So, here we are in March, which means I have about 4 months to produce an insightful and meaningful research document and about 6 to make a kick-ass app to graduate with. About time for some progress you might think, and I would agree! As I’ve mentioned in my last post (the boring one with no images), the first month or so of my project has been devoted to research. In this post I’d like to share some observations I’ve made during my research so far and some progress on the project. And there will be images this time, yay!
There, an image already! …so cute! O.o
As I mentioned briefly before, I feel that a lot of interactive storybooks on the market could do more with the medium they are on. Last weekend I hijacked my mom’s iPad and went on a storybook spree to study some of the best reviewed apps out there at the moment. While many of these apps are absolutely delightful and no doubt provide hours of entertainment for many kids, on a storytelling level I can’t help but feel there are some missed opportunites. The best example of this I found in The Witch With No Name by SlimCricket. But before I get into that we’ll do a little Storybook App 101 on what every self-respecting storybook needs!
1. Interactive background elements & Read to me / Read by myself
The very basics of a storybook app. Two options in the beginning: to read in silence or have the story be read to you by a voice over. As far as the interaction goes there is page turning and touchable background elements that make a little animation or sound when touched. This is the very basics for a storybook and something almost all apps that I’ve tried have. The visualization, the story and the creativity in what is interactive are in this case really what makes one better than the other.
Meeting just the very basic requirements in terms of interactivity, but very charming story and art style: The Prisoner of Carrot Castle by Purple Carrot Books
A step further than having a largely static image with touchable elements is animated segments that play out as the story is being told. While adding a lot to the experience when done right, some apps take this to an extreme. In these cases there is a very distinct difference between movie-like segments and interactive segments, breaking the flow of the experience and moving quite far from anything resembling a book.
Numberlys by Moonbot Studios looks very stylish with full CG cutscenes. Its interactivity and story are not very well integrated with each other though.
3. Using device features
Almost all apps I’ve tried used the gyrosensor of the iPad, either in mini-games (like aligning a compass) or to give the idea of depth in the storybook scenes. Many also use the camera and other features the device has to offer at certain points in the story.
The Penelope Rose by Mobad Games advertises itself as having 3D without glasses. Personally I found the combination of drawn elements with 3D models and photo-like backgrounds quite jarring. But while it is not a 3D effect like the Nintendo 3DS, it does give the illusion of being a window to a different world.
Most paid storybook apps include mini-games. These are often integrated well into the story and it is therefore very much dependent on the app what the mini-games are. When looking at the actual mechanics, most (if not all) come down to touch-dragging objects to the correct place or tapping objects in time (if I might get technical for a moment). Using game mechanics to make something more engaging is a hot topic at the moment (gamification) and the fact that they are used to make books more appealing is great. A question I have, which I will get to in a bit, is how we can make them more meaningful, and not just have them there for entertainment purposes.
Some of the minigames in Jack and the Beanstalk by Nosy Crow
5. Non-linearity / Alternative endings
The points I just mentioned are pretty much what makes up the basics of any good storybook app. How well these points are handled is different between apps, but the same elements can be found throughout. Now we are getting to what I am really doing this research for, which is interactive storytelling. There is huge difference between a story with interactive elements and a story that is interactive. A story with interactive elements unfolds the way it has been designed and the interactivity propels the story forward (ideally). An interactive story changes based on what the reader puts into it. Of course interactivity is always limited since the options we give the user need to be the designed as well as the outcome of these choices. Besides the extra work in designing these choices and outcomes it also comes with a set of challenges. It is for instance harder to tell a consistent story when the user can progress in multiple ways.
The amount of apps at the moment that are trying something in terms of interactive storytelling are limited, but I found a few. First there are the fairytale apps designed by the guys at Nosy Crow. I tried 3 of their apps, Cinderella (2011), Little Red Riding Hood (2013) and Jack and the Beanstalk (2014). All these apps are of great quality with nice artwork, voice acting and interactive elements and they are definitely some of the best apps I’ve tried. While Cinderella is nice, its interactivity in story is limited. Little Red Riding Hood really takes a leap foward in comparison, featuring a non-linear path through the forest which leads to different mini-games. From each game Red collects an item which she in the end uses to fight off the wolf and save grandma (bonus points for making Red the hero of her own story here). The three little sequences in the end are different depending on the collected objects, therefore slightly changing the ending based on the choices the reader made.
Choose your own path in Little Red Riding Hood by Nosy Crow
The newest app from Nosy Crow is Jack and the Beanstalk which takes the interactivity in the story even further. The story is linear until reaching the giant’s castle. Here there are 9 rooms, each of which has a mini-game in it. After finishing a room, Jack gains a key to another. The order in which Jack gets the keys is random, changing the order with each play through. Furthermore, there are 3 rooms where the giant is found sleeping. Here the reader either gains an item (coins, goose that lays golden eggs or magic harp) or wakes up the giant. If the giant wakes, Jack is chased out of the castle and he chops down the beanstalk. The “worst” ending is Jack and his mom and a lifetime supply of beans from the stalk. The more items the reader gains in the castle before waking the giant, the wealthier Jack and his mom are in the end.
