The concept of an "e-book" is a strange one. Just consider the idea of pages on a screen—is that metaphor really the best way for us to explore written content? And do e-books still need to books at all? Without the limitations of paper, typewriters and letter presses, what can a "book" be?
In the App Store, you’ll find a lot of experiments incorporating sound, video, and interactive elements into e-books. But one of the most fascinating projects I’ve seen yet has to be Frankenstein ($5) by Inkle. It’s a retelling of Mary Shelley’s famed text for the iPad.
"When we use computers, it’s like having a conversation. We do something, they do something back; we give them direction, input, and get something in return. E-readers feel very static in comparison. We thought, when people have paid a few hundred quid for their e-reader, they deserve to get to do something with it, Inkle’s Jon Ingold tells Co.Design. "So we started off prototyping various kinds of interaction—some very simple, some almost point-and-click, and some totally outlandish ideas. What we settled on—fragments of story, joined together by frequent, simple choices—is actually quite a straightforward idea."
So Inkle built a book interface to give the reader a constant feeling of control. Rather than simply turn a page, you make a choice. As Frankenstein’s monster is sewn together, you don’t just read description, you select phrases (that pop up as torn pages) to ask about the translucence of his skin, call him an abomination, or inquire if he’ll have a conscience.
These story threads were the work of writer and game designer Dave Morris, who started with Mary Shelley’s text and essentially renovated it for the iPad experience, gutting, rebuilding and, sure, taking a lot of artistic license in the process.
"It helps that Frankenstein is a little bit of a broken classic," Morris writes. "Mary Shelley wrote a cracking novella-length version in the famous ghost story party, then to publish it as a novel she had to pad that out to book length—and she did it mainly by adding chunks of guide book description: ‘As you ascend the mountain, you’ll see a charming little village …’ I felt no compunction about tearing all that out, reverting just to the core of the story—which is brilliant—and doing a full rebuild from there."
Morris estimates that his resulting app-text is 80% new material, stuffed with extra malleable narrative that reads somewhere between a traditional book and a Choose Your Own Adventure. Honestly, it feels a lot like Ingold’s view of computing—having a conversation.
"The different narratives you get won’t vary drastically in plot terms—you can’t take the creature to the tropics rather than the Arctic, say. But there are very different experiences along the way," Morris writes. "You influence the creature’s degree of alienation, meaning that in some cases he really is responsible for the murders he’s accused of, but in other versions, where you’ve brought out his humanity, he might be innocent. Your choices also affect Victor Frankenstein’s trust in you, so he could refuse to tell you things or to do what you suggest."
For better or worse, it’s a fascinating approach to a famous text that raises some huge philosophical questions: Should we redesign classic pieces of art to be explored differently in the digital era? At what point does Frankenstein cease to be Frankenstein? And is it worth changing elements if the core theme can be explored by a whole new generation?
Personally, I’d be interested to see if the Inkle-Morris approach could be toned down in terms of rewrites, and instead use a third-party narrator (like an interactive professor) to drive the interactive elements. Their version of Frankenstein really is smoothly presented, fun to click, and easy to digest. There’s a lot to the model that makes sense; I’d just always choose the more authentic experience over a rewritten one. But for those of you who see Morris’s artistic liberties as deplorable, well, even he has lines he wouldn’t cross:
"I wouldn’t have found it as easy to tackle a genuine, fully polished classic like Wuthering Heights. That would be like smashing and re-gluing a Ming vase."
[Hat tip: The Chimerist]