Kristopher Holmquist is an author struggling to finish his final story, the one great work that will define his career. There's just one problem: he's already dead. So in an effort to complete the much anticipated novel, his consciousness has been uploaded to a computer, and a new digital being known as KRIS toils away writing the end of the book. The technology isn't perfect, though, and KRIS has gaps in his memory. He needs you to help him remember things to get the story just right.
That's the basic setup for The Ice-Bound Compendium, a sort of literary take on Transcendence and any number of other cyberpunk tales. But it's also much more than that. The experience is a combination of an app that lets you interact with KRIS and write the story, and a physical book that includes the unfinished draft of Holmquist's last novel. The two aspects of the experience inform one another, and you'll find yourself flipping back between the two. Ice-Bound isn't quite ready for release — the team is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the book printing process — but you should be able to experience it early next year. And after playing around with early versions of the app and book, I can't wait.
You'll find yourself flipping back between the two mediums
Ice-Bound is sort of like a digital, interactive take on Mark Z. Danielewski's influential novel House of Leaves, a book that told several stories simulatenously, turning the act of reading into a sort of puzzle. Like that book, Ice-Bound features multiple layers of story. There's the in-the-moment narrative, where you work with KRIS to figure out the rest of the novel. This takes place in an iPad app, using a clever system that has you choosing objects to create events, which in turn help you find an ending. It’s a tactile and surprisingly intuitive way of creating a story that’s already in progress. As you do this, you'll chat with KRIS, and learn more about both his digital self and his former life as a living human author.
Then there's the actual story you're helping to write. Just like House of Leaves' impossible house, the Ice-Bound Compendium's story is set in a seemingly mundane place that's full of mystery. In this case, it's an arctic research station that's slowly sinking into the Earth. As sections of the station slip into the ether, new ones are added on top, creating layers and layers of hidden mysteries. The novel is about the latest team of explorers venturing into the depths of the station. It's a premise that works perfectly: in order to delve further into the mysteries of KRIS and his work, you literally have to follow a team of explorers.
To top it all off, there's the physical book. I've only seen a short, unfinished version of the book, but it contained a surprising amount of information to pore over. There were bits and pieces from The Ice-Bound Fragments, the posthumously published unfinished version of the novel which proved popular after Holmquist's death. This was interspersed with author's notes, an interview with his daughter, and more. At certain points you'll need to scan the book with your iPad's camera to relay bits of information to KRIS in his digital world. It somehow feels both gimmicky and natural at the same time: I'm not sure the physical book is completely necessary for the experience, but it definitely made me more immersed. "Our aim was to make each half of Ice-Bound essential to the whole," says co-creator Aaron Reed.
"Our aim was to make each half of Ice-Bound essential to the whole."
Despite its engrossing story, the idea started not with a character or setting, but with the idea of fusing a book and iPad into a new kind of narrative experience. Inspired a grant to create "the future of the book" from the Art Institute of Chicago — which they ultimately didn't get — Reed and partner Jacob Garbe started thinking about various ways of combining the two mediums, which led to the birth of Holmquist and his digital doppelganger. "I'd say the form gave fruit to the substance," says Garbe.
The similarities to House of Leaves aren't accidental, as the book proved to be an early source of inspiration for Ice-Bound, along with several other works that tackle similarly metatextual ideas. They helped inform not only the structure of Ice-Bound, but also elements of its story. "Ice-Bound's setting, Carina Station, while inspired by a real fact (polar bases built on ice continually sink due to their own heat) also taps into a common theme in these kinds of books, pursuing some indefinite, indeterminate point which lies both within and below," explains Garbe.
With the advent of devices like the iPad, books and games have been coming closer and closer together. Experiences like Device 6 and 80 Days are essentially interactive novels that fuse game elements with traditional text-based storytelling. In addition to the iPad version I demoed, Ice-Bound is also coming to the PC (using a webcam to scan the book), with Mac and Android versions also a possibility. But no matter how many platforms it's on, with its physical book requirement Ice-Bound will be a somewhat inaccessible experience compared to other mobile games and apps. It's not something you can simply download and play -- but the developers seem okay with this fact.
"Ultimately we want to try to push the people that would just play a game to engage with a book, and vice-versa," says Garbe. "That might limit our audience a bit, but it's more important to us to be pushing the boundaries of these experiences. And frankly, we like the idea of challenging readers and gamers alike to step outside their comfort zone. We want to start that conversation."