Meanwhile is a branched-storyline comic written and illustrated by Jason Shiga, originally published as a printed book. Interactive game developer Andrew Plotkin designed and coded the iOS version, available on the iOS App Store [iTunes link]. While I’ve seen the print edition, my first experience of the story was via the iOS app, as it will be for most readers.
Meanwhile is about a boy named Jimmy who buys some ice cream. Then things get complicated.
The comic is an infinite canvas; the app pans across the storyboard following the branching pathways. There’s a subtle rhythm in how the panels are laid out; sequences which happen quickly or follow naturally are clustered together in a single viewport. Surprise reveals, or shifts in time and place, are often in panels located far from their antecedent; the app reinforces this shift by swiftly panning across the story world. There’s an ever-present tension between this sense of place, and knowing that the canvas itself is too hopelessly tangled to really follow.
There was a moment in my first readthrough where I laughed out loud in surprise; the mechanics and the story clicked perfectly. An interactive narrative may begin life as a purely conceptual idea about form (“I’d like to tell a choose-your-own-adventure story as a comic book”). If it’s successful, it will just appear to have been the natural way to tell that story. Interactivity isn’t an add-on or an enhancement — it’s a genre in its own right, not substitutable with another method of expression.
Meanwhile is expertly paced — one of the hardest things to control in an interactive work. There’s a gentle opener (certainly a comic book should not need instructions), some set-up with intriguing foreshadowing, and then quickly “goes wide”, providing branch points which clearly lead to a variety of outcomes.
There are even a few puzzles to solve, a feat given the fact that the entire story is plainly visible. Puzzles mean the story isn’t simply about tapping through all the branches until you’ve exhausted the narrative tree. Problem-solving provides narrative drive and consequences for failure; as a reader, I was motivated to succeed. (And discovering the “one path [that] will lead you to happiness and success” was particularly satisfying.)
Requires iOS 4.2+, 28.3MB
Meanwhile is available for iPhone/iPod as well as iPad. I played on my iPhone, which feels more “right” to me than the larger viewport available on the iPad. Unfortunately the artwork is not high-res and looks a little grainy on a Retina screen; I’d love to see an update with new art. There are subtle sound effects which I didn’t notice until a later playthrough; they aren’t necessary for the story and I happen to prefer my interactive works to be silent, so this is purely optional.
The application is also accessible with VoiceOver. Each panel has textual description of the depicted events and dialog, making it fully playable for visually-impaired users. Hooray!
Conclusion: Highly recommended and well-worth $4.99 USD.