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The 39 Steps – review

Late last night I finished The Story Mechanics adaptation of The 39 Steps. I’ve written previous posts on the nature of interactive novels and what it may mean for the publishing industry, and having now finished my first ever interactive story, I can honestly say: everything is going to be alright.

I hadn’t read John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps so I was coming into the narrative blind (which was probably a good thing).

Firstly, The 39 Steps is not a novel. It is not a book, nor is it a game. It’s just a story. It creates an atmosphere, pulls you into another world and makes you want to know more.

The actual words were probably the least impressive part of The 39 Steps. But that was okay, because there was so much more to it that was pulling me from chapter to chapter: the silhouette film sequences, the intense music, the sepia photographs. There’s so much to love, but I’ll focus on the main ones for me.

Visually, the story is stunning. There were plenty of beautiful landscapes and scenes with brushstrokes, water-coloured tints, and collaged images that kept my eyes wandering. I’m someone who finds it difficult to visualise when I’m reading, so having such amazing images accompany the story really helped me to engage with it.

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This is actually my desktop background right now. So pretty.

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An aesthetic feast of collage, caption, and sound.

But even more than the sights, the sounds were what really sold me on this interactive story business. It’s the little things that made Richard Hannay’s journey special.

When you read a regular book and the narrator tells you the character ate dinner in a pub, you don’t hear the sounds of people talking in the background, cutlery clinking on plates, music playing.

When you read a book and the protagonist discovers something shocking you don’t hear them physically struggling to breathe. It’s amazing how much these details add to the story.

The only element I wasn’t keen on was the trace-codes that you had to complete at certain points, just to do simple acts like open a door, run up a hill, or strike a match.

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Yeah, this got old about half way through the story.

All in all though, I didn’t have too many complaints.

It’s the illustrations and the sound technology that I would love to see in real novels. With the publishing boom of e-books it would be easy to create sounds to accompany the text.

You could just stick your earphones in, listen to the fire crackling or the horse-carts clopping past you (yes, the sounds really move around you) and you sink into the story world.

The Story Mechanics have done a fantastic job, especially in re-creating an authentic 1914. Publishing houses could learn a thing or two from The 39 Steps, and see how a simple story can become a real world.

If you’re interested in checking out The 39 Steps for yourself, head to The Story Mechanics website and get a copy on iPad or Steam.

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4 thoughts on “The 39 Steps – review

  1. Great review. The 39 Steps sounds really interesting. I haven’t experienced an interactive novel, just the interactive picture books that my girls love using. Is it like watching a movie except a lot longer? Would be great to have those little sound effects happening. I think I’d get sick of those trace-codes too. They look quite detailed!

    • Some parts are like a movie; some scenes will change on their own and the characters have dialogue with each other and you just watch/listen to them interact. But then other parts you’re looking around a room and finding things in drawers, or clicking on things to make the story progress.

      It’s a very odd medium when you’re used to reading physical books. But there are definitely elements that could work in a full-length novel. Which is exciting 🙂

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