January 16, 2018

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The Bard Gets Bawdier “Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be” | Touch and Go

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EH150917-TouchGo-TobeNottobeStudying parody or William Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Looking for retelling of a classic with an unusual twist? Don’t miss Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be, now in digital.

Fans of parodies, bawdy humor, and absurd retellings of classic stories are sure to appreciate Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be (iOS $5.99; Android $5.99; Gr 9 Up). An irreverent take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the app was initially funded through a Kickstarter campaign and adapted by Tin Man Games from North’s 700-page novel, To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure (Breadpig, 2013). North’s version remains respectful of Shakespeare’s basic plot structure and is interspersed with fragments of the Bard’s original text, but it’s full of modern slang as well and, through numerous branching options, regularly veers off the beaten path on wildly imaginative tangents. It is lots of fun, but probably not for the serious scholar. North clearly delights in playing with the play.

After a brief introduction, readers are asked to choose how they want to experience the story—as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s father, Claudius. In North’s version, Hamlet is an “emo teen in his early thirties,” Ophelia is a science geek, and Claudius, a ghost. Readers simply tap the screen to move through bite-sized chunks of text until they arrive at “checkpoints” where they can select from a list of potential plot directions. All but the options marked with Yorick skull icons are deviations from the original story line. These deviations tend toward the surreal and the subversive. North examines Shakespeare’s narrative choices through his various story lines by making fun of the Bard’s approach to women, his plot directions, and, at times, even Hamlet’s personality. In this way, he uses satire to invite readers to deconstruct the story and look at it in new ways along with him.

Screen from Ryan North's To Be or Not to Be

Screen from Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be (Tin Man Games/Audioblock)

The gameplay here is as much of a spoof as the story itself. At the end of each branch, readers are shown their “stats,” which include purposely useless things like “naps napped,” “stockings befouled,” and “tasteless sexism.” They also get Haml-o-meter readings, ranging from “to be” through “wild thing” and “kissable” to “not to be,” and silly experience points, which are included purely for their entertainment value. Artwork by well-known web comic illustrators is unlocked after endings and random events. To add to the foolishness, North’s commentary often criticizes readers for the choices they make at the various checkpoints.

Thankfully, given the nature of North’s humor and all the story twists and turns, the interface is extremely streamlined and easy to use, consisting of arrows to jump forward and back through checkpoints and a menu icon which includes font and sound options and access to achievements, the artwork that’s been unlocked, and credits. For the most part, the screens are image-free, consisting primarily of text boxes on colorful backgrounds.

Those up for an unusually offbeat and entertaining take on Hamlet, will no doubt love Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be.Kathleen S. Wilson, New York University, NY, NY

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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