The Numberlys – app review

The Amazing Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, the debut release from Moonbot Studios, was a milestone in book app development. It won numerous ‘Best App of 2011′ awards, and the animation that the short film it was based on received an Oscar nomination yesterday. (You can currently download this for free, BTW).

So what did I do when I wrote about it previously? I moaned. I said it wasn’t actually aimed at children. It was aimed at animation lecturers. What a miserable sod I am! But now Moonbot have released their next app, so I have another chance to marvel at their visuals without being a total Grinch.

This is the Numberlys, a story about how the alphabet was invented by some frustrated number-things:

And the Numberlys is a wonderful app, beautifully created and full of original touches. It’s not wonderful for the audience you would think it is aimed at, admittedly. But for a completely different audience? For them, it is wonderful.

Because you’d think it was aimed at 4-6 year olds, wouldn’t you? Being an ‘alphabet app’ and everything, listed as suitable for ’4+’? But if you were making something for that audience, you probably wouldn’t do so in black or white. Or, indeed, include no visual imagery that four-year-olds can relate to, or even understand. 1920s German expressionist cinema, modernist architecture, the dehumanising impact of mass production – these are not part of a four-year-old’s life. There is a truly lovely sequence, repeated a number of times, of cogs, pistons and steam funnels. This will be utterly incomprehensible to this audience. They simply won’t understand anything about what they are looking at.

As a tool for teaching the alphabet, it goes against all the educational guidelines you can imagine. All text is shown IN BLOCK CAPITALS THROUGHOUT, for a start. It’s in a lovely art-deco font so it works for visual impact, but this is not how children learn to read. There are no lower case letters in the app at all. When letters are referred to audibly it is always by their names (‘ay’) and not their sounds (‘ah’). Each letter of the alphabet is revealed in order over the course of 20 minutes or so, so it is not trying to teach the order of the letters by repetition.

At one point in the app, it has an intermission. It displays a grey screen and the word INTERMISSION, and plays background music at you until you click past. I was reminded of how Monty Python put an intermission in (I think) the video release of The Holy Grail back in the ’80s, which was very funny in context. The context being, of course, that the audience was old enough to remember a time when intermissions were common in cinemas, and so would recognise it as being out of place in the VHS medium. Four-to-six year olds, however, do not have knowledge of out-of-date cinema practices. Nor can they even read the word INTERMISSION, which is displayed in caps and not spoken aloud.

So, for alphabet-learning children, it’s a total non-starter. But go a bit older than that, say 7-12? Then it’s terrific. The character design and animation are first class, and the characters are totally engaging. The music is even better – there’s an award-worthy musical score if ever I heard one. The imagination on show, the craft, the humour – all wonderful. More importantly, the pacing and the variety of the interactive elements is really well done (there is an interactive element for the creation of each letter in the alphabet. They are too tricky for 4 year olds but perfect for older kids). The ‘comedy German’ voice over – think Borat-style almost-racist – really appeals to this age group. They are also, of course, more comfortable with fantasy worlds that have no elements of their own world to relate to, and so the homage to 1920s German expressionist cinema should not trouble them.

In fact, the app is so perfectly suited to this age group that they will probably overlook the fact that it’s about the alphabet.

Still, you have to wonder. The “who is this for?” conversation – do they not have those at Moonbot?

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One comment on “The Numberlys – app review

  1. Hi John.

    I enjoyed reading your take on the Moonbot Studio’s book/apps. I think William Joyce and company are brilliant visual stylists. But Morris Lessmore and The Numberlys (shouldn’t that be “Numberlies”?) are to storytelling what Las Vegas is to architecture. They may dazzle you, but there’s really not much beneath the veneer.

    I groaned last night when Lessmore won the Oscar.

    Numberlys is so repetitive that I didn’t want to finish it. And the pay off was so obvious and derivative that it inspired little more than a groan from me. The interactive game portions weren’t challenging or surprising in any way. They really only served to interrupt the monotony of seeing another letter created.

    You really can’t make a good storybook without an engaging story (no matter how pretty it is).

    This all reminds me quite a bit of the “interactive _____” craze of the mid 90s. There was a lot of buzz around the idea of engaging readers and consumers in a way that they could control. The problem is that there wasn’t much use for that other than in videogames. And few people were adept at interactive media. The only real satisfying story came from that era was Myst by Robyn and Rand Miller. Apparently as talented as they were/are, even they couldn’t make that lightning strike twice.

    I think that the tablet is a viable storytelling medium and there will be effective engaging content, but so far I haven’t seen it.

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