This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
In my debut Kickstopper article I reviewed the Shadowrun: Returns project and decided that, even though I would have probably been happy backing at a lower level, nonetheless I was very pleased with the final product and was glad to be involved in the process. Hot on the heels of that, Ryan North successfully completed his To Be Or Not To Be Kickstarter, heralding another first for Kickstopper – the first article with physical goods involved. Will my 100% “I’m glad I did this” success rate continue, or will buyer’s remorse creep into play? Let’s find out!
Reminder On Methodology
Just a quick reminder that, due to the nature of Kickstarters, I can only review the reward tier I happened to pick, and I can’t comment on whether or not I find rewards I haven’t actually received to be worth the money I didn’t spend on them.
If you’re aware of Ryan North, it’s probably either through the avenue of the Dinosaur Comics webcomic which he writes, or the Adventure Time tie-in physical comic book which he also writes. Browsing Dinosaur Comics for a while should rapidly give you an idea of what North’s interests and creative approach is like: like T. Rex, he’s prone to wild flights of fancy (whether these are linguistic, scientific, philosophical, metaphysical or pop cultural), and like Utahraptor he doesn’t take these ideas too seriously and is just as happy to point out the holes in them as he is to indulge them in the first place.
With To Be Or Not To Be, North is applying this lens to Hamlet, and specifically is converting it to a gamebook format. The back cover blurb pretty much sums up the concept here:
The greatest work in English literature, now in the greatest format of English literature: a chooseable-path adventure!
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has finally been restored to its original second-person non-linear branching narrative format. I know! What took so long, am I right?
Now it’s up to YOU to decide what happens next. Play as Hamlet and revenge your father’s death. Play as Ophelia and make scientific discoveries. Play as King Hamlet, Sr. and die on the first page!
This deluxe edition features insanely beautiful illustrations for every ending, a book-within-a-book, and lots of ways to stab dudes.
To be or not to be: that is the adventure.
Initially, the plan for the Kickstarter was fairly humble: get the book illustrated, printed and provided to those as wanted it. In a wise move, North prepared the full text of the book before the Kickstarter even began, which I’m sure helped investor confidence a lot – it’s much safer to invest in a book project when you have some reassurance that the author isn’t going to come back and say “Sorry guys, writing is actually much harder than I thought it was and I’m not going to be able to finish the book!” – and I’m sure being the dude who does Dinosaur Comics, one of the most consistently funny webcomics of all time, helped attract people to the project.
Nonetheless, the level of success was incredible. The target total of $20,000 was exceeded by over 250% in the first day, and the final total was $580,905. One of the most entertaining aspects of the funding period was getting North’s increasingly breathless and overexcited updates, in which he scrabbled to post new stretch goals faster than the project was demolishing them. These ranged from nice bonus goods added to the various tiers to noble commitments like donating copies of the book to school libraries to typically Northian excesses like “I will literally explode”. Unlike many Kickstarter creators who get hyped up with the stretch goals, North has actually met more or less all of these commitments at the time of writing (aside from “cook a pizza shaped like Hamlet and eat it”, but that is apparently forthcoming). The obvious question is: did he do them well?
What Level I Backed At
The initial description of the level I backed at was as follows:
TOTALLY SWEET: The physical and future book (signed book and digital copy!) plus some Kickstarter-only temporary tattoos! One is of T-Rex saying “Sup?” and the other is of Utahraptor saying “WHATEVER”. Don’t you want these on your skin? Probably?? For non-US donors, please donate at least $35 total to accommodate shipping.
However, thanks to the stretch goals the amount of loot winging my way increased. Luckily, Ryan produced a handy diagram of the updated reward tiers! Here’s mine:
But wait, there’s more! On top of these rewards there were additional stretch goals unlocked through which I would also obtain some form of interesting content! (I’m not going to review stuff like “Ryan North eats a pizza” or “Ryan North gives books to a library” because whilst it is nice that those things are happening, those aren’t things which I either can take part in or I’d consider interesting to watch.) These are:
- A stage performance of the book, with the Internet voting on which option to take when a decision comes up.
- Everyone who pledged $30 or more – which included me since I had to add $10 for postage – got a Hamlet-themed holiday ecard that they could send to people to notify them that the backer in question had bought the book for them.
