Jason Shiga – Meanwhile (Comic, Game AND iPhone Review!)

Meanwhile cover

Jason Shiga - Meanwhile

After looking at the way that some computer games played with the Choose Your Own Adventure mechanics, I searched around to see what other ways the genre had evolved. For the most part, it was disappointing. Books in that format are strongly influenced by the original ones, and seem to be poorly-written and arbitrary children’s stories. But I did find one work worth noting: A comic by Jason Shiga named Meanwhile.

Meanwhile is structured so that each panel has a line leading to the next. When there are choices to be made, that line branches, presenting two or more simple choices to follow. Each page has a tab on the side, so that a line that leads off the page can easily be followed to a tab on another page. It sounded a little confusing at first, but turned out to very easy to follow.

A look inside Meanwhile

Fitting these panels and pages together coherently was an impressive feat. The notes in the book say that it took complex computer processing to determine an efficient way to lay them out. But the layout is not only practical: Many pages are structured in a symmetrical or otherwise pleasant way, and even the panels that share a page are deliberately chosen. Of course, it’s not possible to focus on just the string of panels that you should be following. For example, your initial innocuous choice of ice cream flavors may lead you to a quiet trip home, but the reader can’t help but notice that the same page includes panels of the ice cream man wielding an axe and the main character saying “I can stop myself from killing everyone.” Just what is going on?

What is actually going on turns out to be a complex story. It starts with the protagonist finding a scientist’s lab, and being given the opportunity to play with a time machine, a mind-reading helmet, or a doomsday device. Each of these have clever uses or caveats, though, and the explanation gets into somewhat geeky territory. This makes ingenious use of time travel paradoxes and Multiple Worlds Theory, both of which actually fit in very nicely with a choose your own adventure structure.

The book’s format becomes part of the experience, with parallel paths showing things that are happening at the same time, convoluted branching paths when the reader should not be able to easily predict them, and even red herring panels next to real ones when the book doesn’t want to give away secrets. The way coin flips graphically create branches among parallel universes is a favorite of mine, but the most practical trick is the secret codes the reader must discover. Since they need to explore to get to those, the book guarantees that they will not reach the big reveals until they have already seen most of the book. This gives a pacing to the meta-story that I’ve never seen in a story like this before, and truly makes it feel like one coherent puzzle to work out. As the story finally does come together, it is clever and surprising in a way similar to the rest of the book.

Meanwhile requires a lot of appreciation for science fiction premises and a computer programmer’s logical thinking, so it’s definitely not for everyone. If you do appreciate puzzles of that sort, though, this is an outstanding book.

Grade: A

After Meanwhile was published, it was adapted to an iPhone app by Andrew Plotkin (known in the Interactive Fiction community as Zarf). This is a respectful and thorough adaptation, with the panels reworked to fit in a single large canvas. The reader simply taps on panels to advance through the story, and tools are available to view (or rewind) the current story’s history, or simply to browse through the story freely. A highlighting system even makes it easy to follow the panels and paths that should be the reader’s focus.

A screenshot of the Meanwhile App

Though the app is slick and bug-free, it doesn’t provide an experience as satisfying as the original book’s. The iPhone rarely shows more than one panel at a time, so the surrounding panels can’t pull the subtle tricks that I appreciated so much. (I haven’t tried this on an iPad, but it looks like the larger screen may solve this problem.) The feeling of manually following the paths is lost, too, and as silly as it may sound, that helps to create a personal involvement in the story and its puzzles. Instead, the iPhone just zips to the location of the next panel, and it’s not even obvious which direction it went in. Some of the tricks of following those lines (such as the coin-flipping I mentioned earlier) are simplified, and lose the impact they should have. (It’s strange that this version does not have the duplicated and red herring panels that the book had, even though they wouldn’t add to the printing cost in the app.)

The story is still as interesting as the original, and the iPhone app is much cheaper (and easier to find) than the book, so this definitely has its uses. If you have the choice, though, I highly recommend that you experience this story in book form.

Grade: B

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