Gamebook Adventures: Ryan North's To Be Or Not To Be
To Be or Not to Be (Gamebook)
This is an important title, setting records on Kickstarter and bringing attention to print-based interactive fiction. Much of this success is well-deserved, but I have mixed feelings about both the underlying gamebook here, and the app implementation of it.
First, the story itself: the idea of an interactive Hamlet is fairly irresistible, and the author's irreverent, consciously anachronistic style makes for amusing and painless reading, at least at first. There are some very funny moments, and some surprising and enjoyable endings. The book-within-a-book, reminiscent of Hyperspace, was just one of many nice touches. In spite of its many positive points, I did also find myself growing impatient with the book's tone after a while -- while treating the play's characters through a totally contemporary lens is often funny and sometimes thought-provoking, it is also the book's most overused joke, and eventually becomes somewhat grating. It probably doesn't help that I read the author's The Midas Flesh comic not so long ago, which also made use of some of the same devices on different source material.
Next, the app: it looks great, and I appreciated the fact that it delivers the text in very small chunks -- this helped me focus in spite of the fact that reading on a phone generally encourages me to skim rather than give the attention I would normally afford to a print book. The art gallery and achievement system help you figure out how much of the book you have actually explored and reward replays. However, I would have appreciated more tools for assisting with that exploration. The "checkpoint" system only lets you access a relatively limited number of positions in the text, and since you are not shown the section numbers of the text you are reading, it is difficult to map the text yourself to find every node. I lost interest in finding every ending long before I had gotten close to reaching that goal, but I think with a slightly better support system in the app, I would have enjoyed the process more and kept reading longer.
The bottom line: Ryan North certainly did gamebooks a favor by creating this hugely successful and genuinely entertaining title. The app version is a great way of getting bite-sized servings of amusing interactive fiction, perfect for when you don't want to commit to a "real" gamebook. Still, while it was all good, it also left me wishing that it was just a little bit better. I'll certainly check out the second title in the series sooner or later to see if it is a step in the right direction!
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