“Reading” Frankenstein as a Puzzle

In my English 10, general education “Great Works of Literature” course, we will be “reading” a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a mobile app puzzle game: OKBOS.


The developers, Thane Plambeck and Greg Whitehead, two computer scientists who are also avid readers, first experimented with Moby Dick as this puzzle game where certain words in a brief passage need to be unscrambled in order to read the entire text. (The example below is from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)


At first, I thought this might be a gimmick. After working through Alice in Wonderland, though, I realized how much I slowed down to read the language inherent to the novel — and saw a great many linguistic tics by Alice, much the same way Tim Cassedy, author of “A Blankness Full of Meaning,” describes his encounter with OMBY, the Moby Dick puzzle:

What I love about this is the occasion it provides to engage Moby-Dick on the level of the word, which might be Moby-Dick’s weirdest and most delicious level. It’s almost always easier to engage Moby-Dick in terms of theme or plot, which means attending to parts of the text that have particularly vivid narrative or thematic significance. OMBY calls for a different kind of attention. Its puzzles aren’t subordinated to each other the way plot elements are; they’re additive: one and another and another and another and another. The puzzles that happen to be narratively significant require no more or less attention than any of the others.

Moby-Dick rewards this kind of equal-opportunity close reading because every freaking page is dense with word-twisting images as aching as Bulkington’s apotheosis, as audacious as Ishmael’s sperm-hands, and as verbally disorienting as “a colorless, all-color of atheism.” OMBY is like a friend who accompanies me to the Louvre and keeps me from striding past a hundred unfamiliar masterworks on my way to see the ones I already know. In the Louvre, though, the art is already on the wall. OMBY lets me co-create Moby-Dick’s unfamiliar ingenuities, searching like Melville for the right words, massaging the letters into something meaningful.

So, we spoke with the developers in English 153 (British Novel) last semester; after an intriguing set of requests by some students to gamify the app even further with competitive revelations (.e.g., “you are THE FIRST to solve this novel!”) and a discussion about why the developers chose these particular novels to turn into puzzles, they encouraged all of my students to contact them if they had an idea for another novel, as long as the text was available in Project Gutenberg. Natalie Garcia, the Frankenstein Bicentennial project manager, was a student in that class and suggested we give it a try with Frankenstein. The developers jumped onto the idea and in less than 2 months have created the puzzle app version of Frankenstein (1818) in OKBOS.

In our initial conversations, Greg noted that “it looks like there would be about 3802 pages (3661 with puzzles) [for Frankenstein]. For comparison, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has 1469 pages (1266 with puzzles) and Through the Looking Glass has 1700 pages (1490 with puzzles).” Admittedly, Alice’s language is much simpler use of syntax and sentence construction. Shelley’s writing style of long, sinuous sentences embedded in paragraphs of pastoral descriptions of Nature provides a sumptuous representation of British Romanticism. (“Romantic” here isn’t what you think it is!) It will be interesting to dig into the puzzle to discern if the languishing and always morally-confused Victor can be the same as we solve the puzzles. Or, if I will again resort to over-using the “Hints” feature included in OKBOS…tsk…tsk.

We were curious last semester about the use of “hints” on the app — if you get stuck, you don’t have to suffer on the same passage for very long. Most of my students refused to use the hints out of a sense of honor (!), though I was fairly liberal with that hint button. Though they don’t track identifying information about users, the developers can see the number of uses of hints to solve puzzles:

Some stats on Alice:
  • Out of 66 readers of Alice, 3 have solved all 1266 puzzles. Two of those didn’t use any hints at all.
  • The biggest hint user has solved 1163 puzzles using 421 hints.
  • The average is 1 hint used for every 10 puzzles solved.
Comparing to Moby Dick (our OMBY app):
  • Out of 531 readers of Moby Dick, 5 have solved all 10395 puzzles. One of those only used 9 hints.

The biggest hint user solved all 10395 puzzles using 3073 hints.

The average is about 1.1 hint used for every 10 puzzles solved.

It’s interesting that the average hint usage is about the same, but it’s not unexpected — we [Greg and Thane] targeted the same average difficulty when selecting puzzles for both books.
Distribution of puzzle lengths in Alice
4: 44
5: 52
6: 76
7: 240
8: 496
9: 222
10: 71
11: 29
12: 21
13: 4
14: 11
Distribution of puzzle lengths in Moby Dick
4: 261
5: 320
6: 702
7: 1839
8: 4078
9: 1921
10: 652
11: 328
12: 159
13: 60
14: 77
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THESE STATS? I’m definitely the one in Alice who used the most hints, I think — egads!

Great Works students will work on this gamification of Mary Shelley’s novel towards the end of the semester. With this new addition of Frankenstein to the OKBOS library, the game is $2.99. (If you downloaded it previously, the latest update is free!)

Other novels included in the app (for free):

  • Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland
  • Through the Looking-Glass
  • Little Women
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes


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