Frankenstein, by Dave Morris with inkle studios

Frankenstein, written by Dave Morris and implemented by inkle studios, is an iPad app retelling Mary Shelley’s original tale in a new interactive format.

Morris’ Frankenstein follows the essential plot of Shelley’s, with a couple of key deviations. Victor Frankenstein’s experiments take place in revolutionary Paris rather than at the university of Ingolstadt; the narrative frame of the original story is peeled off, so that it no longer begins with Frankenstein meeting a shipful of adventurers in the north Atlantic, and the meeting on the ice occurs only at the end.

Removing the frame gives the story a certain immediacy. Victor’s experiments are told in the present and the horror of them is more directly present than they would have been via flashback; and flashback is notoriously tricky in interactive narrative because it often makes the reader question how she can possibly be affecting events that are, from the point of view of the frame narrative, already in the past.

Nonetheless I found I did miss that structural support. The frame narrative in the original serves as a kind of guarantee that Victor’s story is not the raving of a madman, because the man recording his story has observed the monster in the extreme reaches of Arctic ice; it provides, too, a tension about what is to come. Perhaps neither of those functions is so necessary to Morris’ version as to Shelley’s, since everyone reading Morris’ story will know that the monster is real and that Victor is not a lunatic. All the same, the tense anticipation of how the story will resolve to that desperate chase on the ice was a strong motivator in the original novel, and losing it costs Morris something.

Placing the story of Victor’s early experiments in revolutionary Paris rather than in Ingolstadt adds a more overt political setting to the opening phases of the story. It is a context probably more familiar to the audience than Ingolstadt would be, and perhaps more familiar to the author as well. One of the few bits of setting that rang actually false to me was a reference, later in Morris’ text, to “Germany,” phrased in a way that suggested (at least to me) more unity of state, culture, and language than existed in the late 18th century. The Bavarian city of Ingolstadt might have required too much parsing for both reader and author.

In choosing Paris of the terror instead, Morris furnishes Victor Frankenstein with a source of politically charged body parts (the heads and limbs of those killed by guillotine). The French Revolution is the obvious type of a nobly-motivated idea with grotesque consequences; the execution of Robespierre lines up narratively with Victor’s repentance about having made the monster, for greater effect. This decision makes more obvious to the modern reader a context of political and social turmoil that did not need any sort of introduction in 1818 when Shelley published.

Even where the text keeps to the plot of the original, the style is modernized. Many aspects of characterization that are only narrated in the original are here shown more fully. Morris has retained some of Shelley’s more striking images and amusing jokes, such as the disquieting dream Victor has about kissing Elizabeth and having her head turn into that of his own dead mother; or the obnoxious professor Krempe who is distracted from praising Frankenstein only by the opportunity to deliver “an eulogy on himself.” In other places, however, the characters are fleshed out in a way that assigns less universal knowledge to the narrator, hints at a greater diversity of human experience, and brings them more in line with modern tastes. Morris develops Professor Waldman’s Jewish faith, a past relationship between Justine Moritz and Victor, some hints of a homosexual devotion in Henri Clerval; all with a fairly light touch, as though restoring colors to a faded original. In the acknowledgements, Morris writes, “For all my grumbling about her avoidance of scenes and tendency to tell rather than show, I’ve come away with a greater respect for the author” — and this sentiment is evident both in the scenes he chose to develop and in the way he avoids doing too much violence to the characters of the original in the process.

To my mind only Elizabeth Lavenza comes off significantly the worse for this treatment, and it may be because her angel-in-the-home characterization in Shelley’s original is nearly impossible to cast in 21st century terms. Shelley endows her Elizabeth with a strength that consists most of all in denying her own pain in order to be a support to others, cheering them up in times of family grief. It is a personality that seems rather one-sided or perhaps unhealthy from a modern perspective — what does Elizabeth truly feel? What are her own motives? — but by allowing Elizabeth to be a bit weaker and more envious, and yet refraining from giving her any special interests not assigned to her by Shelley, Morris creates a character who is often a cheerless embodiment of duty-driven affection.

All of these choices — to familiarize the setting; to take away the distancing effect of the epistolary frame narrative; to make the characters seem more lively and more accessible to modern ideas of motivation; to expose the political concerns about equality and fraternity that colored the age — all these support the work’s primary interactive agenda, which is to demand of the reader again and again, “what do you think of all this?” And the reader must know enough, and care enough, and have sufficiently complicated feelings, for “what do you think?” to be a meaningful question.

For the majority of the decisions in Morris’ Frankenstein are what Alexis Kennedy would call reflective choices. Where do your sympathies lie? Do you trust this character, or that one? Do you approve or disapprove of this choice? Do you have some regard for the monster, and would you call him a monster at all? The questions despised as trivial in Anne Baddeley’s Observer review — do you read this letter first, or that one? — are questions of sympathy and priority. They ask the reader to choose which character he cares about most, or which theme he wants to concentrate on. Sometimes the choice directs the action, but more often it changes nothing obvious about the events, only the way and the order in which they are narrated —which is itself significant, of course.

For most of the book the text addresses the reader as “you”, with “you” understood as a kind of imagined companion to Frankenstein or even an aspect of his own conscience. Only in the passages from the monster’s perspective does “you” become a character — the monster itself. (Unlike Baddeley, I didn’t find the use of persons or the change of viewpoint characters at all confusing; there are really only two viewpoints, fewer than one encounters in the original.)

To Frankenstein you are a disembodied judge, companion and advisor, but to the monster you are the self — up until the moment when it first kills, a moment that you cannot prevent but also are not required to select for yourself. Perhaps this is simply meant to emphasize the monster’s humanity by identifying it more closely with the reader than Frankenstein himself is identified.

