Jason Shiga is a bit of a genius. As if being a Berkeley-educated maths whizz isn't enough - it's certainly enough for me, Jason - Shiga's also a wonderfully inventive comic book writer and artist. He's come up with weekly strips about finding yourself sealed in a phone booth (Fleep) and one-shot stories about the gritty world of library detectives (Bookhunter). My favourite of all his works, though, is probably Meanwhile, a colourful and rather strange sort of book with tabbed edges and glossy pages. It's interactive fiction in comic form, and it's now available on the iPhone and iPad. Hooray!
Even when bound in cardboard, Meanwhile doesn't look much like other comic books. Shiga's trademark round-headed heroes peak out from a familiar collection of panels, perhaps, but those panels are connected to each other by a dense, criss-crossing network of pipes - pipes which often race from one page, over a tab, and then onto another, before snaking back again. The pipes are how you follow your story through Meanwhile's non-linear layout. With the hardback, it can be something of a dexterity test as you run your finger around the paper. With the app, it's a far simpler matter of heading from one highlighted panel to the next. Tap tap tap. Ugh! You died. That was stupid of you.
The app's greatest achievement, perhaps, is in redesigning the entire layout of Meanwhile so it now works on a single master canvas - one on which you can zoom in and out as often as your heart desires. It gives you a lovely sense of Shiga, putting his narratives together with paper and scissors and thumbtacks. The story itself starts fairly simply - you're buying an ice cream and you're given a basic choice between two different flavours - but chances are high that, if you play through the narrative more than once, you're going to find it taking some weird leftfield turns into science fiction, philosophy, and even a cute strain of nihilistic horror.
All of that waits for you on the page, of course, and none of it deserves spoiling here. What I can tell you is that you'll be asked to make a number of tricky decisions throughout the course of your adventure in Meanwhile, but the app's very good at letting you go back over past narratives and explore what would have happened if you'd done things differently. Shiga's books are filled with tricks and puzzles, and Meanwhile is one of his most complex works to date: expect lots of overlapping trajectories and weird little feedback loops to get stuck into. Expect plenty of surprises and codes and jokes.
Meanwhile was developed in collaboration with the interactive fiction expert Andrew Plotkin, and it's an extremely elegant piece of work. To play it is to see the garden of forking paths laid out before you. To browse through it is to risk minutes turning into hours.
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