- Ryan North literally explodes.
The Delivery Process
Although I got my books in August 2013 and the estimated delivery time was May, I’m not too fussed about the delay – it wasn’t overly long, it was only to be expected with all the bonus artwork which was unlocked, and most importantly North made sure to keep people updated over the course of the Kickstarter. Indeed, as various rewards and stretch goals were completed North issued them forth so that there was a semi-constant trickle of interesting stuff happening – including his explosion. Similarly, whilst the process of posting the books took a while (and DHL seemed to take longer than their stated average transit time to deliver my copy), North issued forth the digital reward package towards the start of the dispatch process so I could at least enjoy my B to the F and Dinosaur Comics ebooks. I held off on the ebooks of To Be Or Not To Be and Poor Yorick because I wanted to wait for the physical copies.
And, in due time, the physical goods arrived!
Reviewing the Swag
Signed Copy of the Book Itself
On the basis of the inside of my copy, Ryan North’s autograph looks like a squiggle next to another squiggle. I can live with that, though: the dude was signing a ridiculous number of the books and after the first thousand or so I can forgive him getting a little sloppy with the handwriting.
I’m not going to apply the format for gamebook reviews I developed for my Fighting Fantasy articles here, because North is clearly working in an entirely different gamebook tradition. Whereas Fighting Fantasy and most of its imitators applied an actual game system to their books – complete with combat system, character stats, inventories and so on – as a result of their origins as gateway drugs for tabletop RPGs, To Be Or Not To Be is a child of the Choose Your Own Adventure tradition. (Hence, in fact, its trademark-evading description of itself as a “chooseable-path adventure”.) First devised by Edward Packard and emerging in 1976 (though it only took on the familiar Choose Your Own Adventure trademark and cover format in 1979), this is a more purely literary strand of gamebook – puzzles and dice-rolling tend not to feature so heavily, the individual entries in the book tend to be pages long in contrast to the terse paragraphs of Fighting Fantasy, and in some cases there wasn’t one specific ending which was presented as the optimal one.
In short, North is working in a tradition where the course of the story relies purely on player choice, with no random factors involved, and likewise the criteria for “winning” the game may also come down to what the player perceives to be the best ending. This is implemented quite nciely here, where as well as the more loyal Shakespearean course of the play matters go off on all sorts of tangents and a range of alternate endings are available, some of which are clearly better than the miserable outcome of Shakespeare’s version, some of which are worse on a cosmological scale. That said, he does toss in random references to you getting experience points or bonuses to particular skills and so forth, but that’s purely for comedy – this gamebook doesn’t actually have an experience system or a skill list.
In a nice touch, if you want to see what choices Shakespeare made when he adapted the book to the stage, those options are marked with adorably expressive little Yorick skulls. I decided to follow this approach for my first run though just to see how North mangled the Bard before I dabbled in the outright nutty inventions North crams into the story. (Actually, first I read the acknowledgements and “about the author” sections, which – hilariously – North actually works in as entries in the game at the beginning rather than having them in separate parts of the book.)
As it transpires, a lot of the script-loyal playthrough consists of North giving the Bard a thorough roasting, pointing out the bits where the play gets insanely sexist (in less loyal playthroughs he makes a point of giving Ophelia awesome stuff to do to contrast extra hard against the way she behaves in the play) and also just kind of insane, with the narration getting more and more exasperated at Hamlet’s nutty decisions. At points North does some really clever stuff with the format for the sake of skewering Shakespeare – there’s a neat joke where North says that he’s decided that the only way to make sense of what Hamlet is doing is by retconning things so he’s deliberately pretending to be mad, and then going back to revise an earlier entry in the adventure so he mentions this to Horatio – and he actually includes the option of turning to the revised version of the entry and playing on from that point. At other points, he arbitrarily declares that stuff that Shakespeare included doesn’t happen because it’s too stupid (like the option to “Sit at Ophelia’s feet, ask to lay in her lap (in the sexy sense), and remind her that she has genitals”, which inspires a full-blown rant from Ryan about how crass and silly that is).
