This is the first in an occasional series of e-book reviews, co-produced by NPR Books and All Tech Considered, focusing on creative combinations of technology and literature.
A shadowy conspiracy threatens the world. Only one man can stop it: a brilliant loner with strong nerves and an arsenal of extraordinary skills. A chance discovery sparks adventure — full of impersonations, carjackings, crashes, stabbings and international intrigue.
Sound like a book? A movie? Maybe a video game? Try all three. John Buchan’s 1915 spy thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, has been adapted at least a dozen times — it loosely inspired Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Most recently, The Story Mechanics reinvented the storyas an “interactive novel.” It’s a blend of text, animation and game play that aggressively defies categorization.
Here’s how it happens: Much of Buchan’s prose is preserved, appearing a sentence at a time, with voice actors reading the on-screen dialogue. The story is almost wholly linear, though some details appear only if readers find and click on newspapers, notebooks and drawers.
The text is accompanied by a cinematic soundtrack and beautiful illustrations — paintings of London streets and Scottish landscapes are lovely and evocative. Against the lushly drawn backgrounds, most people appear as ghostly outlines, with their descriptions presented in text. It’s a wise choice: Buchan’s snappy one-liners are far more compelling than the few sketched faces that do appear
The video game influence is obvious, but mostly superfluous. Readers collect cards and awards that have no effect on the story; occasionally clicking “run” is not so different from clicking “turn page.” It’s true that rooms must be explored in order to find all the story’s text, but don’t worry, non-gamers, you can’t lose. If you don’t explore a scene adequately, then you just miss out on a little information, which is usually unnecessary for the plot or repeated later on.
Unfortunately, the most game-like element of the book is also its most obnoxious. When intrepid hero Richard Hannay opens doors, pours drinks, or performs other small tasks, the story won’t progress until you make some silly little motions. Readers, use the top-right skip button to make your life easier, and designers: just say no to quick time events, even untimed ones.
It reads like a book, looks like a painting, sounds like a movie, and acts (kind of) like a game. But there’s a more fundamental question: Does it work?
In many ways, yes. The art is lovely and the acting is capable. As Hannay tries to uncover what the deuces is going on, it makes perfect sense for the reader to join him in seeking out snippets of information. And the combination of text and image allows for some clever touches — charmingly, the story’s many half-truths and tall tales appear as retro-styled animations, a marker of difference that’s both logical and fun.
But there are two serious flaws to the adaptation. First, the text is sometimes condensed or changed — and not skillfully. Here’s the e-book on Hannay’s youth:
Don’t blame Buchan for that flaccid, passive-voiced prose. “I told Sir Walter about tiger-fish in the Zambesi that bite off your fingers if you give them a chance” is the original Buchan. “There are several hundred species in its waters” sounds more like Wikipedia. Here’s an idea: an “interactive novel” project should probably include a writer on its team.
Even worse, the e-book is slow. Five to six hours of playtime feel twice as long. Trying to click through scene transitions and dialogue brings up an ugly “no” symbol, and skipping forward bypasses chunks of action. The result? Slow pans over scenes that should be breathless.
This is a thriller. Putting speed bumps in a page-turner is madness. And in a Buchan novel, you need to keep a breakneck pace so you don’t stop to think logically about the plot holes. But this adaptation’s sluggish pace is enough to make the amusements of a spy novel seem as flat as soda-water that’s been standing in the sun, as Richard Hannay might grumble.
Mixing puzzle game with text narrative has tantalizing potential — but this e-book has as many frustrations as charms. Still, if you’re willing to forgive a medium its growing pains, there’s a solid adventure story here. Just skip the door-unlocking ordeals, and make sure to suspend your disbelief.
Camila Domonoske is an editorial assistant at NPR Books.