Interactive fiction in the Guardian

Hey all -

Thought people might be interested to see the first review of inkle’s Frankenstein which was printed in The Observer (national broadsheet in the UK) and is now up on the Guardian’s website. … app-review

It’s not a positive review - somewhat dismissive of “game designers rewriting novels”, and then gets into a short discussion of the problems of “not being able to change the story” and having to make choices the player doesn’t want to make.

These are all issues we’ve seen discussed a thousand times here and on…, but this might be the first time they’ve appeared in a broadsheet - or well, the first time they’ve appeared in the /Books/ section rather than the games section. So people here might be interested in taking a look, even if it’s a cursory one.

At inkle, we’ve got real backing from a publisher and there’s a lot of will to make Frankenstein not a one-off, but the start of a series of modern interactive fiction works. I think that’s a pretty exciting prospect, and I’d hate to see it go south because of a dismissive attitude on the part of reviewers! So if you think this stuff matters, and you’d like to see a publisher getting interested in making IF, you might want to have a read too.

All the best

(Final note, for those who would like to say it’s not IF because it’s got a choice-based structure. Okay. But I promise, there is an world-model there too, and inkle will be releasing some games this year that make more obvious use of that, including one pretty-faithful “reprint” of an existing IF piece. So go easy on me, only I’d like to not call it CYOA if that’s okay, because the way we do it, C is more like “Propose”, and A is more like “Tale”, and YO is more like “a Realistic Alternative”, and the acronym for that isn’t great.)

This cavalier ignorance of accepted styles reveals deep-rooted design failures at the very heart of inkle. Everybody knows that it is an absolute requirement for a CYOA series title to rely either on alliteration (Fighting Fantasy, Date With Destiny, Find Your Fate, Which Way, Pick Any Path) or some variant of ‘Choose’ (Choice of Games, Choose Your Boyfriend, Choose Your Destiny, Chooseomatic). You can get partial credit for something with ‘Quest’ in it, or something with a lot of hyphens like A What-Do-I-Do-Now Book, but there are limits which you ignore at your peril.

That’s interesting. I suppose it would be too much to hope for a professional critic to be open-minded enough not to belittle an artform that is still basically indie. But maybe that’s wrongly stereotyping professional critics; I don’t know.

At any rate, the publicity is good, even if it is negative. I have often been interested in works from reading strongly negative reviews. Sometimes I disagree with the reviewer’s standards. More often, I simply find the qualities that the reviewer doesn’t like to be intriguing, even if they may have not worked perfectly in the execution. I think there’s a great potential for readers to be curious about the interactivity from reading that review.

What exactly is inkle? I looked at the website; it’s apparently not another Textfyre-like company, is it?

It’s hard to really know what to make of the review without having read the ebook in question, and as it’s not available for my Kindle at present, I probably won’t be reading it any time soon.

Saying that, negative as the review is, it’s nice to see a gamebook being mentioned in the hallowed pages of the Guardian.

PS - can Inkle (whatever it is exactly) be converted to Kindle?

The decision to keep multiple narrators but use the second person for all is interesting. Was it the right choice? I can’t remember the name of the game, but I played a great interactive horror story like that ages back where you play all the members of a household (including the dog!) being picked off one by one by some (mostly) unseen monster, and I’m pretty sure that was in the second person. The second person worked here, despite there being so many different protagonists, because each one was well characterised so you always had a clear idea of the kinds of things that that person would try doing.

I’d like to play Frankenstein and measure it up to the review, but I have zero interest in buying any form of Apple hardware. Any chance the game will ever be released in a more broadly accessible form? (I guess I could wait until someone emulates the iOS…)

I’ve got a soft-spot for Mary Shelley’s ridiculously over-wrought prose. Weirdly enough, one of my pipe-dream projects is an adaptation of her lesser-read novel, The Last Man- setting it in a more realistic version of the 2080s, but using substantial portions of the main text. The more I think about it, the more I think it’d make a great TV mini-series, if it weren’t the 300+ pages of character development before the plot actually kicks in.

We’d love to do a HTML-5 version, which would be not quite as pretty, but close, and would be accessible on Android devices and newer Kindles. Old Kindles are pretty unlikely.