Even a script-loyal playthrough, however, deviates from the original in some entertaining ways. The biggie is The Murder of Gonzago, which of course in Hamlet is a play-within-a-play, so to keep that weirdly prescient Elizabethan postmodernism going Ryan transforms it into a choose your own adventure (or “The Adventure Is Being Chosen By You”) book within this book, complete with an uncannily accurate parody of the actual Choose Your Own Adventure trade dress. The protagonist of Gonzago? None other than DRAGONMASTER 3000, master of 3000 dragons. (“Holy crap Claudius,” says the narration – since you play Claudius reading the book-within-a-book at this point, “this book is already awesome.”) On top of that, you’ve got the pirate fight which gets Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern killed – off-stage in the original play, gloriously on-stage this time, complete with Monkey Island references, extended references to gamebooks with more robust game mechanics, and rants about how only a total idiot would cut an awesome pirate fight sequence from this story.
Obviously, it’s kind of a flippant reading of the text. But it does do a nice job of teasing out a) what a huge walking disaster of a human being Hamlet is in the actual play and b) how much scope there is for the story to take alternate paths, since the actual course of events in the play is itself really nutty and unlikely. I’m reminded, in fact, of the Hamlet card game Dan owns where you keep meddling with features of the play and change aspects of the plot in order to mould it into your own design. It’s like Shakespeare designed the play to leave plenty of space for alt-universe fanfic and crazy adaptations.
As far as the options which deviate from Shakespeare go, there’s a good variety of brief excursions which lead rapidly to you dying (or just plain exiting the story, or in the case of Hamlet’s dad failing to get the story started in the first place) and also a number of extended tangents which take the plot into decidedly unusual areas. Particularly meaty ones I’ve found so far include the various things which can happen if Ophelia and Hamlet end up collaborating on the murder plot rather than Hamlet freezing her out – this sideline potentially includes stuff like Ophelia having a life-or-death chess game against Queen Gertrude, and at least two timelines where Ophelia goes on a killing spree and ends up murdering just about everyone except Hamlet. (In one killing spree she’s acting in self defence. Another spree starts with her killing witnesses to her murder of Claudius, and then having to deal with witnesses to the murder of the witnesses, and so on and so forth.)
North borrows from MS Paint Adventures (whose own Andrew Hussie provides all the illustrations for The Murder of Gonzago) the tendency to rapidly switch the reader from one protagonist to the next by saying “You are now [character]”, which helps in a script-loyal playthrough when he needs to cover scenes where Hamlet is absent and helps in a freeroaming playthrough for implementing wacky stuff like giving you a free choice of starting character (you can be Ophelia or Hamlet’s dad from the start!). In a less script-bound playthrough, this does give you the interesting option of either trying to stick with the character you originally chose as much as possible or gleefully swapping as much as North allows you to, which I want to experiment with a bit further because it seems to open up interesting gameplay possibilities.
One of the most interesting things the book does is the way it stays reasonably true to Shakespeare in terms of the character’s roles and interrelationships – Ophelia is a big exception because as a playable character she gets to have a lot more agency than she typically enjoys, but otherwise Queen Gertrude still exists in this weird space where she maybe has some complicity in what Claudius has done and maybe doesn’t, Horatio is still a loyal but befuddled friend, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are still college buds who get talked into doing Claudius’ dirty work, and so on. In another departure from Shakespeare, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern actually survive the pirate attack in a script-loyal playthrough version and have only faked their deaths and are waiting offshore in the pirate ship ready to attack at a moment’s notice in order to provide the player with interesting ways to deviate from Shakespeare right up to Hamlet’s death scene, but even then you don’t have characters spontaneously acting in ways which are radically different from the sort of stuff they do in the play unless it’s you controlling them and some of the off-script routes feel like you’re shining some light on the stuff that’s going on in the wings.
Actually, I’m going to take a moment here to make a sincere effort to write the most pretentious thing anyone has written in a review of this book to date: by applying the gamebook format to Hamlet, Ryan North solves the metaphysical crisis that Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are faced with in Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In Stoppard, the protagonists struggle with possessing only the illusion of agency in a story which admits to no alternate resolutions or attempts to evade their destiny, but by handing the decisions of the characters over to the reader North frees the characters from being trapped in roles set in stone, even if they themselves still lack free will.
