To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure

Review by James Pope

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Production credits: Breadpig
Launch date: August 13th 2013

To  be or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure  by Ryan North

Paperback version available from Amazon £16.73

 This is a cool, funny, choose-your-own adventure version of Hamlet, that includes, as the author himself notes, ‘over 100 ways to die’! If you don’t like the idea of Hamlet made into prose, set in a semi-now Denmark/USA, and full of humour and American slang, you probably aren’t going to enjoy To Be Or Not To Be – but if you don’t mind having a bit of fun with a classic text, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

My review copies came to me in versions for PC (a clickable PDF) or for iPad or Kindle, and there’s a paperback soon to come – this versatility is important actually, because for interactive new-media stories to gain audiences, they must be easy to access. A big problem with earlier interactive narratives, going all the way back to Michael Joyce’s art-changing afternoon, a story, is that they were often awkward to use, and/or the media became obsolete. Ryan North has made sure that his work is easy to acquire and easy to use. I read the iBooks version on my iPad mini, which was totally rad, as North’s narrator would possibly say.

This an old-fashioned hypertext at heart, in that you read pages of text, and textual choice points are marked by underlined sentences. There are some graphics, and they add a little humour, but don’t really make this terribly visually interesting. The iBooks reader interface looks good though, and the writing is good enough that you don’t mind the lack of visual attractions. The paperback edition is going to be more visually grabbing, and Ryan North has lined up some great illustrators, but I haven’t seen that yet, and as I write it can only be pre-ordered at Amazon.

Movement through the story is simple: you can flip pages forward and backward as with any book, but that would defeat the object of a branching narrative, and as North is at pains to tell you in his Foreword, ‘HOW ARE YOU EVEN ACTING LIKE THIS IS AN ORDINARY BOOK?’. The comic tone is there right from the beginning, and you are really going to have fun with this if you abandon linear reading and use the choice points to make the narrative branch.

It all works well, with no plot discontinuities from page to page when you make choices. This is really well structured, and the writing is always engagingly amusing. Maybe read the story first in the ‘role’ of Ophelia, and now you’d like to be Hamlet Senior? You can choose, and it’s funny and entertaining to do so.  Sometimes you find yourself in someone else’s body, for example, in one reading, I ‘switched’ from Hamlet to Ophelia for a while – excellent entertainment.

Here’s a quick example of North’s writing style, from Hamlet’s perspective:

‘Right now you’re in the audience chamber of your father’s castle, here in sunny Denmark. King Claudius is here, addressing his court. Laertes and Polonius are here too; Laertes is kind of 
a jerk and Polonius is his father. Polonius is also the father of Ophelia, whom you’re totally sweet on. She’s not here though. Who knows what adventures she’s having as we speak, while you’re stuck in this drafty castle room listening to other people talk about their feelings??’

Whether you know Hamlet or not, and whether you approve of adaptations, there is no doubt that we are going to see more and more new-media/interactive adaptations of old-media texts, especially as the iPad and its equivalents become ubiquitous. I really enjoyed reading this funny re-imagining of an iconic tale, and I’m re-reading it now even as I write this review. To choose or not to choose, that is THE question! So, go choose…

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