The 39 Steps is a digital novel realisation of the book of the same name by John Buchan. It is developed by The Story Mechanics and published by KISS Ltd for the PC, Mac, iPad and soon the Android.
The 39 Steps takes on the grand task of bringing the book of the same name to a wider audience, keeping quite a close hold on the original dialogue as well as offering versions of the script devoid of dialect, subtitles or even allowing you to read it all in Gaelic, though the voice acting will still be in English.
It follows a short period of time consisting of dates between the months of May and June 1914 as Richard Hannay, leading a reasonably well off, normal life, becomes embroiled in a foreign plot to cause war in Europe. A spy of no affiliation, Franklin Scudder, approaches Hannay when he is in the utmost danger, seeking help and refuge from his would be killers. From there Hannay is brought straight into the world of espionage as he tries to keep his life, while foiling the insidious plot.
The game slowly unravels things by teaching you the basics of control so that you may progress at your own pace. It tries to get you to use the mouse by making a sweeping clockwise motion to progress and anti-clockwise to go back a step. It works most of the time but when there are options to click or tap the arrow keys to progress instead etc is seems to be more awkward than it needs to be.
The story flows with your guidance occasionally more interactive elements get involved. Sometimes you’ll be faced with a circle of words each giving more information and background on the keyword once clicked. Other times you’ll be given a small scene, mostly explorable by dragging the screen with your mouse. Objects of interest gleam with an orange tint, letting you investigate further with your mouse-clicks.
Objects explored this way sometimes will let you investigate them further with a choice of viewing angles to let you see more of it. Much of these objects will be single note objects that don’t offer much more than a close up but the newspapers and books help you gleam a bit more knowledge of the current political and cultural states of London. It also offers more detail into the viewpoints of the press on certain plot points which is quite an interesting read.
Occasionally you will be asked to perform actions using the mouse to click and gesture (multi-step) actions such as opening a door. It’s a little infrequent and seems quite out of place to suddenly make you do work to progress the story. It works reasonably well with some of the more dramatic moments that it’s used in, but opening a door feels so mundane and uneventful, that it shouldn’t really be used in this fashion.
Like a book it is very easy to get sucked into the story and both the audio and voice acting that accompany it further help it to do so. It is however quite hands off and if you are expecting something more like and adventure game then you are setting yourself up for a fall. It is still both a wonderful read and a pleasure to listen to but it does feel like your input is there for nothing more than to pretend it is more interactive than it is. That having been said it might also work better on touch devices that use controls like these as a staple but for PC much of it comes across as a little uneasy.
The story might take a little while to get rolling but it soon ramps up the pace and is quite thrilling throughout. It keeps a serious tone that is broken somewhat by the odd silhouette silent films that explain certain sections that probably would have been better filled by some more abstract and in line with the rest of the game. This version of the story strays none too far from the books original plot which might be more or less suitable for some dependant on whether the Hitchcock adaptation or any of those that followed are more to your taste.
Presentation and Audio
Standing somewhere between an audiobook, a novel and a visual novel, the game is neither wholly one nor the other. Like with reading a book or listening to it, much is left to the imagination. Misty figures stand in place of fully realised characters, leaving your mind to fill in their finer details and actions. The voice acting is simply incredible with maybe one or two minor characters not being to the same standard but Nick Underwood really steals the show as Richard Hannay, giving a great amount of life to the character.
I highly recommend trying it if you have any want to try something that is essentially a new way to experience what is considered to be one of the greatest literary works. Whilst it is listed as a game on Steam and the like, I would hesitate to call it that. The interactivity that that defines a game is limited to be more akin to that of turning the pages of a book, if not more cumbersome. What has been achieved is of great merit to The Story Mechanics and should hopefully lead to more adaptations with a greater exploration of the interactive elements.
I managed to take a quite leisurely pace, looking over all the details and reading though extra background material such as the various newspapers. It’s quite enjoyable to read through and it helps you get a little more sense of the world and time it took pace in. With all of that involved I managed to get though it in just over four hours, so far longer than a film adaptation would allow for but saving time on reading fully through the book.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.