Review: Ryan North's To Be or Not To Be25 Mar 2015 0
Long ago, before Sorcery! showed up, the undisputed king of digital gamebooks was Australian developer, Tin Man Games. Sure, since then companies like inkle Studios have turned digital gamebooks on their head, but Tin Man hasn't let that get to them. They're still routinely cranking out quality gamebooks, albeit ones that look and feel like those little paperbacks you used to read back in the 80's.
If you've been paying attention, however, you've already realized that Tin Man doesn't have their head in the sand. They proved they can move away from their standard format last year with Appointment with F.E.A.R., which replaced the sepia tones of their other books for a comic book look and feel. Their most drastic departure, and the one that shows that Tin Man is still a major force to be reckoned with, was just released last week: Ryan North's To Be or Not to Be. Yes, it's Shakespeare and yes, it's easily my favorite gamebook that Tin Man has ever done.
To Be or Not To Be is a retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, but instead of brooding and tragic, it's served up with a healthy heaping of fun, mockery, and humor. As I was playing I kept thinking that, were Monty Python to make a Shakespeare parody, it would be a lot like this. It's very, very funny with genuine laugh out loud moments throughout.
The gamebook offers you the chance to play the part of Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet Sr. Yes, Hamlet Sr., aka The Ghost. In fact, his might be the best play through if you're simply going for comedy. Just selecting him as a character is a hoot. The game will also smartly switch you between characters throughout the story. For example (spoilers?) if you're playing as Hamlet Sr. and decide, as a ghost, to have your son kill Claudius instead of just doing it yourself, the author chides you harshly and then puts you in the shoes of Hamlet so you can see how terrible it is that his dad is asking him to commit murder.
The text in this game is presented similar to the inkle gamebooks in that you get small chunks, a sentence or three, before you tap to bring up some more text. One of the choices at the end of each scene will be marked with a skull, indicating the way the actual play proceeded. It's a nice touch, and just clicking the skull icon each time will take you through the entire play, albeit not as you're used to. There are pirates. Lots of pirates. Also, the "play within a play" is handled in the way a gamebook should handle it. I won't spoil it, but let's just say it involves a possible war with an army of skeletons.
At certain points during the game--usually upon shuffling off your mortal coil--you will get a full page piece of artwork from renowned webcomic artists. The pictures are all outstanding, some funny, some poignant. As you collect the images they are placed into your collection where you can go and view them at any time (as well as tap to get info on the artist, which is a nice touch). Oh, and I'm talking about a ton of art to collect, somewhere around 100 different pieces. I've been playing the hell out of this book and have collected, maybe, 20. There's a lot here to explore, and once you leave the path set by The Bard, you honestly have no idea where you'll end up. In one incredibly short play though, I ended up leading a ghost army against alien ghosts that invaded earth in 2100. Oh, and the ghost of FDR was there. It can happen.
Besides the text itself, you'll also be awarded with ridiculous achievements throughout each play through. The pomp that they're announced is funny in itself, but each achievement is for something completely stupid which just makes it better. At the end of each play through, you'll be ranked on the "Haml-o-meter" which is just like one of those cheesy, old-fashioned Kiss-o-meter arcade games. I've made it to Kissable and Cold Fish once, but am usually Not To Be. So sad. You're also awarded points throughout the adventure that are utterly and completely useless.
If you're a fan of Shakespeare, you have to know that Ryan North treats the subject with respect. Yes, it's funny, but he manages to still have Hamlet recite his soliloquies and keep the plot complete, if a bit more, um, fleshed out. This acknowledgement of the original play's greatness just makes the acknowledgement of outright sexism and plot holes that much better.
Tin Man Games and Ryan North have designed an exquisite experience with To Be or Not To Be. Unlike other gamebooks where, once you actually make it to the end you're pretty much done, I can see heading back to To Be or Not To Be for a long time. It is truly a fantastic gamebook and a great way to spend time with Shakespeare, even if you end up searching for sunken ships on the bottom of the North Sea. Yep, that can happen too.
This game was reviewed on an iPad Air.