Interactive adventure books were all the rage in the early 1980s. In the UK we had Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, while America went big on the Choose Your Own Adventure interactive novels. Then home computers revolutionised leisure time and interactive books got replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer games.
The concept keeps popping back up though and now, with Meanwhile, it has found its way back into graphic novels.
Meanwhile uses a unique system of pipes and tabs to guide you through the story. Instead of reading left to right and top to bottom, each panel has an exit pipe that guides you to the next panel. If the pipe leads off page and onto a tab, turn to the page where the tab goes and keep on following the pipe.
The story sees a young boy stumble across an inventor’s laboratory on his way back from an ice cream shop. The inventor invites the boy to test out one of three inventions – a time machine, a mind-reading machine and a sort of genocide machine that will kill everyone in the world except for the person using it. Each of these technologies has a limited scope unless you can find the secret code required to unlock them. For instance, the time machine will only go back 10 minutes unless its code can be found, which is hidden within the book. With the code it will go back up to seven years (the point when the machine was built).
As you travel through the book there are choices to be made and puzzles to solve. These generally revolve around the central core question of time travel, fore-warning, randomness and parallel universes. If that sounds a bit heavy it’s really not – it may be based on the physics of science fiction but Jason Shiga’s design and story-telling skills keep things fast flowing and relatively easy to follow.
The book claims nearly 4,000 possible endings, many of which are death. Although it might not hold your attention long enough to explore all these to their conclusions, its short spurts of narrative and addictive one-more-try puzzles invite more frequent re-reading than most graphic novels.
It’s a brave and interesting book, superbly illustrated and executed. There’s something quaint and old-fashioned about its appeal, and those brought up on the sophistication of modern digital entertainment may find its more sedentary pace tedious. But check it out anyway – it’s a phenomenally innovative piece of interactive fiction, particularly in terms of its design.