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Beyond paperback: books that work better as apps

Freed from the limitations of paper and ink, digital books can be so much more

You might be wedded to paper tomes – there’s something reassuring about settling down with a good book. But don’t shut yourself off from experiencing the riches in books reimagined for the touchscreen.

This round-up explores 18 such works, split into three groups. The first has apps that provide a new spin on educational tomes and classic literature. Next, we look into books that immerse you in the story by way of branching narratives. And finally, we recommend six titles that do exciting new things with picture books.

Bring science and classics to life…

Journeys of invention ($12.99/£10.99)

​This iPad-only deep dive into science, made in partnership with London’s Science Museum, has you investigate intertwined pathways through the history of inventions. Objects are then brought to life through 3D photography and interactive moments like exploring the interior of the Apollo 10 Command Module and examining a flea with Robert Hooke’s 17th-century microscope.

Download Journeys of Invention

Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy ($3.99/£3.49)

​Head into any good bookstore and you’ll find a volume on da Vinci’s pioneering anatomical drawings, replete with photographs and text-based commentary. This iPad app goes further, letting you zoom into high-res imagery, use a spyglass to decode da Vinci’s mirror writing, and even pull illustrations from the page, which can then be explored in 3D.

Download Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy

Universe in a Nutshell ($2.99/£2.49)

​Aimed at kids, but ideal for anyone who loves a good bit of illustrated fare, this app has you compare the size of over 250 objects. Each has a succinct write up, and you can start with the Planck length and zoom all the way out to the limits of the observable universe.

Download Universe in a Nutshell

Solar Walk 2 ($2.99/£2.49)

​We’re stretching the definition of a book app a bit here, given that Solar Walk 2 is primarily an interactive orrery, where virtual planets orbit a digital sun. But tap any one of the celestial bodies and you can delve into graphs and info, and even crack it open to see what’s inside.

Download Solar Walk 2

iPoe Vol. 1 – Edgar Allan Poe ($3.99/£3.49)

​Horror is well suited to books that go beyond paper, with iPoe enhanced by a chilling soundtrack, and typography that plays with pacing. Interactive visual elements add further to the sense of immersion. If you like what you see, iClassics pulls much the same trick with Lovecraft, Dickens, and Doyle too.

Download iPoe Vol. 1 – Edgar Allen Poe

Frankenstein: Interactive ($2.99/£2.49)

​Mary Shelley’s classic features a monster comprising stitched together body parts; suitably, this app does the same with the novel’s component parts. You’re placed inside the story as Frankenstein’s conscience and guide, making decisions to further the narrative. It looks great, although be mindful your choices don’t stop the fact you’re always barreling towards Shelley’s original ending.

Download Frankenstein: Interactive

Choose your own adventure…

Lifeline… ($1.99/£1.79)

​This app subverts the ‘choose your own adventure’ sub-genre by upending the story’s pace. Your goal is to help stranded astronaut Taylor survive a hostile planet. But messages arrive in real-time as per the context of the story. Hours pass between replies, and you’ll find yourself genuinely concerned about Taylor’s fate – and second-guessing your advice!

Download Lifeline…

Choice of the Dragon (free + IAP)

​Stories with dragons mostly end with a fire-breathing terror being offed by a knight. Here, you are the dragon, snoozing on gold and kidnapping princesses. The action plays out in old-school ‘choose your own adventure’ style – ideal for iPhone. And if you like the set up, Choice of Games LLC has many more stories to choose from.

Download Choice of the Dragon

Fighting Fantasy Classics (free + IAP)

​The original Fighting Fantasy series added dice-based role-playing to branching narratives. This app brings them to your phone. Amusingly, there’s a cheat ‘free read’ mode and unlimited save points – a digital take on the five-fingered bookmark. Other benefits include tracking where you’ve explored so far, atmospheric audio, and your virtual dice never getting lost under the sofa.

Download Fighting Fantasy Classics

80 Days ($4.99/£4.49)

​Inspired by the famous tale of Phileas Fogg circumnavigating the globe, this app finds you helping the braggart make good on his bet in a fantastical steampunk 1872 full of mechanical elephants and giant airships. The rich storytelling branches so often that you feel like you’re in full control, making this a truly memorable digital book.

Download 80 Days

Overboard! ($5.99/£4.99)

​By the same people as 80 Days, Overboard! is more novella than novel. Having shoved your husband into the drink during a transatlantic crossing, you have hours to get away with murder through whatever means are at your disposal. The tale’s brevity ensures replays are no chore as you gradually chip away at an optimal solution.

Download Overboard!

Ord. ($1.99/£1.79)

​If you think Overboard! takes too long to get through its story, maybe try Ord. It blazes through its narrative, with each tiny scene comprising three words: a set-up, a decision, and a pay-off. Your mind has to do a lot to fill in the blanks, but the fast-paced storytelling proves compelling.

Download Ord.

Make picture books come alive…

Florence ($2.99/£2.49)

​This storybook features the titular protagonist going about her daily life and finding her first love. Bereft of words, it uses illustration, motion, audio, and simple interactions to guide you. For example, on a date, speech balloons feature puzzle pieces that decrease in number as the couple relaxes. It’s a short but sweet tale.

Download Florence

Burly Men at Sea ($4.99/£4.49)

​Despite offering control over the heroes – three fishermen with impressive beards – and a few arcade sequences, this one’s really a heavily illustrated storybook. It’s charming stuff, with gorgeous art and audio. Pleasingly, if you decide a particular journey through its world was especially memorable, you can order it as a more traditional digital book.

Download Burly Men at Sea

DEVICE 6 ($3.99/£3.49)

​The most audacious, arresting title in this round-up, DEVICE 6 plays with the conventions of literature and games, in a mysterious, intriguing tale of technology and neuroscience. The story is fashioned into pathways you explore, peppered with puzzles. It’s an experience like no other, showing what’s possible when text-based storytelling embraces the future and discards the limitations of the past.

Download DEVICE 6

unmemory ($6.99/£5.99)

​This one confounds expectations in a manner not dissimilar to DEVICE 6, even if it starts off resembling a conventional digital book with one long scrolling page. Quickly, you realize each chapter is an interwoven mesh of sorts that requires keen observation and the ability to solve sometimes devious puzzles to progress.

Download unmemory

If Found… ($4.99/£4.49)

​This app provides a simpler take on visual novels. It features two narratives: one finds a woman struggling on returning to her hometown, and another features an astronaut who discovers a black hole that threatens Earth. To continue at any point, you must erase what you’ve read – a curious interaction that makes sense as the tale’s revelations appear at its conclusion.

Download If Found…

Blackbar ($2.99/£2.49)

There are no pictures in Blackbar – it’s a bleak tome of typed text. But we’d have been remiss to omit it. The story features you swapping messages with a friend in a dystopian future – and tumbling into a world of censorship. It’s an excellent example of how words alone make you think – and how smart interactions can infuse ideas still further.

Download Blackbar