But we won’t be able to do unless lots of Apple-happy types buy the thing, of course…


What if I told you that inkle stands for “Interactive Nonlinearly Knotted Literary Experience?” Would that help?

I may be willing to accept Choose A Nonlinearly Knotted Literary Experience.

I’m waiting for somebody to come out with Choose a Role And Play.

Robert Rothman

“A bigger problem is how you can’t change the outcome of the story. You can control the trivial (“open the letter, or have a rest first?”) but not things that really matter.”

spot on! Like so many well-loved IF classics in their own.

Here’s the problem with “interactivity” vs “narrative”: it only works the first time, like a joke. In any game genre. The first time around, you are there, you feel there and you feel like your actions do shape the outcome. Second time around, you just realize you’ve been fooled into a script.

It obviously won’t work with well-known stories. Which is why Emily Short didn’t try to recreate the fairy tales with added interactivity, but to speculate kind of sequels. That works. It’s a sad thing that the best works in IF will remain shadowed in this community while professionals like that critic are subjected to fart apps like that.*

But it could be worse, even with no interactivity at all: … NETTXT3487

  • I actually first read the review, then put my thoughts on paper (actually an editor buffer), then read your paragraph that seems to imply you are associated with inkle, whatever that is. I’m sorry to compare it to a fart app for you’re surely one of my favorite IF authors and there must be some redeeming quality that the critic couldn’t get to grips with. Perhaps he’s simply not used to IF at all, though I still have to agree with him in that taking a well-known story and simply adding interactivity doesn’t work.

I’m afraid the main thing I took from the review was that the reviewer doesn’t really know much about the potential of interaction or the different ways it can be put to work in a story.

Given that the reviewer made a basic and simple mistake of fact which turned out to be rather important, I’d guess (s)he spent, oh, about 10 minutes with the app. Don’t be too hard on yourself; at least they gave you some free publicity.

We actually have a pretty good idea how long they spent, thanks to analytics and some deduction. To post the exact figure might be unprofessional, however :wink:


Well, inkle is my company, so I’m certainly associated with it… and I really don’t think it’s a fart app. And I don’t think it’s obvious at all that a known story doesn’t work, though I certainly understand your reservations. Your comment that a game works once, like a joke, is well-observed; for Frankenstein, I’d only say - we all know how the story starts, and we all have a fairly good idea where it goes, but do you know how it gets there? And that’s where the joke lies, so to speak.

Much like, y’know, going to see a play of Frankenstein or something. Or going to see another production of Macbeth. It’s not about where it’ll end up; it’s about how it takes you there. Right?



I know this is useless like an additional finger in your left hand but… I’m quite sure we, as a community, will find your work as usual awesome. We may not count much, but we can do our best to be at least supportive.

Maybe that’s not so useless after all. I seem to recall having read somewhere that an extra finger was a fairly common trait among the members of one of the royal houses of Europe. And, as Mel Brooks tells us, “It’s good to be the king!”

Robert Rothman

Actually, the original statement I’d like to express mentioned other parts of the human body which would ruin the overall experience of this forums, but I guess it’s royal even having two of those parts…

I guess that would make it really good to be the king!

Robert Rothman

And that the reviewer doesn’t understand the literary merits of Shelley’s sometimes awkward but nevertheless very rewarding novel.

The Guardian should be embarrassed to have published that piece, which clearly belongs under the category “kneejerk reaction” rather “review”.

However, inkle’s Frankenstein is something of an odd beast that will probably find itself facing similar reactions from different quarters–anywhere where folks suffering from hardening of the categories reside. As inkle and the author are at pains to point out, inklestein is not a game, and though it uses a CYOA-style interface, it does not react to the user as CYOA generally does. The basic plot points are fixed–events that are fated to happen are quite simply going to happen. However, exactly how they happen is subject to influence from the reader–the attitudes and emotions that surround the events, the actors who perform them, etc. I’m not sure to what extent inkle has control over the marketing (Profile Books is the publisher), but I think that properly preparing readers for the experience will be important to both formal and informal reviews…

Also, Victor is right, I think–most people don’t actually know the story of Frankenstein. They know the character, in most cases via the 1930s film imagery, but not the story itself, or the range of themes that Shelley was exploring.