Remaking Frankenstein’s monster
Writers just can’t help making stuff up. Terry Nation claimed he got the word Dalek from the spine of an encyclopaedia, a story he stuck to for years, because the only other response to “where do you get your ideas?” is to punch the questioner in the face. Mary Shelley said that her monster bounded ready-made into a dream:
My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
I’m not saying it’s impossible, but she did write that fifteen years after the event, and when she adds her realization that “I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow,” I think we can all detect some artful revision going on. People want a simple story. The truth is that invention is rarely so clear-cut.
My own Frankenstein creation, appropriately enough for a branching narrative, came about via an untidier route with many side paths. I wrote a lot of choose-your-own-adventure type books through the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and towards the end I was chafing at the restriction that the second-person narrative imposed on my storytelling skills. As a game designer, I am willing to switch off my authorial side – in fact, I insist on it – so I was happy in the Fabled Lands books to just create a sandbox world and let players loose in it. But in more story-driven gamebooks like Heart of Ice and Down Among the Dead Men, you will be able to see me trying to enrich the narrative beyond the “which door do you pick?” level by creating a bevy of fully developed secondary characters with whom the reader (the player-character, so to speak) develops a relationship.
If there was a eureka moment, it came when I was developing a few interactive drama ideas for Flextech and Endemol in 2001. No, there wasn’t a monolith, but the Damascene flash came as one of Flextech’s producers started talking about his idea for some kind of steampunk adventure thing. “We want to encourage the viewer to play a role,” he said, going on to list choices such as Crimean war veteran and Ottoman trader. But all I was thinking at the time was, “We’ve got to get our heads out of this box. I’ve been thinking like a role-player, and most people do not want to role-play.”
Thus it was all change on my next project, an animated drama called Dilemmas in which the lead character narrated her life and occasionally turned to look out of the fourth wall to ask your advice. You could earn her trust (by showing that you understood her and knew which suggestions would work for her) and her friendship (by showing you were in tune with her). The overall plotline didn’t alter drastically, but the subtle variations were what mattered. Did Cathy get a lost gold pen back by standing up for herself or by lying? She’d walk away from that with very different feelings – about herself and about you – depending on the advice you gave.
But who are “you” in an interactive story like that? I deliberately didn’t want to define it. You’re Cathy’s imaginary friend? Her conscience? It doesn’t matter. You’re you, the viewer, the same you that Michael Caine addresses in Alfie, or John Cusack in High Fidelity. The effect is to draw you right alongside the character, with the added benefit that you don’t have to know any Crimean marching songs. You are most emphatically not a “player-character”.
I applied this model of interactivity in various other projects, including the Sims-type PC game I designed for Microsoft at Elixir Studios, and in a Law & Order Xbox game for the American Film Institute’s digital content lab in 2006:
Characters learn whether to trust the player. This occurs in the context of adventure-type gameplay, either when advising the character what to do or when interrogating a character. Advice that goes against a character’s nature or that turns out to have a bad effect will cost you trust. You might get to a point where Detective Stabler has found some evidence but he won’t show it to you. So if that happened you’d have to find a way to earn back Stabler’s trust.
Around 2009, Jamie Thomson and I started thinking about what we could do with our old gamebooks as apps. Pretty quickly, we realized that apps were a game-changer because we could pack all the nerdy stuff like hit points and inventory under the hood. A few minutes later, we realized that meant that the most interesting things we could do would be new gamebooks, where the variables weren’t hit points at all, but things like trust and compassion. We could write gamebooks that weren’t games any more but could now legitimately be called interactive literature.
(As an aside: why “interactive literature” not “interactive fiction”? Because I’m talking about books, while fiction includes TV, movies, comics, plays.)
Okay, so all that remained was to get a publisher interested. Read that last sentence as dripping with irony – I had about two years’ worth of publisher meetings with Spark Furnace’s long-suffering but indefatigable agent, Piers Blofeld. We pitched the idea of ghostwriting digital books for brand name authors, of interactive nonfiction, and original interactive novels to be released in serial form. Finally, in July 2011, I met with Michael Bhaskar at Profile Books and unveiled my plan for rewriting classic novels in interactive form:
There are two ways we could handle the interactivity. The traditional gamebook style is second person: “Tongues of flame dart round the bed: the curtains are on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lies stretched motionless, in deep sleep. Do you try to wake him ●, call for help ●, or attempt to extinguish the flames ●?” Alternatively there’s a first person approach, which I favour, in which the narrator asks the reader for advice. This lends itself especially to epistolary novels: “‘Can it be that the count sleeps when others wake, that he may be awake while they sleep? If I could only get into his room! But there is no possible way. The door is always locked. Unless – Mina, dare I attempt to climb the castle wall, as I have seen him do, and enter by his window?’ Yes ● or no ● ?”
I presented Profile with a shortlist of suitable novels. If anything I was probably least keen to do Frankenstein, because of Spark Furnace’s own Frankenstein’s Legions project – a very different, science fictional take on the source material, by author John Whitbourn, but we were a touch concerned about possible confusion.
Luckily, Profile picked Frankenstein anyway, and it is unquestionably ideal for this treatment. There are even moments in Shelley’s original when Victor Frankenstein speaks directly out of the page: “I cannot tell you how my process works,” or, “If I die, swear that you will kill the fiend.” He’s talking to Captain Walton, of course, but Walton is our surrogate. There couldn’t be a better fit for what I wanted to do in building a relationship between reader and character. You get to influence Victor Frankenstein, not merely in building up trust between the two of you, but in encouraging his obsession or, alternatively, in helping him to reconnect with his friends and family. You are not merely his confidant; you have the ability, if you choose, to be his mentor.
At first we thought that Spark Furnace would have to hire the coders too, but by luck Michael met up with an app development company called Inkle. They had written a markup language which means that authors can write an entire gamebook as a text file, including all the variables and conditional links, and that can just be poured into the engine and immediately you have a working app. This was particularly useful to me, as I’ve done so many gamebooks that I mostly keep the flowchart in my head and just write everything straight down on the page. (Warning: if you’re thinking of writing an interactive book, don’t try this at home.)
While I was writing, Inkle laid it all out beautifully and added dozens of 18th and 19th century images to create the kind of luxurious coffee-table look that readers expect of book apps. The only picture that is actually illustrative is the one of a solitary figure in a bare wood, used as the “book cover”, which was designed by Profile’s art director. I specifically didn’t want any pictures that depicted scenes from the story because – well, are we children? A good novel is already 100% immersive, and even if it’s Phiz or Paget or Shepard, I’d just as soon see the scene the way my imagination renders it, thanks. That’s why Inkle’s decorative images and textures are so perfect; they subtly enhance the mood without pointing an intrusive finger at specific details.
Returning to the medium in which I started out, after a long detour through videogames, television, comic books and novels, was a little daunting. Would I emerge as the triumphant master of my (much more than) 10,000 hours, like Odysseus dispatching the upstart suitors, or would I just reveal that I couldnae hack it anymore? With some relief I can announce that Penelope’s honour is safe: Frankenstein reached the Top 10 in App Store books on both sides of the Atlantic and has garnered some glowing reviews:
- Laura Miller on Salon.com
- Helen Bagnall on The Literary Platform
- John Higgs on Books Versus Apps
- Gabrielle Malcolm on Popmatters
- Dalya Alberge in The Independent
- Chris Welch on The Verge
- Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling
- The Gothic Imagination
- Guys Can Read