Freed from the limitations of paper and ink, digital books can be so much more
You might consider yourself wedded to paper tomes – and that’s fine. Even in the digital age, there’s something reassuring and pleasant about settling down with a good book. But we also recommend not shutting yourself off from experiencing the potential riches found in books reimagined for the touchscreen.
This round-up delves into a dozen such books, broadly split into three groups. First, we check out apps that provide a new spin on educational tomes and classic literature – fairly traditional books optimized for mobile in key ways. Next, we explore books that immerse you in the story by way of branching narratives. And finally, there’s a selection of visually oriented fare – apps that do exciting new things with comics and picture books.
Bring science and classics to life…
Stephen Hawking’s Pocket Universe
$3/£3 • v1.02 • 159 MB • By Random House
The joke goes that most pages in A Brief History of Time are blank, because no-one ever reads past the first few chapters. If you’ve ever tried to digest Stephen Hawking’s seminal work, but found it too tough to get your head around, it’s worth having another go with this app edition.
Designed specifically for iPhone, Stephen Hawking’s Pocket Universe is a colorful, vibrant creation, packed full of movement and illustrations. Topics are broken down into bite-sized sections, and the app records your progress, making it ideal for commutes.
It might not leave you with a brain the size of a planet, but delve in regularly and you’ll get a handle on space-time, black holes, and the expanding universe.
The Elements by Theodore Gray
$9/£9 • v3.0.1 • 1.7 GB • By Touch Press Inc
If your idea of science is more about the physical than the theoretical, The Elements might be just the ticket. This reference book gives you a periodic table, where each of the elements is shown as a visual sample. Tap one and the magic begins.
Each element’s then displayed as a rotating sample, which you can zoom to full screen, spin with a finger, and even view in 3D if you’ve a pair of 3D spectacles handy. When you fancy doing a bit of reading, you can delve into facts and figures, and the story behind the element. And if you’re still eager for more, Molecules offers another tactile slice of iPhone science.
iPoe Vol. 1 – Edgar Allan Poe
$4/£4 • v4.7.1 • 200.7 MB • By iClassics Productions, S.L.
It turns out horror is a genre well suited to a dose of interactivity. When you’re sitting there with iPoe, deep into a short story, the atmosphere’s suitably heightened by a chilling soundtrack playing in the background.
The app takes advantage of the iPhone in other ways, too. The typography is carefully and cleverly designed, playing with pacing by varying the text’s size. There are interactive visual elements as well, which add to the sense of immersion.
$3/£3 • v1.1.1 • 238.4 MB • By inkle
In similar territory to iPoe, Frankenstein: Interactive provides a new way to experience Mary Shelley’s classic tale. Just as the story’s monster comprises body parts stitched together, this app is – suitably – more or less the same with parts of a novel.
In short, author Dave Morris places you inside the story as Frankenstein’s guide and conscience, making decisions to drive the narrative onwards. It all looks rather gorgeous as the virtual pages appear after you make a decision, although it’s worth noting that the choices you make are ultimately arbitrary – you’re always barreling towards Shelley’s original ending.
Choose your own adventure…
$2/£2 • v1.10.1 • 29.9 MB • By 3 Minute Games, LLC
Branching narratives provide the reader with a feeling of control, even if they’re merely taking a ride along pre-defined pathways devised by a writer. But Lifeline subverts the ‘choose your own adventure’ sub-genre by cleverly working with the way modern devices are interacted with.
The conceit is you’ve received a distress call from stranded astronaut Taylor who needs your help to survive. This is offered by way of canned responses. The clever bit is messages arrive in real-time as per the context of the story. Sometimes hours pass between replies, and you find yourself genuinely concerned about the fate of the protagonist, second-guessing every bit of advice you’d offered up until that moment.
Arcadia by Iain Pears
Free + $4/£4 • v1.0.3 • 35.7 MB • By Amphio Limited
It’s safe to say that Arcadia is a book primarily about the journey. Each of the ten characters’ tales – set across three interlocking worlds – begins and ends in the same chapter. But between those points, everything diverges and intersects, in a tangled web of intrigue, time travel and adventure.
This is a rare book in it allowing you to follow multiple characters through a series of intertwining tales. It also offers plenty of re-reading value, since you get a different experience every time. The app includes a beautifully designed map, too, making it easy to find your way back to points you’d like to explore, so you can then take a different path.
