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Tuesday 24 September 2013

That's my monster

Nice to see my digital retelling of Frankenstein getting some love at the Publish! conference today. I started designing Frankenstein over two years ago and it's still getting cited as an innovation in interactive storytelling. Jon Ingold of Inkle Studios (whose technology powered the app) pointed out that a single read-through of Frankenstein is upwards of 80,000 words and that the work "draws out the themes of Shelley’s work in new and unusual ways. Just as Doctor Frankenstein tries to understand his monster empathetically, so we as readers attempt to understand Victor for ourselves."

It's quite a happy accident that Frankenstein fits so well with the philiosophy behind Inkle's own projects, as they had no input into the design or writing. But it is the interesting way forward for interactive stories right now, as games like The Walking Dead are proving. As Jon Ingold explains in a thought-provoking piece on The Literary Platform this week:
"Our stories tend not be about choosing what happens. Instead, the idea is to place readers in a conversation with the narrative."
Not literally as a conversation, of course. Though in the case of Frankenstein that is exactly what I did (most of the book consists of Victor Frankenstein's conversation with you, the reader) Jon is referring to the more general concept of interacting with the narrative to create a kind of back-and-forth. Doing something that causes other characters to distrust you, for example, alters the story in a profound, reactive way that picking the left-hand door doesn't.

This "conversation with the narrative" is a design ethic we may see creeping into Steve Jackson's Sorcery series, the second of which is due for release shortly. Meanwhile, Frankenstein is still available for iOS and Android. Here's a little bit from Victor's pursuit of his creature into the frozen north:
The stuffy, noxious air of the cabin affects me badly after the dry chill outside. My head sinks onto my arms and waves of feverish weakness shake my body. I have pushed myself beyond endurance these last weeks – but I cannot falter now, not when I am so close to my quarry.

The old woman shakes me and leads the way to a box room with a cot where I can lie down. Young goats peer in through beams that separate this from the next room. A thin icy draft makes its way in under the rafters, reviving me slightly. Thanking the old woman, I pull the furs around me and wait for sleep to come.

How hateful life has become to me. To endure each day I have to force the bitter memories away, and build a wall that stops me thinking of those I have lost. It’s only in sleep that I can recall what it is to be happy. Oh, why can’t I banish this turmoil of thoughts? Let me sink into sleep. Where are the dreams I need that will give me a respite from the darkness?

I can hear my father’s voice. William is with him, and – yes – there are Elizabeth’s silver tones. Henri too. All of my friends, gather me to your arms, give me strength for what is to come.

They emerge out of a fog. The fog of reality is lifting as dreams come roiling up, and the light that hangs around them is dazzling. I am familiar with that light. It is the celestial exhalation of the spirits that guide me.

But why is Elizabeth’s face so contorted with anguish? Come closer, dear cousin. Speak to me.

‘Destroy the monster, Victor. You must sunder him in pieces. Burn him. Cut out his eyes, torture him, make him pay for the suffering he inflicted on us.’

‘Pour acid in his veins,’ says my father.

‘Let his screams echo across the plain,’ says Henri. ‘Smash in his skull. Let him feel what it is to have life brutally taken away.’

‘Give him a slow death,’ says little William. ‘Let him crawl in agony all the way to the gates of hell.’

And all of them, as they urge me thus, are smiling like cherubs before the throne of God.


  1. A conversation with the narrative. This sort of ethic would make Frankenstein perfect for analysing the text for English A level, especially since the core events don't change (so that you won't leave the reader with the wrong idea of the story). This sort of interacting with the narrative could also branch out into history or geography, where you live the life of someone at the time/place/event specified, get to talk to key people and understand the reasons behind their thinking. Was Truman right to drop the H-bombs on Japan? Be one of his top advisors and talk to the people there about what they were thinking. Should all of the UK's power have stations be decomissioned? Talk to the people who have an opinion. Why did Hamlet not kill Claudius when he had the chance? Did he flake at the last minute or did he think that the word of an apparition was too flimsy a reason to kill someone? Or did he actually not want to kill him while he was praying? I'm excited to see how far this style of interactive fiction can go.

    1. Me too, Stuart. Games have enormous potential for hands-on learning. For example, by actually playing a wargame of the Cuban revolution I understood the tactics employed by Castro much better than I could have gleaned from a history book. In an interactive simulation you actually get to alter the variables & see what effect that has - on politics, or history, or literature, or whatever.

      The idea is, in effect, to apply principles of roleplaying and interactivity to learning as they have been to entertainment. Thought experiments in gamebook form. Jamie and I long ago considered doing something like that with a history book where you would get to create characters in somewhere like the Roman empire to see the different life-choices that social class & nationality affected.

      I ought to add that education was the last thing on my mind when I was writing Frankenstein, though. It can indeed be used as a kind of study guide to the original text, but all I was aiming to do was to tell a good story!

  2. Hi Dave,

    will all Critical IF Gamebooks be available as kindle editions or maybe also for ibooks on ios?


    1. Hi AJ, we are aiming for as many platforms as possible. So there will be Kindle versions of all four, an iBooks edition (hopefully - I sweated blood for months working on those!) and even iOS and Android apps. You'll have to wait a couple of months for the apps, but the ebooks should be ready in time for the official launch date in October.

    2. Great! :-) Any chance to see Golden Dragon iBook-Versions, too?
      And what about the two remaining "Virtual Reality"-books?
      Any release date planned for them?
      i own all your old original versions and remember Coils of Hate was quite buggy...

    3. I am thinking about doing Kindle versions of the Golden Dragon books when I get time. I might just do one as an experiment to begin with - they won't work as well as the Critical IF books in that format because of all the dice-rolling you have to do.

      I'm sorry to say we won't be doing iBooks editions of the GD books for various reasons, the most telling of which is that the tools were a nightmare to use and gave me RSI! And we can't put artwork into the iBooks versions, so I think iOS/Android apps make more sense. We do intend to do those, by early next year I hope.

    4. Wrt Coils of Hate and Green Blood - ahem, see above under "nightmare". Those books caused at least one editor to exile himself across the water. When I've regenerated enough hit points, I'll dive in and try fixing them myself. Maybe. One day. Not till I've reissued Blood Sword, though.