Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Book apps: The next dimension

An article in Publishers Weekly caught my eye this week. It’s about an upcoming enhanced ebook based on the classic, Frankenstein—but don’t expect this to be merely a Waste Land-esque enhaced ebook experience. Instead of providing depth to the original work through audiovisual recordings, footnotes, and analysis, this is more of a…video game?

screenshot of the Frankenstein app

Screenshot of the Frankenstein app. (Image source: Publishers Weekly)

At least, that’s the closest analogy I can come to. It’s Frankenstein retold, with a little bit of “choose-your-own adventure” thrown in. It reminds me of watching my brothers play The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. There was a pretty cool story unfolding there, and although I thought watching the gameplay was boring, it was kind of awesome to feel like my brother had a role in the saga.

Frankenstein looks kind of like that, only skipping all the gameplay. I have to admit I’m intrigued.

The interesting thing about the app is that while it has some elements of choose-your-own adventure (those perennial fifth-grade reading favorites), the architects are quick to state that this is a more…literary spin on the gimmick. Jon Ingold, co-founder of inkle, the digital media design company which teamed up with Profile Books to create the app, said in the interview with Publishers Weekly:

“One of the things for us in developing the platform for the app was to get away from the idea of ‘making choice = changing the story.’ …While we can do that—and we certainly do—the idea that the only benefit of making choices is to affect ‘what happens next’ is a bit of a strange one. There’s a joy in being told a tale and we don’t want to throw that away in the name of ‘innovation.’ If everyone wanted control of the plot there’d be no readers and no surprises.”

Indeed, the reader of this ebook is described as “the voice in Frankenstein’s ear,” and “how [Frankenstein] behaves and what he reveals to players depends on the variable trust they cultivate.”

The designers of the experience have obviously labored to bring book interactivity out of the library’s shunned shelves, but some folks are still a little antsy about choose-your-own adventure moving into the spotlight.

After all, it’s kind of…trashy. Right? Kind of gimmicky? Kind of overthrowing the point that an author is in control of his or her linear narrative?

Yes, to an extent all of those things are problems to wrestle with. And I will admit, I haven’t actually seen the Frankenstein app—and maybe it is as tacky as my worst nightmares. But so far, the graphics look beautiful. The interactivity sounds intriguing. And a little, excited part of me wants to think that literature isn’t going to the dogs, but expanding to take advantage of a world where the nonlinear is possible. It’s moving in a different direction than The Waste Land app, which showed us the possibilities of enhanced exegesis. Instead, it’s showing us the possibilities of enhanced creativity, and it’s showing us how classic stories can still be relevant today. (iDrakula, anyone?)

For publishing, this is terrifying. We’ve built an industry around creating linear print products, and this new, 360-degree perspective on the world is overwhelming. To use another video game reference: it’s like when two-dimensional gameplay, a la the original Nintendo, graduated to three-dimensional space in Nintendo 64. That was the point where I stopped playing video games. It was too overwhelming.

As publishers, though, we can’t just stop playing. I’m not saying that linear, physical books are going the way of Atari. But I think we do need to open our eyes and realize that page-by-page linear authors are not the only creative folks we should be courting. As technology advances, and as e-reading becomes more prevalent, we should be embracing opportunities to expand our technological capacity as well as our understanding of what makes “literature.”

In the end, it really comes down to one question: are you ready for the next dimension?

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

4 comments on “Book apps: The next dimension

  1. Claire Schulz
    May 2, 2012

    Interesting take, Leah! I also read about the Shelley app and would be curious to try it out. Only one thing, though–clearly you weren’t the one holding the controller if you think Twilight Princess is boring. 😉

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  3. Jenka Eusebio
    May 3, 2012

    Great article!! The Shelley app sounds fascinating, and the quality very promising. Also, something about the interactive portion of the experience catches my attention. I’ll quote directly:

    “Players are “the voice in Frankenstein’s ear,” Ingold said, and how he behaves and what he reveals to players depends on the variable trust they cultivate.”

    Living in Japan has allowed me to see the stranger, more obscure corners of digital culture. Corners which I usually dare not tread. So when I read this, I immediately thought about the algorithm used in Japanese dating simulation games (Wiki definition below). Frankly, I think applying it to Frankenstein puts that algorithm to much (much, much, much) better use, but perhaps that’s just the lit geek in me speaking. I read Frankenstein three times and will probably read it a fourth, enhanced time out of curiosity.

    Wikipedia (with minor edits by me):
    “Dating sims (or dating simulations) are a video game subgenre of simulation games, usually Japanese, with romantic elements…The technical definition of a dating simulation game, known as a romantic simulation game in Japan, can involve several technical elements such as a time limit, several statistics such as “looks” and “charm” which can be boosted through exercise, or an “attraction meter” which can increase or decrease depending on one’s decisions.”

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This entry was posted on May 2, 2012 by in Culture, Opinion, Technology and tagged , , , , , .

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