The 39 Steps (PC)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Wednesday, June 5, 2013

While I have played a good number of visual novels from Japanese developers and indie creators, a digital adaptation of an existing novel is something I haven’t experienced before. This is exactly what The Story Mechanics have created with The Thirty-Nine Steps (also known at The 39 Steps), which takes John Buchan’s classic espionage thriller and adapts it into an interactive experience. From what I can tell this is the first release of its type, as while some novels have served as the inspiration to video games in the past they haven’t been directly adapted into a read and interact type experience (if I happen to be wrong about this, feel free to point me to some other examples). It’s available for just about every platform you can think of (Ipad, Mac, PC) and I had the chance to check out the PC version via Steam.

I have had The Thirty-Nine Steps installed for a good amount of time now, and part of the reason it has taken so long to write this review was because I had to figure out the most effective way to cover it. After all, this isn’t a game in the traditional sense, but rather a digital adaptation where players read and watch/listen to dialogue and events on-screen and occasionally have to click and perform some mouse gestures to move the story forward. Everything’s even laid out like the novel, as the main screen lays out “events” that unlock in order as the player progresses and they can be revisited at any time after being unlocked, much like the chapters in a book. There are achievements and in-game awards/collectible cards, but these are earned by completing events and clicking/exploring everything on a screen when given the opportunity to do so. The Story Mechanics should be commended for the way they have set up this adaptation, as it makes it easy to play in small chunks and revisit prior events if you’re coming back after a long break and have forgotten key details.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a thriller that stars Richard Hannay, an expatriate Scot who has returned to his London flat after a lengthy stay in Africa where he had generated a good deal of wealth as a mining engineer. The events unfold between May and June of 1914, with Europe on the brink of war. Hannay initially lives a quiet, modest life in London but one night is visited by a stranger who claims to be in great danger. His name is Franklin Scudder, and he reveals that he has uncovered a German plot to murder the Greek Premier and steal British plans for the outbreak of war. After a series of events Hannay is drawn into this web of danger and intrigue and becomes a man on the run, framed for a murder and pursued by the shadowy spies behind the German plot. Since the storyline is the entire experience I don’t want to go into much further detail and spoil the events, but I will say that it’s quite an interesting tale that starts off a bit slow but then ramps into overdrive and keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Much of the experience is spent reading dialogue and then clicking to advance to the next screen, but The Story Mechanics have managed to structure everything so that it doesn’t instantly become repetitive. Sometimes dialogue might branch across the screen in a linear fashion, while other times branching choices are presented that let the player take in all of the information of an event in the order they choose. There are also a number of scenes with voiced dialogue, as well as some vignette pieces that play out while certain characters are recalling events from their past. Occasionally control is granted to the player, and they may point and click static screens to look for clues (though the items in question usually glow yellow and are easy to make out). Additionally, there are a few sections where it is required to match the mouse gesture on screen and draw a line pointing up or in a circular direction when Hannay is performing actions like unlocking a door. It’s fairly minimal as far as interactivity goes but did match the particular scenes where it appeared, though even after finishing The Thirty-Nine Steps I’m still debating whether they were absolutely necessary or not.

Since much of your time is spent reading/watching, presentation is the most important element of this title and the developers were able to absolutely nail it. All of the scenes were hand painted, which gives a very unique look to the countryside and city locations that are represented in the story. The vignettes also stand out with their distinctive black and white look, and serve as a nice break from the other scenes. Rather than having characters onscreen, the voiced conversations use abstract character outlines. I liked this approach quite a bit, as when one reads a novel they form a picture of what a particular character looks like in their head based on how the author describes them but it’s never complete, often missing particular details and that’s exactly how everything seemed to be represented here. The Story Mechanics have also includes real maps and photographs/other items from the time period that The Thirty-Nine Steps was set in within the game, which helps to further draw you in and gives the project a greater feel of authenticity. Voice acting is another strong area, as they all give strong performances and the accents all sound convincing (at least to my ears, which I’m basing more on a love of cinema having not traveled anywhere in Europe just yet). Overall, the title does an excellent job of providing an engaging presentation that lets newcomers and people who have read this novel before experience the storyline in a way that genuinely feels different.

The Thirty-Nine Steps isn’t going to be for everyone, as I suspect there will be some people that desire more interactivity than this has to offer. But approached as a fresh take on an existing novel that merges together literature, cinema, and some light point and click gaming this is an exciting way to experience John Buchan’s work and the $14.99 price point seems reasonable for the production values involved. I’m curious if a different genre of story would translate into different interactivity and what types of projects The Story Mechanics have in mind for their next project, as anything that helps this digitally connected generation to experience literary classics is a good thing.

Note: You can grab the game’s soundtrack (which I didn’t talk about in the review at all, but the pieces fit the tone of the work quite well) for free at Soundcloud:
The 39 Steps on Green Man Gaming

PC System Requirements:

OS:Windows XP
Processor:2GHz Processor
Memory:2 GB RAM
Graphics:DirectX 9 512MB card
Hard Drive:2 GB HD space
Other Requirements:Broadband Internet connection

Mac System Requirements:

Processor:2.2GHz dual core processor
Memory:2 GB RAM
Graphics:GPU 128MB+
Hard Drive:2 GB HD space
Other Requirements:Broadband Internet connection

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