Wednesday, 16 May 2012

How I made my monster - Part 3

I presented Profile Books with a shortlist of classic novels that would be suitable for an interactive makeover. Far from favouring Frankenstein, if anything it was probably the one I was most reluctant to take on because of my company Spark Furnace’s own Frankenstein’s Legions project. That's a very different take on the source material (science fictional and picaresque rather than literary and tragic) by author John Whitbourn, but even so I was a touch concerned about possible confusion.

Luckily, Profile picked Frankenstein anyway, and it is unquestionably the ideal work 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 I 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 merely 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. Et voilĂ :


  1. So can "Frankenstein" officially be called a success?

    If so, congratulations.

  2. Thank you, Hamza. It's a success d'estime, at least. Now we need to get it onto a few more platforms so not only iOS users can read it.

  3. Btw this is a good place to say that Inkle do actually prefer their company name to be written with a lower-case i, that is: "inkle". The only reason I don't do that is that it's not the style of this blog. Here, the poet's name is E. E. Cummings :-) But if you are mentioning it to anyone else and don't have a house style-sheet to honour, please use the logoized version.

  4. Hi Dave!

    "What a wonderous age in which we live..."-Jack Aubrey

    So, I actually have discovered your blog via a rather circuitous path. I am an avid Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay gamer and for some time have wanted to create material incorporating some of what TSR did with Oriental Adventures but give it much more of that gritty, dark warhammer feel. This led me to someone on the site called Strike to Stun suggesting your work Tetsubo. I downloaded it yesterday and have really thoroughly enjoyed your efforts at compiling all of that incredible legend and lore.

    I am curious as to how interested you are on filling in the "cracks" of that document? I would really like to show you some of the scenarios I've been working on and now would like to incorporate much of the Tetsubo material.

    I had to laugh when I saw the planned included scenario would be based on the 47 Ronin. Are you aware there's a big hollywood release planned for 2013 with a movie about that very tale. Although I'm horrified to say that the main protagonist is none other than our fine thespian here in the states Keanu Reeves. Yikes.

    Sorry if this is a bit of ramble but two more quick comments. I am really excited to look into your Frankenstein interactive book. My wife works in a small book shop that is always looking for new ways to keep up with great monolith that is Amazon and there have been many discussions about iPad like sampling opportunities within their shop.

    Finally, I really like the direction interactive literature is heading. With comics and video games as well. Have you played Amnesia: Descent into the Dark (great indy game, like walking through a Lovecraft novel) or Dear Esther (also amazing narrative experience game).

    Thanks for your time!

    Congrats on the critics reaction to Frankenstein.

  5. In the words of Roy Batty, we're so happy you found us... however roundabout the route.

    Tetsubo is another of those projects that will have to join the queue. Jamie and I loved working on it, but I have a follow-up to Frankenstein to write as well as another two and a half seasons of Mirabilis... Oh, for a clone.

    Actually, a few years after Tetsubo I ran a campaign set in Japan's Heian period using Paul Mason's Water Margin rules. There, of course, are no samurai and none of those chaps in black pyjamas either. So if I were to revisit Japanese roleplaying now, I'd probably start afresh with that. Still, I'm glad to hear that the work we did on Tetsubo is getting some use. It was heartbreaking to have GW throw it in a drawer like that.

    I did hear something about the Keanu Reeves movie (gasp) but will try to focus on memories of the Mizoguchi version :-)

    Thanks for the adventure game tips. I planned to try Dear Esther but hadn't heard of Amnesia. I'll be sure to check it out. And please do let me know what you think of Frankenstein.