iPad App Retells Frankenstein, And Hints At The Future Of E-Books

Can technology really help us explore classic stories in new ways?

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?

One of the app’s many amazing illustrations.

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."

Download it here.

[Hat tip: The Chimerist]

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  • johnlotz

    Having never read the book (but always planned on it) I was interested in this interactive interpretation until I found out it was a choose your own adventure type of experience. I will still probably check it out but but I don't expect I'll be able to mark  Mary Shelley's classic off of my "to read" list since. Looks interesting nonetheless. 

  • Michael Atkins

    I am so glad the previous commenters agree with me (though they've said it better than I could have.) 

    This is exactly like those choose-your-own adventure books we had as kids, except those those were for kids. They weren't meant as serious literature, and they certainly weren't desecrations of existing literature.
    In the 90s, they tried that choose-your-own format on movies, and Roger Ebert quipped "movies act on you, not the other way around." I think what he said goes for most art. 

    Can I also draw everyone's attention to the fact that the copyright for Frankenstein lapsed long ago, so it's free and legal to download (probably why they used it.) This is also true of almost all pre-20th century literature. Owning an e-reader gives you free and easy access to the sum total of human literature, current up to less than 100 years ago. The idea that that needs to be zazzed up makes me sick. 

  • Steve Giddens

    Call me old fashion but to think a book's scenes, plots, and characters need my input to be worthy of digital space seems very odd.  What you describe is what I call a game and great (or good) literature does not require an interactive component to keep a readers interest or inspire imagination. Sometimes a rose is just a rose and a book is just written words which are easily bought and presented digitally.  The implication that this might be the future of eBooks is like saying karaoke is the future of music.

  • Aaron Pevey

    A broken classic? Who in the world does this guy think he is? A book is constructed the way it is constructed for a reason. Form follows function. Shelley's book is written how it is for a reason: because she wanted it that way. I think there is a bit of respect we owe the author. On top of that, to call 'Frankenstein' broken is horribly presumptuous. He is arguing from a faulty premise. The descriptive details are not "filler" simply by virtue of them being descriptive details, which is his primary argument. Tolkien insists that if you reduce any story to its bare plot all you have is a skeleton. Plot, characters, and premise are not what make a piece of literature worth reading. This "filler" material is needed to fully realize the world, and beyond that Shelley uses the descriptions in Frankenstein, since they are told from a first person perspective, to reveal more about Frankenstein's character. What Frankenstein notices and how he notices it is brutally important. This entire project is a tragic example of designers putting function before form, and technology before design. Leave the design of a piece of art alone, and know more about your subject matter before making absurd judgement statements.