Fighting Fantasy Classics
Free + IAP • v1.33 • 204 MB • By Tin Man Games
Fans of branching narratives were well catered for during the 1980s with Choose Your Own Adventure titles. But Fighting Fantasy took things a step further, adding a dice-based role-playing element that drew on tabletop board games. This app brings such fantasy worlds (and dice) to your iPhone.
Entertainingly, the app gives you the means to ‘cheat’, through a ‘free read’ mode and unlimited save points that are the digital equivalent of a five-fingered bookmark. But in digital form, Fighting Fantasy also excels in other ways: you can track everywhere you’ve explored to date in the current book; there’s atmospheric audio to get you in the adventuring mood; and the virtual dice won’t ever get stuck under the sofa.
$5/£5 • v1.27 • 193.3 MB • By inkle
The pinnacle of branching narrative storytelling on iPhone, 80 Days is based on the famous tale of Phileas Fogg circumnavigating the globe. However, the level of ambition sets it apart from other apps.
The basics you’ll be familiar with: Fogg’s a braggart, makes a bet, and then has to travel around the world in the allotted time. But the story is set in a fantastical steampunk 1872, full of mechanical elephants and giant airships.
It’s the structure that most shines, though. Branching happens with such frequency that it really does feel like you’re controlling the narrative, and a smattering of game-like inventory management and strategizing ensures this is a truly compelling, memorable digital book.
Make picture books come alive…
Madefire Comics & Motion Books
Free + IAP • v2.16.0 • 61.2 MB • By Madefire Inc.
For the comic purist, it’s likely anathema to suggest the medium could be augmented with interactivity, sound, and motion. But Madefire offers a tasteful take on enhanced comics, the end result of which resembles a halfway house between graphic novels and animations.
Many of the 30,000 available ‘motion books’ have parallax covers, which you can drag to adjust the scene before you. When reading, you advance the strip frame by frame. Components move and slide into position as sound effects play out in the background. It’s not exactly cinematic, but it is intriguing, whether or not you’re an aficionado of the real thing.
$3/£3 • v1.0.2 • 1 GB • By Annapurna Interactive
Drawing inspiration from graphic novels, webcomics, and storybooks, Florence features the titular protagonist as she goes about her daily life, and then finds her first love.
It’s a narrative tale that’s bereft of words. Instead, it cleverly uses illustration, motion, audio, and basic interactions to guide you. In one scene, the tedium of Florence’s work life is made clear by you tapping out figures for a spreadsheet. On a date, you fill speech balloons with puzzle pieces that decrease in number as the two people on the screen become more relaxed and confident.
The time you’ll spend with Florence is short, but this is an emotionally charged, intimate and cleverly designed slice of iPhone storytelling.
Burly Men at Sea
$5/£5 • v1.3.3 • 207 MB • By Brain&Brain
Three fishermen with impressive beards chance upon a map, but it’s blank. A sagely fellow then proffers: “It’s a worthy adventure that begins with the unknown. This map has tales yet to tell.” And that proves to be the case.
Again, we’re in a grey area of branching narratives and sort-of game design. Burly Men at Sea offers fairly direct control over the bearded heroes, and arcade-oriented sequences, but it’s mostly a heavily illustrated storybook.
It’s all very charming, with beautiful art and music. Only the game’s slow pace and paucity of paths robs it of long-term appeal. For a while, though, it’s a delight; and, pleasingly, if you decide a particular journey was especially memorable, you can order it as a real-world hardback.
$4/£4 • v1.3 • 804 MB • By Simogo AB
The most audacious and arresting title in this round-up, DEVICE 6 plays with the conventions of narrative literature and videogames, blending story, geography, and puzzles, in a mysterious and intriguing tale of technology and neuroscience.
The stylish, cinematic intro gives you a sense of what you’re in for, but then you’re left alone on a remote island, with no idea how you got there. Moreover, the story itself has been fashioned into corridors and pathways you use to explore your surroundings.
As you twist and turn your device, making notes, figuring out how to progress, it quickly becomes clear DEVICE 6 is an experience like no other. Part novella, part game, it showcases a bold, stylish future for text-based storytelling when it fully embraces the future and discards the limitations of the past.