Papercut is a really interesting book app from ustwo that arrived last week in a nice little burst of publicity.

Have a watch of this:

Okay, elephant in the room first. There is a man in that video called Chief Wonka who sports a handsome beard/yellow glasses/string of pearls ensemble.

How you react to this says a lot about the background you bring to book apps. For traditional publishers, the sight of Chief Wonka creates a strange, unpleasant reaction that incorporates elements of both despair and anger. For digital media professionals there is also a strong reaction, but one that includes a jealous tinge associated with an understanding of personal brand projection.

These differing reactions stake out an unmapped no-man’s-land, and this is the land where the culture of book apps will grow.

But back to Papercut. If you need to, watch the video again and don’t be distracted by Chief Wonka. Because what they are saying is really interesting, even though what they are saying does seem to be completely contradicted by the shots of the app itself. They talk very astutely about focusing on the experience of reading, with the extra sound and visual elements being registered almost subconsciously.  Yet at the same time, they show screens with the tiny text shoved in the corner WHILE THE REST OF THE SCREEN FRANTICALLY SHOUTS AT YOU AND DEMANDS ATTENTION. Anyone who has ever attempted to read a book with small children in the room will know this isn’t a winner.

There are three short stories in the app, all with a very different visual presentation. The text is reduced to around 20% of the screen size, which needs constant manual scrolling. This can give the impression that the product was designed by people who either don’t like the sight of the written word, or fear that a modern audience won’t like it. It’s more likely, I suspect, that this was done in an effort to control the triggering of motion graphics more precisely. The smaller text window narrows down the area where the reader’s attention is focused significantly.

The visual effects unfurl alongside the text and so are controlled by the speed you move the text. Sometimes it can be very effective, as when the words ‘The Fall’ slowly form across the top of the screen as the narrative heads towards a turning point. There are times when it seems to go against the aims of the author, however, as when text painting life in an inner-city London community is accompanied by the slow appearance of what appears to be a white picket fence.

Each story has another odd feature, in that whilst most of the story is presented as text, certain sections are not shown on screen but read aloud by the author. The sound of the author’s voice is definitely a strength of book apps, but the way it is implemented here means that you are dumped into a passive, listening moment during an otherwise active experience of scrolling and reading. Those familiar with unexpected game cutscenes will know how this jars.

So – what is the overall effect of this ‘enhanced reading experience’ like? Well, this is where it gets interesting. There are three short stories here. I found one to be wonderful and complete, and the other two interesting but ultimately a little aimless. It doesn’t matter which was which, for you would no doubt think otherwise. But what is interesting is that when a story grabs you, the enhanced extras become really effective and do work on this near-subconscious level, drawing you deeper into it. It is only when the story hasn’t got you  truly absorbed that the extras become distracting and throw you further from the text.

Or more simply, an ‘enhanced reading experience’ such as this improves fiction you like, but worsens fiction that you don’t.

Which is an interesting result, and not one that I was expecting. Ultimately it should help good writers build a more engaged audience, whilst helping the good writers stand out from the also-rans. And that has to be a good thing for writers, publishers and readers, does it not?

There are number of other good things about this app that are worth mentioning.  The sound design is good, and in places very good.  The decision to team up with short story specialists Shortfire Press makes a lot of sense. The app is sensibly priced and plans to license the system to traditional publishers looks promising.  Perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that it exists. It’s bold and clearly experimental, and we can all learn a lot from looking at it.  So, if you haven’t tried it out, I would recommend you do so soon.

For those who still haven’t got over Chief Wonka, however, you may be interested in this other promotional video, the start of which is happy to suggest, with a straight face, that Papercut is the culmination of over 10,000 years of human cultural progress.