OK, pretentiousness over, let’s talk pretty pictures. The presentation of the book is absolutely gorgeous, with amazing illustrations (mostly associated with the various deaths) provided by a real who’s-who of not-terrible webcomics. You’ve got K.C. Green! You’ve got Kate Beaton! You also have Gabe from Penny Arcade and the Dresden Codak guy, which would usually prompt me to mark down the book except they actually turn in good stuff this time around and don’t write anything. (My attitude to certain webcomic artists is like the stereotypical Victorian attitude to children: they should be seen and not heard.) Even Randall Munroe of XKCD fame, who Dan and I occasionally snark at from the Playpen, actually comes up trumps this time with one of those actually quite cool diagram comics of his showing the book’s family tree from the Big Bang to Shakespeare and Ryan North.
As huge a book as this is, inevitably an error in the page numbering crept in in a single entry, but North has been quick about issuing errata for it so it’s actually not such a big deal. There’s also a chunky hardcover version with a reversible dust jacket, but the paperback version is already heavy enough for my tastes. In short, this is a physical artifact I am glad to both own and give shelf space to.
Here’s the blurb on Poor Yorick:
Before we get started here, Yorick, I should probably mention that your life has the potential to have an improbably large effect on the future. The good news is that you’re a temporal hinge upon which all our tomorrows rest!
The bad news is that the only way for you to put this legacy into motion is by dying.
But the good news part two is that it’s really really really really insanely likely that you’re gonna die today!
Poor Yorick: A chooseable-path adventure by Ryan North, William Shakespeare, and YOU.
Poor Yorick is kind of brief – it only offers 23 entries in its 36 pages, but actually as a free bonus mini-adventure it’s not half bad. It’s actually possible to “win” by living the life of Yorick as summarised by Hamlet in the relevant speech from Hamlet – including bearing him on your back a thousand times – so it isn’t ludicrously arbitrary by any stretch of the imagination. The winning scenario is that you live for a good few years as the court jester before dying as scheduled. If you refuse to die as scheduled through sheer force of will a time paradox destroys the universe, so that’s not a good move. But before you can live the life of a jester, you must become a jester! You begin the book starving and unemployed, and over the course of the adventure must successfully find out about the jestering vacancy, pass the interview, and not piss off Hamlet on your first day on the job. It’s harder than it looks! Worth it for the sheer amount of imagination involved in the various deaths, and for the way North works in the effect of each of the deaths on Hamlet’s future when he gets around to discovering your exhumed skull.
Yorick Plot Device
This is a bookmark with a skull-shaped top and four separate strands dangling underneath, like a quartet of freakish hyper-teeth, to allow you to bookmark multiple parts of the book.
This is an acknowledgement of a long-standing tradition in gamebooks. According to Ian Livingstone, the reason he made Deathtrap Dungeon such a ridiculously difficult and arbitrary book was that he knew full well that most Fighting Fantasy players used what he calls the “five-fingered bookmark” – keeping a finger in the book at particular decision points as a sort of ersatz “saved game” so they can go back later on in they made the wrong choice.
Having a bookmark designed to allow you to do that when you put the book down and head away is a nice idea – I mean, you can do the same with multiple bookmarks, but using one is less fiddly. On the other hand, it can’t entirely supplant the old five-fingered version. Since it doesn’t split in two (unless you tear and ruin it), it isn’t very good for use whilst you are reading, because there’s no way to read page entries which are in between two of the teeth unless you remove one of the teeth and substitute a finger.
In addition to this, Ryan hits on a neat idea where each tooth has a label indicating the sort of position it indicates (“Everything is fine”, “I got sleep at this point”, “Oh no, oh no, oh NO” and so on), but the teeth have radically different labels on each side, so how are you supposed to remember which label applies? I mean, this might be a prank on the reader by Ryan, but it just looks like he’s hit on an inventive idea and then botched the implementation.
Still, I can’t claim to own many books which have their own special bookmarks just for the purpose of that book, so I’m certainly not sorry to own it.
One temporary tattoo features T-Rex, in his pose from Dinosaur Comics panel 2, saying “Sup?”, the other features Utahraptor in his pose from panel 5 saying “Whatever”. The dialogue and dinosaurs involved are therefore consistent with the promises made. I should put these somewhere on my body at some point but have no idea a) when I am going to do it and b) which part of my body I will use and c) what an appropriate situation would be.
