Interaction and Narrative: A First Rule

We’ve been looking at the blossoming relationship between narrative and interaction for some time now, but have precious little to show for it. But things are slowly becoming clearer and I think we’re finally in a position to declare our first hard and fast rule.

That rule is this: Interaction must go with the flow of the narrative, rather than against it.

Or in other words, interaction works at the key points and beats of a story in a way that is more important and powerful than interactions between them. There is a reason for this. It is about working with the flow of the user’s attention. It’s a bit abstract, but stick with it.

A lot is made of how a TV audience is in a mentally passive mode, letting the show wash over them, while gamers are in an active mental mode, sitting forward and engaged. Well, neither of these models really apply to interactive narratives, and it is big mistake to assume that they do. The more useful starting model is still that of reading books or especially comic books, where the reader is in control of the speed of story, and able to flick back and forward at will – which is distinctly different than watching a film and being powerless in front of it – but they are still being controlled, manipulated and pulled along by the writer’s narrative.

Now – with that mental state in mind – you have to keep track of where the narrative is focusing the user’s attention, and interactivity must go with this flow rather than block it. If your protagonist has just been told that a witch has kidnapped the princess (for example), the flow is to find the witch and rescue the princess. If they are then presented with an interactive activity about tidying up the room they are in, that breaks the narrative flow. That doesn’t work. But if they had also been told that they needed a golden apple to defeat the witch, and were then presented with an interactive activity about finding that apple in the room, then that goes with the narrative flow. That works.

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There’s a good example of making interactivity work in The Gift from Persian Cat (you may recall I interviewed this book app’s creator back in January). The protaganist in The Gift is a small boy who finds a baby that is washed up on the beach from the sea. The baby is asleep so the boy goes on a quest to discover how to wake her, by asking advice from a series of groteque monsters. It’s nice little story, assuming of course that you don’t think, “shit, the baby’s dead” at the start, in which case it becomes increasingly unbearable as each attempt to wake the baby fails. If you don’t think that, however, it is lovely. (Only adults would think that, of course, so here’s a nice – and sadly rare – example of a children’s story written to appeal to children, rather than to appeal to parents.)

Anyway – at the climax of the story the boy succeeds in waking the baby. At this point the artwork goes into a point-of-view shot of the baby, seen from the boy’s perspective – syncing the reader’s focus completely with the reader-identification-character of the boy, in other words. The reader then has to reach out and touch the baby in order for her to wake up. This simple interaction is perfectly synched to the key beat of the narrative, making it far more effective and rewarding than other, far more technically complicated interactive activities. It leaves the reader completely absorbed in this, the key moment of the story, which in turn makes the story a success.

And that’s the sort of effect you can only achieve with the merging of narrative and interactivity. True, it’s not an effect that is achieved by most applications of interactivity to narative, which is why it is worth declaring our first golden rule. But it is the sort of effect that makes developing this new media worthwhile.

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?

Bugger on the Inside: the Doctor Who Encyclopedia

Fresh from the BBC and developers Brandwidth comes an iPad version of Gary Russell’s Doctor Who Encyclopedia. ITunes have made it App of the Week and there are lots of delighted Whovians eagerly downloading it. This is what it looks like:

What we have here is, once again, an existing book that has been converted into an app. There’s no question marks over the original book – if you want an encyclopedia dedicated to 21st Century Doctor Who, then you’ll not be disappointed with this huge brick of a book. What concerns us more here is how the book has been converted.

There’s no extra content – no audio or video (bar links to previewing episodes in the iTunes store, and a few sound effects). What you have here is the text and photos of a searchable encyclopedia, plus a few visual tricks to arrange the most popular subjects (Daleks, Cybermen, Amy Pond etc) in little visual galleries. The default navigation of the ‘Doctor’ gallery, for example, requires you to move or tilt the iPad itself left or right to scroll through the characters. I switched it off immediately on the grounds that it’s totally unusable, but my 8 year old son thought it was great fun. Before switching it off a minute or two later on the grounds that it’s totally unusable.

Pricing is… interesting. The App costs £4.99 but only includes the 11th Doctor entries. Should you click on an entry related to earlier series, you get a beg page asking for more money. The entries for the 9th and 10th Doctors cost a further £4.99 each, bringing the total to £14.97, or noticeably more than the weighty physical edition (which is currently £12.50 on Amazon). Presumably this will also allow the app to download future updates about future series, which would be a big plus, but the idea of a virtual edition costing more than a physical one is always a knee-jerk issue – as anyone who has tried to buy ePub ebooks will testify. So does the experience of using the app edition offer anything more than the physical edition, to justify this extra cost?

