16 July 2014

Review: To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North

Acquired August 2013
Read June 2014
To Be or Not To Be: a chooseable-path adventure by Ryan North, William Shakespeare, and YOU

OH MY GOD. This is the most entertaining book I've read in a long time-- a "Choose Your Own Adventure" version of Hamlet. Except way more fun than I remember any of those books actually being. You can play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or dead King Hamlet, trying to avenge the murder of King Hamlet. The book has a lot of fun mocking Hamlet; if you follow the "path" that Shakespeare himself did, the narrator constantly mocks you for your bad decisions. This is the only version of Hamlet that I know of not to omit the pirate battle. There is a part of the book where you are in a 1980s interactive fiction game ("look room"). If you play as Ophelia you get to invent central heating or participate in a dating simulator or play a death-chess match. If you play as King Hamlet you can use your ghost powers to revolutionize the world. If you play your cards right, you can even travel in time! And, best of all, The Murder of Gonzago is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book within a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book! But if you die in the book, you die in real life! The delights just pour off the page again and again; if you are married, your spouse will tire of you telling them all the good bits. And so I will avoid telling you all the good bits, so you can discover them for yourself.

Also there is a picture for every possible ending, and they are delightful; a veritable cornucopia of webcomic artists provide them, from Jeph Jacques to Kris Straub, from Kate Beaton to Randall Munroe. (North himself writes a webcomic, but there's no art from him because that webcomic is Dinosaur Comics.) They're even in full color! You can get a lot of joy just paging through this and looking at the pictures.

I was so fascinated with the way this book works that I actually diagrammed it. (I think Ryan North sells diagrams, but that seems too easy. By the way, if you ever want to make a flowchart, yED Graph Editor is a great piece of free software; it was better than I could have imagined.) This gave me a new appreciation for the book, and the close reading it necessitated allowed me to uncover even more awesome features. Click on the picture, if you dare. (Minor spoilers, I guess? If looking at a bunch of numbers is spoilers?) You will note the following:
  • Shapes
    • Squares = normal pages
    • Ovals = endpoints
    • Diamonds = normal pages within The Murder of Gonzago
  • Colors
    • Gray = outside the game
    • Blue = Hamlet
    • Yellow = Ophelia
    • Orange = dead King Hamlet
    • Green = Claudius
    • Purple = Horatio
  • Parts of the book that I think of as "minigames" (tightly networked sets of small choices) are clustered into boxes.
  • The path marked with skull logos (the path of the original play) is the thick line.
  • Pg. 195 is where you go if you take the choice to actually kill Claudius. You will note that you get that choice a lot. But for some reason you never do it!
I mean, look at that thing. It's incredible! What an intricate achievement. When North crowdfunds Romeo and/or Juliet, I will be ready with my money.

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