In both cases, however, the choices focus on attitude and interpretation more often than anything else.

I admit I found this kind of reading required an unexpected exertion. There were no puzzles, no points at which I could have gotten the narrative stuck, but the constant demand to identify a view or a side to be on was significant — especially since Morris’ Frankenstein is not a short book, and these questions appear sometimes as often as every paragraph or two.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, necessarily, and perhaps Morris’ Frankenstein is well served by being an application on a device ideal for interrupted reading, because I did set the app aside more often than I would have done with a book of similar length.

If Morris’ Frankenstein has a primary flaw as a work of interactive literature, it is, I think, that it casts too much of a veil over the effects of the player’s choices, especially the longterm effects; and this may lead some reviewers and players to misunderstand the depth of the intended experience.

There is quite a lot of different text to see on a second reading. The major events — the major deaths of the book — cannot be avoided, but a number of the minor incidents can be skipped or played out in different ways; there are entire sections concerning the death of Clerval, especially, that the reader can miss depending on his approach.

More often, a change in approach yields different explanations, different perspectives. Sometimes the revolutionary terror of Paris reads lightly, and on other paths there is much more attention to the constant threat and danger of the place. Sometimes the “don’t tread where man is not meant to go!” moral rings out very clearly, and sometimes it is muted in favor of other themes. But it would be easy not to realize this on a single pass, and Frankenstein is a long book to reread, especially to reread immediately.

I also had the impression that some choices were closed off in some readings due to earlier decisions; this is hard to verify without transcripts, however, and at no point does the inklewriter framework show you a path that is currently locked. Frankenstein does not easily expose to the reader the might-have-beens, the possibilities that would have existed if we’d made some different choice earlier. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, it has an opaque skin and does not reveal its anatomy to the casual onlooker.

Since so much of the meaning of an interactive work lies precisely in the rules — the structure of how one choices opens or closes another — the relative lack of clarity about Frankenstein‘s structure makes it harder to evaluate as a whole. Morris’ work brings to the front some of the concerns of Shelley’s own time (such as the revolution, the rapidity of scientific change, the question of what makes someone human), and repeatedly it demands the reader’s opinion on these topics; but what does it have to say in Morris’ voice to his own contemporary audience?

To me perhaps the most notable thing about Morris’ take is the issue it refrains from exploring.

One of the primary points of Frankenstein, and one that Morris’ text frequently comes back to, is the idea that the monster is misjudged in large part because of his physical appearance, and Victor’s revulsion from his own creation is the motivating cause of much that follows. Again and again the story comes back to the question of appealing vs unappealing appearances, and one passage, in which Victor considers several severed heads as a source for the monster’s voicebox, explicitly explores the idea of how people are not what they appear to be.

And yet this remains one area that the choices rarely touch in any significant sense. The reader is not invited to choose whether to put aside questions of appearance; Victor never reconsiders his instinctive categorization of people based on how pretty they are. In other places, the story branches but holds this form of prejudice immutable. In the passage about constructing a mate for Frankenstein, the story can go at least two ways that I saw: either Victor creates a woman as ugly as the monster, in which case she is so horrified by the realization of her own appearance that she commits suicide at birth; or he studies anatomy more closely and produces a beautiful woman but then is so disgusted by the thought of this lovely creation embraced by the monster that he destroys her before she is finished.

Even the monster at the very end, speaking of his crimes, emphasizes that one of them is to have killed the innocent “and lovely.”

This left me with a curious sense of exclusion at the end of the text.

Concerns about being beautiful, and appearance as a marker of goodness and class structure — from media-enforced standards of female beauty to racial profiling to dehumanizing assumptions about people with disabilities — are very much on the contemporary radar. So I realize that this topic could have run away with the story if given full play — just as it’s possible to drown the story of Lysistrata by putting on a production that’s too much about whatever war is happening at the moment. But the question of how we judge people based on how they look is there in the story, without any special injection of contemporary mores; it’s just that the interaction mostly shies around this point. Had Morris’ Frankenstein been a static work, Victor’s obsession with physical perfection and even the monster’s own susceptibility on this point might have appeared to be one more issue raised for the reader’s consideration. But in Morris’ story so many of the reader’s intended reflections are, as it were, already built in — questions of the essential nature of man, the proper bounds of scientific research, the importance of affection or duty, etc. — that the relative absence of choices about appearance-based prejudice had a dampening effect.

All the same, Morris has breathed new life into an old monster, to make it attractive, to render it accessible and modern; to take away the long overwrought narration and replace it with more vivid and immediate scenes; to open up the story to a more richly motivated Henri, Justine, Elizabeth; to engage the reader insistently and interactively with its central questions; and of course to bestow on it the glamor of being an app.

inkle and Morris’ Frankenstein is beautifully produced, illustrated with contemporary anatomical drawings and landscape scenes. Especially pleasing is the visual metaphor they use for reading the work: sections of text appear on scraps of paper, and at each choice point the reader is presented with several new scraps of paper to read, with only the headings visible. When the reader chooses, the new paper scrap appears to be pinned with a straight pin onto the existing text, while the scraps not chosen fall away. The effect is good for usability, because it helps the reader easily keep his place and remember which bits of text have been newly added. It also suits the story, suggesting a text that has been sutured together from scattered parts just like the monster itself.

It’s a pretty significant achievement that Morris’ Frankenstein does all that, but I felt that to stand on its own as a separate work of art it might need a touch more passion peculiar to Morris. As it is, all the fire of the story is still Shelley’s.

7 thoughts on “Frankenstein, by Dave Morris with inkle studios

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