Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
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?
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?