Ferretbrain, do you have any ideas? (Caveat: Ferretbrain, I will probably ignore your ideas unless they especially please me. Mine is not an open-source body.)
The book-related stickers consist of Hamlet carrying Yorick’s skull with his jaw set in an attitude of steely determination, Ophelia carrying one of those flowery headband things she was supposed to wear with her jaw set in an attitude of steely determination, and Claudius bearing sword and shield with his jaw set in an attitude of steely determination and saying “Sup y’all”. The “I Belong to Someone Awesome” sticker is colourful. I have no idea what I am going to stick these things to, but for what it’s worth they seem reasonably robust as far as stickers go, which is something..
Dinosaur Comics eBooks
The specific Dinosaur Comics eBooks I received covered all the comics from 2011 and 2012. To be honest, reviewing the actual content seems a llttle pointless, since Dinosaur Comics is freely available online and you can rapidly establish whether it’s the sort of humour you like. (Personally, I like the way North combines highbrow questions with the humiility of realising that a lot of the speculations he indulges through the mouthpiece of T-Rex are kind of silly.)
I can, however, report that the comics do look nice on a Kindle set to landscape mode, and the formatting which shows the alt-text and email header joke from each comic works nicely. Again, these aren’t things I would shell out big bucks for, but the sheer joy and convenience of having great swathes of Dinosaur Comics on my Kindle is so great that I would probably buy eBooks of the other years of the comic’s run if North sold them at a modest price. Good going, Ryan, you gave me a free gift which made me want to give you more money – now that’s good marketing!
B to the F eBook
B to the F is Ryan North’s expansive page-by-page commentary on/review of/summary of the official novelisation of Back to the Future. This novelisation is notable for two reasons: firstly, it was written by George Gipe, who seems to have been an author of spectacular mediocrity, and secondly Gipe appears to have been working from an earlier draft of the script (presumably to ensure the book would be completed in time for a simultaneous release with the movie). These two factors combine to yield a tie-in novel which is odd enough on its own, and downright bizarre when set next to the film, but also highlights how the process of polishing the script and editing and swapping out Eric Stoltz for Michael J. Fox measurably improved the film.
As North explains it, his intention was just to go over the book and highlight particularly outrageous things he’d noticed on his initial readthrough, but this plan was swiftly abandoned in favour of an exhaustive page-by-page breakdown. This means the eBook probably qualifiies as a “sporking”, though North never uses that term and doesn’t appear to be an active sporker otherwise. This might be why I enjoyed this more than I enjoy most sporkings, which typically I tune out on after a few paragraphs. There are various factors which help Ryan retain my attention. Firstly, he writes from the point of view of an avid fan of the original movie and also finds Gipe’s more offbeat habits endearing and amusing rather than sources of overwrought comedy rage, and the result is that he writes in a distinctive critical voice whose enthusiasm is infectious. Secondly, North has a critical agenda which is more interesting and nuanced than “look at how terrible this is”, which is honestly a point which you don’t nead a full-length sporking to convey; like I said, he’s interested in how the book differs from the film and what those changes tell us about effective and dysfunctional filmmaking and storytelling, and that’s the sort of thing where a careful page-by-page approach is justified because then he can tease out as many interesting divergences as possible.
Particular highlights of the analysis include North pointing out how Gipe’s prose stylings are not only anachronistic for a book written for a teenage audience in the 1980s, but are also wildly old-fashioned even from a 1950s perspective, causing North to diagnose Gipe with “old man itis”, his thoughtful consideration of how actually Marty’s plan to make sure his parents end up dating comes across as kind of rapey and the only reason it isn’t amazingly disturbing to most viewers of the film is because the scriptwriters went all-out in making sure those connotations were toned down (whilst Gipe, disturbingly, does precisely the opposite), and North’s wild flights of fancy as he tries to unravel how time travel works in the Back to the Future cosmos. Although I don’t agree with all of North’s conclusions – in particular, I am less ready than he is to exonerate the film of trying to whitewash rock and roll history – the overall tone is of someone who’s thought their arguments through and, in the moments where he addresses comments made on the blog posts that constitute the original format of the spork, is open to discussion and debate, and that’s all you can ask for in the long run.
