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Do classics need more to compete in our digital future?

The publishing industry believes there will always be an audience of avid readers to search out the classics, but – perhaps a provocative question – don’t the classics need something more to compete in our digital future? Film and television have traditionally kept classics alive in the minds of new generations, but does Frankenstein (Profile, £2.99) – the new app from Profile and Inkle – represent a land grab into their territory? Or just a clever experiment in pushing a notorious but rarely read narrative out to a wider audience?

Playing around with classics is never unanimously popular and as with film and television, there are difficulties to face when unpicking and re-stitching a book to fit a new form, but few people would argue a classic should not change in any way when shifting media. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 its page count was slight; not even enough for a novella. She was persuaded to bulk it up to 75,000 words, proving even classics had to bend to the will of the market of their time.

Digital book projects have a clear advantage over film and television: being conversant in non-linear narrative.  To make the most of this advantage, publishers know they need to mix books with code, and are clearing the advance copies from the spare tables to make hot-desking space for people from software houses. Michael Bhaskar, Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books, realised early on that collaboration was essential for the success of the Frankenstein book app. For him, this meant working with people he liked – in this case, gaming start-up Inkle. The publisher was keen to create something digitally innovative, and Inkle wanted to bring non-linear storytelling to the tablet mainstream. Together they wanted to create an incredible monster mash-up of book and computer program.

David Morris was brought on as author and thought very carefully about which classic to choose: “It had to be something that people weren’t too precious about, one everyone knows, but no one is currently reading.”  He also chose to relocate the story to revolutionary France, believing Mary Shelley herself would have been convinced of the validity of such a setting if she had had the benefit of hindsight.

David brought to the Frankenstein project his extensive experience writing interactive gamebooks. “When I was looking for a structure for an ebook, I realised this same ‘choose your own’ structure could be used in a digital setting to lure the reader into the emotional heart of the story.” This is pushed to the maximum when later in the story the point of view shifts and the reader becomes the monster.

Being highly skilled at both coding and narrative, David was the ideal choice of writer to take the “choose your own” structure into a digital space. As he was writing the text, he coded in the options and how they play out through the book. His unique skillset allowed him to create something quite revolutionary. The main character learns from your choices, works out who you are from the decisions you make, and is directly influenced by your decisions, taking action depending on how much he likes you. “Each time you interact with Victor Frankenstein in the story, the system keeps track of whether you’re giving him good advice, and how sympathetic you are to him. This allows Victor to adapt the way he reacts to you. If you earn his trust, he’s more likely to open up about his feelings, more likely to follow your suggestions. So, as you read the book, you’re also developing a relationship with the main character that will shape where the story goes.”  In this way the reader is implicated in the actions of Victor Frankenstein, making him either a crazed and ruthless manipulator or a man of science; it also influences his relationship with his fiancé, and their happiness. The plot can alter dramatically over two separate readings.

Frankenstein is a clever mix of technology and narrative – a beautiful creation for the tablet market and a bold attempt to wrestle with a classic and create a book that can work for a new audience brought up on digital games and interactive entertainment. Included in the Frankenstein app is the text of Mary Shelley’s original book, and having explored the interactive text so closely, the reader is left with a strong compulsion to read the classic that inspired it.

Available from Profile Books.

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