Dark Prophecy" app for the iPad.  Last year, we launched "Level 26: Dark Origins' on the iPhone and iTouch and it did very well.   Because you get to read, watch, and login all from one location, the Digi-Novel and Apple devices are a match made in heaven. The ultimate version of the Digi-Novel. Now you can read the book by swiping the pages and when it comes time to watch, you just press play.   It’s all one laid back experience.  And that’s the power of Apple.   It inspires creators to get creative and evolve the medium in subtle and powerful ways. 

The "Dark Prophecy" app is designed by Hooray Society and will have features like interactive Tarot Cards, collecting evidence while you read like a real Special Circs officer, pulsing words which give descriptions of characters, visual effects like a bullet shattering your screen, fire blazing across a page, and blood spattering on the words. It will be highly interactive and work seamlessly with level26.com so the reader can navigate the site at a touch of a button. It’s funny; it feels like we were ahead of our time with "Level 26: Dark Origins."

Now we feel like the Digi-Novel caught up to the iPad and the iPad caught up to the Digi-Novel.  

In closing, these are exciting times to be in entertainment. I am thankful for the opportunities to tell stories to our "CSI" fan base and our Dark Series readership. The Chinese say, “May you live in interesting times.” 

Truth be told, we’re already here.

Anthony E. Zuiker is the creator of the hugely successful "CSI" franchise, which now includes "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: New York."  He continues to delve into the worlds of television, gaming, publishing and cross-platform storytelling with the formation of his Dare to Pass production company.  His most recent creation is the Digi-Novel, a multi-platform media property. Published by Dutton/Penguin Group, the first Digi-Novel, "Level 26: Dark Origins," was an International and New York Times Bestseller. The sequel, “Dark Prophecy: A Level 26 Thriller featuring Steve Dark,” will be available in stores on October 14, 2010.