Compared to most other storybook apps, what Nosy Crow does in these last two apps is revolutionary. Coming from a gaming background though, it’s fairly limited. The ending is always happy for Jack, the only difference is how happy he is exactly. There is also the assumption that non-linearity automatically makes a story more interactive and therefore more interesting. In fact, I believe it is generally better for a story to maintain some structure and linearity, since it’s extremely hard to tell a meaningful story when the segments can be played in any order. Jack and the Beanstalk is therefore not much of a book at all for the middle section, but rather a collection of unrelated situations.
To better explain what interactivity can add in terms of storytelling we’ll look in a bit more detail at the example I mentioned before, The Witch With No Name by SlimCricket. This app is of similar production quality as the apps by Nosy Crow and it’s a lot of fun. It tells the story of a witch who doesn’t remember her own name, or even how she might have lost it. In the story she collects ingredients to make a potion to help her remember, which leads to a small twist in the end that does a nice job in involving the reader in the story (I won’t spoil it here).
At the beginning of the game the witch is walking down a path and we are told about how she doesn’t remember her name and how, to her annoyance, her neighbors make fun of her for it. As she walks she passes by several people shouting an insult or joke her way. Here we are prompted to tap on either the witch or the person, which will result in the witch putting a spell on them in revenge. When we go into the next scene inside the witch’s house, her bat friend makes a comment on how he saw her being nasty to their neighbors and how she won’t make friends this way.
The witch encountering her neighbors and being berated for bewitching them
Now here comes the problem. While most children will just press the indicators when they flash up and put funny spells on the neighbors, this is in no way necessary for the story to progress. The witch stops for a moment and grumbles when the neighbors make their jokes, but if nothing is pressed she will just continue her walk and the neighbors will stay normal. When she enters the house the bat will make the same comment about her being nasty, despite her not having done anything wrong. Likewise, after the witch figures out her name and she walks back along the same path, all the neighbors are changed, regardless of whether the reader cursed them in the beginning.
It would have been so easy to make a check whether the reader actually put spells on the neighbors, and if they hadn’t, change the dialogue to reflect this. For instance, the bat could have commented on how proud he is of the witch that she didn’t abuse her neighbors out of anger, despite them being mean, teaching a small lesson in the process and giving the decision of the reader to have the witch retaliate or not some actual meaning.
Because that’s what interactivity is all about. It is about giving the player choices, yes, but choices are not all that interesting until their consequences can be felt and we can reflect on why we make the choices we make. To quote Carolyn Handler Miller: interactivity is not really satisfying until it is meaningful. And while completing a mini-game is interactive and has a result (the completion of the game and usually the acquisition of an item to progress the story), wouldn’t it be interesting if the outcome of the game, win or lose, would actually influence the story being told and the characters? This is what I want to explore with my project, seeing how we can keep the experience of reading a book and keep those elements that are in existing storybook apps (because they are a ton of fun), but add more meaning to the story and the reader’s involvement in it.
Another example of a lack of consequence: when Jack has to flee the castle the reader is supposed to help him jump over the obstacles he encounters. When this is not done Jack crashes into them and says it will slow him down. However, no matter how many times he crashes into an obstacle, the giant will never catch him.
My concept in a nutshell
Besides the interactive storytelling component I have a clear theme I want to work with in my project. We all have fears and insecurities and it is often hard to share these, even with our friends. I would even go so far as to say we are often taught by society to not show our worries and issues, for this is considered a sign of weakness. This is such a waste, since we all need people who support us, accept us for who we are and help us deal with our problems. One of the worst things is feeling you are dealing with something and you are alone in this, with no one to turn to.
It is not a novel concept that our issues or fears take shape in some sort of form (green monster of envy, monkey on your shoulder, J.K Rowlings boggarts). In my story the problems the heroes are facing are evident in their counterparts, their imaginary friends.
A group of children is going on a week-long summer camp. They all have their own insecurities they are dealing with and while they are trying to suppress them, they are showing more and more clearly through their imaginary monster friends. At the beginning of the week a backpack of one of the children goes missing. As she tries to find it and figure out who took it and why, she befriends the other children and helps them deal with whatever it is they are struggling with. Or perhaps she won’t… that will be up to the reader. :)
With the design of the story and interactive elements slowly progressing, soon it is time to start on the visualization. Since I will be spending a lot of time in the upcoming months behind the computer I have decided to get crafty for this. Coming up in the next blog post:
Getting creative with paper for character design!