I have a company with Jamie Thomson called Spark Furnace that specializes in the overlap between stories and games. Jamie and I between us have got forty years’ experience in books, videogames, TV and movies, so whenever possible we like to pick projects that can draw on all of those. We’ve been talking to publishers about interactive stories for quite a while, and Michael Bhaskar at Profile Books is one of the few who really gets it.
So the next question is how do we de-ghettoize it – because we’re acutely aware that a lot of people just tend to dismiss SF and fantasy and games as not worth their time. We wanted to make the literary snobs sit up and take notice, so how better to do that than by punking up a beloved classic? That’s meant ironically, by the way, as I am one of those literary snobs!
Having agreed that was the approach we wanted to take, we made a list of about two dozen books we felt could really get a new lease of life from the interactive treatment, and it turned out that Frankenstein was everybody’s first choice. Then what looped the loop for us was that Michael knew the guys at inkle, who have a markup language that lets us write the kind of gamebook we used to do in the ‘90s and their engine turns it into an iOS app. So it’s a perfect storm of technology, content, marketing and publishing.
How will your Frankenstein differ to reading or viewing other films and books of Frankenstein and also how will it differ to tradition video games? Would you call it an e-book as such?
It is a book, but it’s certainly not just another ebook. How is it different? Well, comparing it with games first of all: in a game, typically your interaction is mostly with the environment and your goal is to solve problems. That’s a huge over-simplification, but bear with me. In Frankenstein, you’re interacting with the character on a very personal level and your goal is to forge a relationship with him. You do get to influence how things turn out – by making suggestions to Victor Frankenstein, for instance – but you’ve got to gain his trust, and in any case he’s a free agent. He won’t always do what you say.
Looking at the novel, the thing there is that the original book can be pretty off-putting. It’s a great concept but it’s difficult to wade through Mary Shelley’s prose and all those long agonized Goth-boy monologues as Victor tells you how hard done by he is. And for modern readers that tends to leave you on the outside looking in. You don’t connect, which is why a lot of people only know the story from movies. The novel is hard going.
The new version is very much more personal, emotional, and immediate. Instead of the long, telling monologue in Mary Shelley’s original novel, my goal has been to set up a dialogue with the main character. You get to know Victor Frankenstein a lot more. You can really engage with him and find out why he’s doing what he does. And you should come away feeling like you’ve experienced the story immersively, right there along with Victor.
Why did you choose Frankenstein for your story?
Mainly because Frankenstein is one of those novels that everybody thinks they know but that few people have actually read. It’s such an amazing idea, and a gripping story, and it still has power today, but we need modern retellings to help us find a way in. How do you feel about Frankenstein? Probably that it’s kind of dated and that its claim to fame is that it inspired stories like Blade Runner, Terminator, Robocop – and Archetype, to take a very recent example. Yet it is the original and genuine, it’s just that we’ve lost touch with it because of the stodgy old-fashioned prose. And by the way, I am not intending that as a blanket criticism of 19th century literature, which I love. But Mary Shelley is no Jane Austen or Emily Brontë. And if, because of that, people aren’t reading Frankenstein, that’s a shame and I want to fix it.
I believe that by recasting it in an interactive format, which allows each reader to find a route through the story at their own pace and to focus on the things that interest them, that it can come to life again and reach a wider audience than would ever dream of picking up the original book. The fact is that Frankenstein is an amazing, mind-blowing story with a really rich subtext of duality, repression and hidden desires. If you’d never heard of it and it came out as a movie tomorrow, everybody would be talking about it. It would be the media event of the year. That’s what I’m aiming to recapture with my version: the excitement and even the shock that audiences felt when it first appeared.
Are you reinventing Mary Shelley’s original story for the present day or indeed for your specific audience?
I’m not sure that we know yet who the audience is. Certainly I didn’t write it only for gamers and science fiction fans. It shouldn’t be a tribal thing. This is a really timeless novel and it ought to be accessible to anybody who enjoys a great story.
Having said that, I did take the whole structure apart and completely refit it. For example, the events of the novel take place in the mid-1790s, and at that time you’ve got the French Revolution – a nice parallel of how a cocktail of repressed passions, radical concepts and social exclusion can give rise to a monster. That was too good to pass up, so instead of gadding off to university in Germany, Victor is gathering the material for his work in Paris right at the height of the Terror. For a start, it gives him a lot of severed heads to choose from.
It’s not just the guillotine bits, though. All the way through, this new version is bloodier and more explicit than the original. Modern readers are generally more switched on to science fiction tropes, even in mainstream entertainment, so I can go a little further with the stuff that the novel glosses over. The characters are more fleshed out now, and their relationships and motivations are murkier. There’s less abstract telling than in Shelley’s version, it’s more cinematic and visual. And more intimate.
Character drives action, action develops character. Henry James advised authors of this over a century ago, but in the literature of ideas the lesson has often been forgotten. Why not have both great ideas to astound the mind and compelling stories to move the heart? Think new versus old Doctor Who, or J J Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek – that’s how SF is stepping up to the plate now. Today’s audiences want to see how the characters are changed by what happens to them. This has led to a more visceral kind of storytelling than used to be delivered in old-style science fiction, where the underlying ideas could be fascinating, but often in a cerebral way that it was hard to get excited by.
So, if you think you already know the Frankenstein story, take a look at this new version. I guarantee you’ve never seen it like this before.