- Curling up in bed with your electronics
Bibliophila. It’s a thing I’ve struggled with since I learned how to read. I cherish the smell of older books, the feel of turning the pages, and the aesthetic of an overstuffed bookshelf. I have a disdain for e-readers, and, when I was asked to review The Story Mechanics’ The 39 Steps, I approached it with skepticism, as well. The 39 Steps is an interactive adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 espionage-thriller of the same name. The original story was a favorite of British troops during the war and has inspired countless adaptations, but with so many of them out there, did The Story Mechanics manage to do Buchan’s literary classic justice? Let’s take a look.
Richard Hannay, former Army officer, lives a quiet, boring, and restless life in London and longs for change. His life takes a drastic turn after giving a neighbor, Franklin Scudder, refuge in his flat. Scudder, frantic, reveals that he’s discovered a German plot to destabilize Europe. After Scudder is murdered, Hannay finds the adventure he’d been yearning for as he dodges attempts on his life while trying to finish Scudder’s work.
The majority of Buchan’s prose is intact, with texts and visuals accompanying each section. Text is presented in a page-turning style. Rotating the mouse clockwise advances the text, while rotating it counter-clockwise allows the reader to go backwards. Each setting is digitally hand painted, and most settings are explorable, containing copies of original era materials, ranging from posters to journal entries. Settings are completed by animated visual details. Lights flicker, rain pours, and flags ripple, completing each scene. Animated interludes occasionally serve to play out important events in the narrative. The most impressive visual aspect, however, is the use of silhouettes to represent the story’s characters. This has allowed a visual for main characters in the story, but has more importantly created a canvas for imagination, something that no other visual adaptation has. Lovers of the book won’t find themselves staring at Hannay’s “inaccurate” face in disappointment. Instead, they’re free to fill in his empty frame with whatever they choose.
The 39 Steps features an original soundtrack by EDM producer, Si Begg, and everyday sounds echo clearly in the background. People chatter in crowded rooms. Glasses jingle. Footsteps resonate in empty hallways. Theatrical voice acting breathes life into characters in a way that would make Buchan himself proud and still manages to be convincing enough to immerse the player. Background noise gets loud, “I’m so glad I read this in my fourth-year literature class so I know what’s going on”, loud, but the adaptation’s sound leaves little to fuss about overall.
If you’re looking for a full-fledged game, however, you’re likely to be disappointed. This interactive adaptation of Buchan’s classic espionage story is just that. An interactive story. Though players will be given opportunities to interact within sections of the adaptation, the concentration stays mainly on storytelling. They will solve puzzles, investigate settings, and turn pages, none of which require a large amount of skill or time. Puzzles consist largely of drawing shapes on screen or clicking through Scudder’s notes. While this may work for more casual gamers, those who are more skilled may find themselves unfulfilled by the small amount of interactive mechanics included in the adaptation. If you have restless fingers, you’ll have to find your headshotting, loot stealing, and Zerg rushing elsewhere.
Unfortunately, these simple interactive moments seem to be the adaptation’s weakest point. The page turning mechanism is fiddly at its best. Should you choose to use it, you’ll find yourself aggressively running your mouse in one direction, only to have the page turn in the other. Clicking the mouse to advance rather than relying on shoddy page turning to advance the story can remedy this. Puzzles are simple and draw players out of the story. They’re also painfully strict. No, really, I drew a straight line six times before it worked. A door-opening puzzle that occurs during a strong, interesting point in the narrative proves to be more distracting and frustrating than immersive. In truth, I’d prefer it wasn’t there at all.
The Story Mechanics took a classic like Buchan’s and turned it into something accessible and fun for present day, while somehow managing to preserve the fanciful, warm feeling we get from reading a good book. The 39 Steps is a unique narrative experience but falls short of expectations for an interactive adaptation. Interactivity is weak, and puzzles pull players out of the story. Story lovers, however, will find something worth loving. Readers and gamers alike can purchase the game on Steam, Amazon, or Apple’s App Store. I’m personally staying tuned to The Story Mechanics to see what they’re cooking up next. My fingers are crossed for H. G. Wells.