The answer is yes – but only just.

We’re all familiar with falling into a Wikipedia hole – we start looking something up, follow another link, see something else interesting and get distracted… until suddenly an hour has past and we are far from where we started, and we know far more about the illnesses of dolphins and 18th Century politics than we did before.

This doesn’t happen with a standard encyclopedia. While they have an index and are all in neat alphabetical order (and searchable, in the case of the app), the act of looking something up is sufficiently more complex than just clicking the link in front of us – a link that guarentees that there’s an article on that subject, right there, just click and you’ll see it… Because of this seemingly small detail, we use these reference works in a completely different way.  We don’t follow trains of references but flick through the pages (or scroll down the index) instead, until we see something that takes our interest – something unrelated to the initial search. Which is all well and good, but Wikipedia is noticeably more of timesuck than physical encyclopedias.

So the simple act of adding hyperlinks makes an app reference work qualitatively different than a paper version. And they have been implemented here, but in an odd way.

The text of the entries is always restricted to a small narrow column, even when the app has nothing else to fill the screen with bar the book’s cover. The text is small and strangely devoid of paragraph breaks, and it doesn’t actually have hyperlinks in it.  Instead, you press a ‘connections’ tab at the bottom of the screen to call up a list of linked topics, which have (a little pointlessly) been put into categories. You can’t leave this ‘Connections’ list up permanently, because once you click on an entry that comes with a photograph, it goes away again.

It may seem a small thing, for all the functionality of a hyperlinked reference work is there, but the implementation stops you using it like one. If they had added the hyperlinks to the text – along with a few paragraph breaks – then it would be a lot easier to spend hours getting lost in there. The scrolling parallax galleries are all well and good, but in a reference work like this, getting the presentation of the text right should have been more important.

Still – that gripe aside – ultimately content is king and this encyclopedia is crazily detailed.  And if they release an update for 20th Century Doctor Who as well, I’ll even forgive them about the paragraph breaks.

Animated Picture Books and Low Barriers to Entry

There are an awful lot of tablet books for children out there.

You don’t notice at first, with the layout of the App store being what it is, but the more you dig the more you find. And this is early days. Of all the problems that we’ll face in the 21st Century, a shortage of interactive picture book apps is not going to be one. There are tonnes of the buggers.

Why is this?  Well, picture books are well suited to the woozy and undefined form of tablet books.  They are short, for one thing, and have a strong visual element, so on those levels this flood of production makes sense.

But there are other reasons why they are so common. There is a common misperception that writing children’s books is easy – or, at the very least, easier than writing a proper adult book with a formidable word count. Traditionally, the job of filtering all the crud has fallen on the shoulders of children’s publishers. This is a highly specialised skill. It takes many years of experience to gain enough insight to understand why one particular story about a lost bear, for example, is qualitatively better than the previous forty stories about lost bears.

If you can forgive me generalising for a moment – and gereralising is useful, generally speaking – writers of young children’s books seldom have this strange insight.  They often take the view that all the publishers who rejected their creations are damned fools who are throwing away a fortune.

Those of a determined frame of mind then experiment with self-publishing or try to sell their ideas to animation companies. As someone at an animation company who reads their letters, I feel I can say with some authority that there is a lot of half-arsed guff around.  As a general rule, the worst ideas feature a group of five household objects – buckets, for example, or clothes pegs – that have had faces drawn on them and will somehow get into hilarious adventures. It is also striking how many different people push exactly the same idea. How many people have dreamt up a school for superheroes? It is impossible to count. It is even more, if that is possible, than those who came up with a team of vegetable-based characters who promote healthy eating by battling fatty foods.

With tablet book apps though, there are no gatekeepers who will prevent all these picture books from reaching the market. As an economist would put it, the barriers to entry are low, which leads to low profit margins and lower-quality products.  There will be a lot of crap out there, in other words, and this will dilute the market and make it harder to sell anything.  And the barriers to entry will only get lower, as off-the-peg software emerges to make creating apps get easier.

What are the implications of this? Well, it means that tablet books shouldn’t be seen as a brave new frontier, where the old rules don’t apply and the new rules have yet to be written. Tablet books suffer from all the same problems that are terrorising all the existing forms of media.  They are competing on a global stage, attempting to attract an audience who are so time-poor and bombarded with choice that they increasingly retreat to the safety of old, established brands and characters.

This is not really a context that you can safely ignore, so I’ll be keeping it in mind when I look at a few examples of these picture book apps soon.

(Creative Commons image by Wayan Vota)