Dracula: The Official Stoker Family Edition is the book app which makes a convincing case for book apps having a significant role in the future of fiction.
Why is this? Well, what it adds to the text doesn’t detract from the experience of reading the novel. You become absorbed by the book without being distracted by novelty interaction or the sense of wrestling with software.
Instead, it adds atmosphere.
Here’s a video to give you a sense of the thing:
The novel, of course, is told through a series of letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings and so forth. These have been recreated visually in a period style which immediately sets the scene nicely (the text is abridged, but sensibly so). Then there ambient audio effects – howling wolves, creaking ships timbers, fluttering bat wings, gothic music and so forth.
Sometimes it is just the little things that have the most impact. A personal favourite was early in the book, when a shadow passed across the page. Make no mistake, when you are absorbed in the text, things like this can be very effective.
The choice of book lends itself well to little tricks like this. The atmosphere of Dracula is so vivid that the app can evoke it precisely, especially in the early Transylvanian section. If you’ve ever had to write the story for a videogame, you’ll know that you’re stuck with a limited emotional pallet – ‘fear’ and ‘excitement’ are the only emotions that videogames seem able to create with any regularity. It may be that gothic horror is a genre that works particularly well for long-form book apps, but my hunch is that the approach Padworx take here will work for other genres.
There is at least one full-page piece of artwork in each chapter, and the balance of art to pages of text worked well. Visually, the art is in a comic book style that reminds me of 16-bit computers like the Atari ST or the Amiga. This has a certain nostalgic appeal for me, but I can see that it might not be to all tastes and that something a bit more photoreal might have been a better way to go.
There are occasions where the illustrations contradict the text, and this does break the spell a little. The Count, for example, is described in text as having a white mustache and then illustrated clean-shaven.
Importantly, working the thing is completely intuitive. There’s consistent back and forth arrows to turn each page, plus an icon that calls up the menu. There’s just one extra thing to remember, whenever something is blood-red you can tap it to trigger some visual event. This is all nice and clear and you are never in the position of worrying if there’s something you’re supposed to be doing, instead of being focused on the text. This might seem so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning, but there are many book apps that have yet to master it.
The app seems to be coded using a game engine of some kind. Some objects, such as a lantern that swings when you tilt the pad, are 3D models casting real-time shadows. Letters can be moved around, matches held to read letters, leaves brushed off gravestones and so on. I’m not sure if this is an off-the-shelf engine or some proprietary system, but it seems well suited to book apps like this. The whole ‘less is more’ thing is still blasphemous to many developers.
There are a bunch of extra features – hidden easter eggs to find (including the entire 1922 Nosferatu movie), forums, songs between each chapter and so forth. These are nice to have and give the impression of a quality product for your £2.99. But it isn’t these that make Dracula such a success. It is the reading experience itself.
And that, I think, has to bode well for tablet books in general. And maybe even for fiction itself.