Imagine you could tell Romeo that he doesn’t need to take the poison to be with Juliet, warn Streetcar‘s Blanche Dubois not to rely on the kindness of strangers, or suggest that Jonathan Harker take his vacation somewhere other than Transylvania.
The power to influence and interact with the stories in classic literature is a tempting prospect, and this is the premise of Inkle Studios’ audacious attempt to apply the full possibilities of digital media to fiction. The result is an updated form and experience for the stubbornly progress-proof novel.
The British startup’s latest experiment is 80 days, an iPad adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic voyage. The user plays the assistant of explorer Phileas Fogg, and crafts their own journey of romance and murder around a world with thousands of possible permutations based on the decisions they take. The central narrative, written by Meg Jayanth, is a steampunk remix of Verne’s novel, broken into thousands of individual passages that recur throughout the experience.
“The heart of the concept is that we put player choice into books”, says Jon Ingold, Inkle’s Creative Director, former designer at Sony and school teacher. “They are in moment-to-moment relation with the narrative, involved and engaged in what’s happening. It makes players culpable in an active way.”
Ingold and co-founder Joseph Humfrey — a fellow graduate of Cambridge University and colleague at Sony — are among the most innovative and successful exponents of enhanced fiction. Inkle’s 2012 hit app Frankenstein allowed users to wander through a richly-rendered Geneva, take part in the protagonist’s autopsies and put the narrative in their own order. They have produced an interactive series of classic poetry for Penguin, and their free digital writing tool, Inkle Writer, allows users to easily create heavily interactive text.
Inkle identify more closely with games — a sector whose numbers show better health than publishing — but use the elements of literature to create a hybrid that even they can’t yet define.