Frankenstein

I nearly didn’t take a look at the new interactive Frankenstein novel, despite the good press it has been getting. It was described as short chunks of text followed by branching choices that change the story, so I assumed that it was another ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

There’s nothing wrong with a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, of course. I used to love them as a kid. But their basic model has the reader making decisions for the protaganist, who essentially becomes an avatar for the reader during some form of quest, and that is a model which can be done better in videogames than in prose. It’s not the future of the novel.

What Frankenstein does is much cleverer, however. Here’s the promo vid:

Dave Morris’ retelling of Mary Shelley’s story is great. It moves the story a few decades earlier in order to use our hindsight about the French Revolution, which is ripe with the themes of horror and rebirth. The Hollywood imagery of castles and lightning are stepped over, and it is thankfully much less interested than Mary Shelley in long, long digressions about just how fantastic mountains are. Frankenstein is a story where it easy to go horribly wrong with the tone – just ask Kenneth Branagh – but there are no misteps here.  That’s not our primary interest here, though.  What’s interesting is how this is different to a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.

In a linear 1st person novel, the book’s narrator talks at the reader and the reader’s role is that of an observer or an audience. That’s also the case here, but instead of being an observer, the reader’s choices create a conversation with the narrator. The conversation is well done, flowing naturally and somehow avoiding skipping over key backstory or plot points.

So what is your role, as the reader, in this? You are not physically present, and you converse only with the narrator. You only have a minor impact on the events. What you have become, in actuality, is best described as the narrator’s conscience. Your role is to react to the narrator’s actions, and to challenge them to justify themselves. And this is why the Frankenstein app is so significant – it’s a first person prose narrative which has shifted the reader’s role from ‘observer’ to ‘conscience’.

And this new role is a hell of a perspective to experience the story of Frankenstein from. Being the conscience of Victor Frankenstein as his mind cracks under the realiastion of what he has done is quite an experience, as is being the conscience of the monster itself after the narrator changes, and you escape the laboratory and discover the streets of Paris.

True, when the book switches to using the monster as a narrator, it switches back to the 2nd person (“you can see a house”, etc) and becomes more of a traditional Choose Your Own Adventure, with your choices ‘controlling’ the monster more than arguing with it. This does make some sense in context, however, with the newly-hatched creature not initially having the mental faculties to justify itself to you.

When I started this blog, I was looking to see if the experimental melding of narrative and interactivity would produce something that was more than the sum of its parts. There’s been many examples that have been interesting or promising, but overall it was not looking good. I had originally described these emerging book apps as an ‘unwanted Frankenstein media,’ so it is a pleasing coincidence that it is the Frankenstein book app where the potential of this new form finally comes to life.

I think what they’ve done here is, in the future, going to be remembered as very significant. I’d recommend that all writers of fiction have a good look at the monster Dave Morris has created.

Frankenstein was written by Dave Morris, developed by inkle and published by Profile Books. It (currently) costs £2.99 from the App Store. (Long-term followers of this blog will note that it is another example of a book app appearing in the App Store rather than the iBooks Store, and another example of a developer hoovering up a classic, out of copyright character rather than creating something new.)

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6 comments on “Frankenstein

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful review, John. I do think that for things like this to have any significant impact they need to move from the App Store (not a natural habitat for books) to iBooks. We would have to give up some of the tactile experience in the switch to ePub3 but that’s no different from releasing a paperback edition of a lavish hardcover.

    I would like to cut loose with an original story, which would give me more freedom to get really innovative with the interactivity, but I expect to encounter a lot of pressure to do something like Dracula. Not that I intend to tackle that, by the way – I don’t think of Frankenstein as belonging to “the horror genre”, so Dracula doesn’t seem like a logical progression to me, and in any case it’s already been done very well as an enhanced book.

    • Thanks Dave. Hope you do get to do something original. My feeling is that at some point, maybe some point soon, one of these adaptive fictions is going to tip over beyond the early adopters and into the mainstream, at which point all hell will break loose in publishing – and my hunch is that it will take an original work to do that.

      BTW from my technical understanding of epub3 and HTML5 (far from complete, I confess) I’m pretty sure that an epub3 version could have been made identical, or as near as damn it. It may not be as easy – yet – but if there was to be conversions for Kindle Fire, etc it seems the way to go. Or am I missing something?

      • Certainly if we were to wind back 9 months or so, John, all the thinking at publishers was to do something like this in iOS, then do a conversion to Android, and so on. Just like the games industry in the mid-90s. Now publishers are catching on that it makes far more sense to do the thing once in ePub3 (I understand Amazon will auto-convert for Kindle platforms – we’ll see).

        Every decision has a cost, of course, and without knowing exactly which devices (and screen formats) the ePub3 version would be read on, I expect we might need to sacrifice some specific fancy UI features. It could still look very nice, though, as you say. And more importantly it would reach people who actually do want to read a book rather than play a game. Being sold alongside Angry Birds is a hiding to nothing.

        I must take all the blame for not doing an original work first time out of the gate. I did pitch several alternatives to various publishers, but knowing Profile Books’s respectable literary credentials I argued strongly for starting with a classic work to grab attention. Reviewers can ignore Dave Morris, but they can’t ignore Mary Shelley 🙂 I just hope I haven’t hung an albatross around my own neck with that decision.

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