One thing that I love about video games is how they can take a story I’ve already heard several ways, and turn it into an entirely new experience that’s just as engaging as if I was hearing it for the first time. The 39 Steps by The Story Mechanics is the first in what they call “digital adaptations”, which fall somewhere between a visual novel and a radio show. The idea if simple, but the execution highly stylized and the pacing tightly wound to make what could have been a dry collection of text a surprisingly compelling and intense narrative piece.
I shouldn’t have to tell you what The 39 Steps is about (as I imagine most should be familiar with the classic novel and numerous film adaptations and spin-offs), but as a refresher it follows Scottish man Richard Hannay, recently retired and now lost in a series of humdrum days and occurrences. All of this changes when a stranger barges into his life and reveals a German plot that if carried out could throw the world into a war the likes of which it had yet seen. Shortly thereafter the man, now revealed to a spy known as Scudder, is found dead in Hannay’s apartment, leaving him the only one alive with the knowledge of what is soon to unfold, and the only person who could possibly prevent it.
While the narrative of The 39 Steps is as intriguing and thrilling as ever, it’s the way that it’s told in this instance that makes it worth revisiting (or checking out for the first time) as opposed to numerous other formats you could choose. The Story Mechanics haven’t settled for a simple text format in retelling Josh Buschan’s tale, instead using a collection of visual tricks and clever insertion of back story to create a brilliant interactive story that far exceeds the simplistic adaptations that have been experimented with in the past. Fantastic use of camera angles, deliberate placement of text to draw your eye toward parts of the watercolor backgrounds, and excellent voice acting from all parties make it incredibly easy to get swept away in the plot even during the slower, some may even call mundane, moments.
The only real instances where The 39 Steps falls a tad flat are the awkwardly implemented gestures that sometimes accompany moments like opening doors or reading letters. They were obviously intended to make the game feel more like, well, a game, but they’re shoehorned in such a way that feels tacked on an unnecessary. Thankfully they’re infrequent enough that they never amount to more than a bit of a bother nor take but a few seconds to complete.
Though some might scoff at the emphasis on exposition and almost complete lack of traditional gameplay, those that can appreciate The 39 Steps for the bit of interactive fiction it is will be rewarded with an exciting and wonderfully paced tale of spies, murder, and more than a few close shaves. Having no real idea what to expect, I was very pleasantly surprised with the end result of The Story Mechanics’s first attempt at a “digital adaptation”, and it has gotten my mind spinning thinking of so many other books I’d love to see turned into future games. Hopefully this is only the first to come.