Digital books. Yes they’re inexpensive and they save trees, but when you’re reading one on an iPad or Android tablet, you’re only using a fraction of the computing power available. The Story Mechanics – in a joint venture with Faber and Faber and various other bodies – believes that classic novels can be given extra verve in the digital age with the addition of music, animation, sound effects plus a touch of interactivity. Its first release is The Thirty-Nine Steps which is available for iPad, Mac and PC. An Android version is due out this month.
As in John Buchan’s classic spy thriller, the app takes you back to 1914 London. Richard Hannay – raised in Rhodesia and a veteran of many colonial battles – is the bored resident of a flat in the centre of town. One of your first experiences will be a visit to his club where you can absorb some background by reading the newspapers and chatting with an old gent who’s sipping whiskey there. Things are heating up in the Balkans between the Serbs and the Austrians, but the Greek prime minister might just have a peace plan up his sleeve. Returning to Hannay’s apartment, we meet his curious neighbour, who at first seems to be American but is really an under cover ex-Gurkha called Scudder.
Scudder regales Hannay with a tale involving German spies and a plot to eliminate the Greek prime minister at an upcoming conference in London. Reluctantly, Hannay trusts his story and even agrees to put Scudder up for a few nights. When he’s out one day, his paranoid guest is murdered. We discover a book the victim hid away, filled with cryptic codes. Now we have to help Hannay get out of his apartment without being apprehended, and then to get out of London. He decides to go to Scotland and figure out what to do next. Maybe he can thwart the plan to kill the Greek PM? Or at least save his own skin. Scudder’s murderers are definitely after him.
Whereas the film version – The 39 Steps – introduced both numerals to the title and a love interest, this app clings more finely to Buchan’s tale. The developer has used a variety of means to tell the story and it’s not like sitting reading the novel. Voice actors deliver the dialogue in radio play-style, sometimes with ghostly characters on screen. There are bits for you to read too. A world on the brink of war is conveyed by newspapers found here and there on the journey, click-and-discover chunks of information, and the dialogue.
Best of all is the wonderful artwork illustrating the settings, from dingy rooms in London to the moors of Dumfries and Galloway. Jaunty little art deco style animations are also used to convey parts of the story, such as the plot to eliminate the Greek prime minister.
All of these elements serve to give it the correct atmosphere – Edwardian Britain is nicely evoked with its newly engineered automobiles and light aircraft, and members of parliament who still referred to themselves as Whigs. This adherence to Buchan’s text and times will please purists even though the medium is entirely digital. Where it lags a bit is in the pacing. Yes, this mold-making man-on-the-run novel came out long before we had The Fugitive, Jack Reacher or Grand Theft Auto, but somehow in the digitisation it feels a little slow. The experience is rich but not quite as gripping as tearing through the original novel – especially when you have to take a break to help Hannay open a window or door using on-screen prompts and finger-swipes on the iPad screen.
In terms of interactivity, this is far, far more than a digital book, but not quite like an adventure game. There aren’t really any puzzles to solve, but it should give you four or five hours of intriguing entertainment and is well worth the money. Well produced, atmospheric, it’s a great way to enjoy the story. There are more images from the app below. Now, who remembers The 7th Guest and Myst, which pioneered a similar type of storytelling way back when CD-ROMs first appeared?
The Story Mechanics
CFL Rating: 4 Stars