St. John’s (CUP) — Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books could be called a lost art, had there ever been any art to them in the first place. Traditionally a medium that punishes the player for seemingly innocuous choices—a Pride and Prejudice version, Lost in Austen has Elizabeth Bennett blinded by “gypsies” if she turns left rather than right at the beginning of the book—Choose-Your-Own-Adventures are almost universally badly-written, unsatisfying gimmicks with close near zero lasting appeal.
To Be Or Not To Be: That is the Adventure is such a success because it relies on the fact that he throws out the rulebook for the genre before he even starts. A Kickstarter-funded re-imagining of Hamlet by “Ryan North, William Shakespeare, and YOU,” To Be or Not to Be understands that an interactive medium shouldn’t have contempt for its player and is a thoroughly rewarding experience. The central premise of the book isn’t any sort of grand statement or parody of Shakespeare—though North does get his digs in—but a sincere desire to have a bit of fun.
The book has over 30 endings, all illustrated by a massive range of talented artists––the Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman, and Hark! A Vagrant’s Kate Beaton being the most immediately recognizable names. A significant portion of these have only tangential relevance to the plot of Hamlet; the novel’s first choice is whether you play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or the ghost of King Hamlet, and you can careen wildly away from what you’re “supposed” to do near-instantly and still be narratively rewarded.
My favourite example of this is when playing as the ghost, once you’ve discovered that you were murdered, you can choose to swim back to Denmark to confront Claudius. On the way, you discover a sunken pirate ship, and should you choose to explore it rather than pursue your revenge, the late King Hamlet begins a successful career as the world’s first ghost-oceanographer, without ever interacting with the plot of Shakespeare’s play.
A lot of the fun of the novel comes from Ryan North’s writing (he’s principally known as the creator of Dinosaur Comics), which combines a genuine enthusiasm about his source material with a feeling that he really likes the reader, and would be upset if they didn’t enjoy themselves. Amusingly, the only time he gets really frustrated with the reader is if they try to follow the plot of Hamlet. If, playing as Ophelia, the player chooses to meekly submit to Laertes’s and Polonius’s raging sexism, North informs them “Listen, I’m going to cut our losses here. You’re not allowed to be Ophelia for a while.” Even some of the bad endings are written so as to make the reader feel better about failing, and the sense of contempt for the intelligence of the reader found in traditional Choose-Your-Own-Adventures is rarely present.
To Be or Not To Be doesn’t have much in the way of depth, and never pretends to either. It’s motivated by a sincere desire to entertain, and it succeeds without falling into any of the myriad pitfalls of its genre.