As far as the eBook goes, the main problem I noted was that on my Kindle the animated .gifs don’t animate, which is a shame but not a major barrier to understanding what’s going on. Although the original sporking is available for free online, the sheer convenience of being able to read it on an e-reader is nice, and to be honest I think I’d prefer reading it this way to reading it in a web browser. In short, it’s a nice freebie which I would have actually been happy to pay a small amount of money for, so thumbs up on ths front.
This was intended to be sent to people who you’d bought the book for at Christmas, as notification that the book was incoming. I’d bought the book for myself, so I sent it to myself. It comprises a brief explanation of what the book is and why an ecard relating to it is being sent to the recipient, and a nice Noelle Stevenson illustration of a happy Christmas scene featuring Ophelia, Hamlet, and Hamlet’s ghostly dad. It’s charming, was delivered in the vicinity of Christmas, and offers a download to a high-resolution version of the picture for people who especially dig it, and in general I can’t think of any function of an ecard promising the delivery of a future product it doesn’t adequately perform. Plus it gave me a chance to send a Christmas card to myself, which is surely the behaviour of a healthy and socially well-adjusted person.
Internet-Directed Stage Performance
It’s two-and-a-bit hours long once you cut off the half hour of the actors silently warming up and, by virtue of the fact that they have to stop every so often to take guidance from the Internet and they have to read most of their lines from prompt cards because they obviously didn’t know what options the Internet would pick ahead of time, it’s kind of shambolic, but the folks from Shakespeare in Busan clearly had a lot of fun putting this on and said fun is mildly infectious. That said, they are literally working from the text of the book so if you’re spoiler-averse you may want to avoid. There’s lots of back-tracking and do-overs too because they die a lot, and obviously they didn’t want to just end the performance 15 minutes in. Probably a bit more fun to watch when it was actually happening, I suppose.
Ryan North Explodes
Obviously, Ryan needed to find a way where he could explode without rendering himself unable to complete the other requirements of the Kickstarter, so he teamed up with some contacts with access to a 3D printer and scanning technology. One scan and print job of his head later, they detonated a dry ice bomb in a metropolitan area. I guess Ryan North can claim to be the new face of improvised explosive devices now! This was clearly fun for everyone concerned and they get some good shots of the head exploding, so I’m happy with it.
Oh, one thing I nearly forgot to mention – Breadpig, who’ve provided the printing and publishing services for the book, have donated all their profits from the projects to the Canadian Cancer Society, so if one of the research projects it backs cures cancer then I think this Kickstarter qualifies as the most outrageously successful crowdfunding project of all time.
Higher, Lower, Just Right Or Just Wrong?
I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to go lower on my backing level – a physical version of Poor Yorick, an ebook of B to the F, the bookmark and the temporary tattoos and stickers all together more than make up the $5 difference between the tier I picked and the next tier down, and tiers without a physical copy of the book just aren’t an option as far as I’m concerned. At the same time, I’m happy with a paperback copy and don’t fancy paying the $25 jump just to go to hardback – nor do I especially want posters (not being one for sticking stuff to my walls in general). The plush Yorick skull did look nice, mind, but not $35+ worth of nice. So this time I think I got my pledge Just Right.
Scores to date: 1 for Lower, 1 for Just Right, and nil for Higher and Just Wrong. So far, I’ve overpaid mildly for 1 Kickstarter, but I’ve at least been satisfied with what I’ve got from all of them and haven’t either been left wishing I’d paid more or wishing I hadn’t pledged at all.
Would Back Again?
North has committed (as one of the stretch goals) to write a sequel, and certainly if he runs a Kickstarter on that I would be glad to back it. Not only will it almost certainly get funded with a heap of stretch goals to spare and more or less meet expectations – there doesn’t seem to have been any appreciable backlash now that the book has actually been released – but Ryan is just a funny guy and I love reading his stuff, especially when that includes Kickstarter updates where he gives me presents and funny YouTube videos funded by my largesse.
Personally, I hope Tom Stoppard gives North permission to write a gamebook of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – or at the very least North goes with his alternate take and gives us Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Pirates.