I grew up on a healthy regimen of Choose-Your-Own Adventure books, Nintendo, and role playing games, but even I am intimidated by the new brand of interactive storytelling that is flooding the iPad. More designers are exploring how the frenzy around Apple's tablet computer is evolving e-books into something new. Sure, you can find traditional children's picture books directly translated onto the iPad that simply let you flip through on a touchscreen, but there's so much more the medium allows. Embedded games, interactive backgrounds, responsive audio, non-linear stories - "books" on the iPad have become something much better: immersive experiences. I've got a host of videos to show you what I mean, check them out below. Combining games, books, music, and voices in compelling ways, these early attempts to revolutionize storytelling on the iPad are exciting...but they're just the beginning. Give it a few years and the lines between these different ways of telling stories will blur so far we'll have to come up with a new name. 'Books' just doesn't cut it anymore.
First on our list of the kind of interactive stories is Hogworld by Snowcastle Studios in Norway. Hogworld has the look of a classic children's story book, with a lovable pig-bunny hybrid named Gnart taking a trip to the dentist with his bee friend Bibi. Snowcastle let me play the beta, and I can tell you that from the beginning this is clearly not a simple text translation brought to the iPad. You must guide Gnart through a world, exploring everything around you to find the clues needed to proceed to the next stage in the story. Yet it's not simply a video game either. Hogworld is clearly aimed at engaging the listener, guiding them loosely through a very well crafted tale. Here's a look at Hogworld, with narration still in Norwegian (don't worry, the beta was in English, and the story will be coming to the iPad in Q3 2011):
What if you're not a child? Is there something for you too? Well, on the far other end of the "book" spectrum is Touching Stories by Tool of North America and Domani Studios. This iPad app is much more like a series of short films that you can control, and their subject matter is anything but geared towards kids. Full of double entendres, coming-at-you violence, and philosophical quandaries, these stories are what you'd imagine Choose Your Own Adventure books would be like if they got more mature and became movies. Available for free, Touching Stories is well worth a download even if the storytelling is a little inexperienced in parts. The following behind the scenes look is a little old, but gives you a good idea of what to expect:
Also from Tool of North America is something that I can't really call a story, but is still close enough to the genre that I find it interesting. Here's a video demo of "I've Seen Enough" by Cool War Kids, an interactive music video where you get to mix and match the musicians. Very neat:
Okay, okay. So I've shown you a story-game hybrid, interactive movies, and a music video you can tinker with. Where are the actual interactive books on the iPad? Let's take a look at four that show the range of story apps that are still calling themselves books. The first is The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, a $5 app which we've covered extensively before. ...Morris Lessmore has interactive side games, easter eggs, hidden audio, backgrounds you can manipulate, and practically every other widget you can find in an e-book. Check it out:
A little tamer of a book is Alice by Atomic Antelope. Alice is the classic Lewis Carroll tale with gorgeous illustrations you can play with by shaking and rotating the iPad. While seemingly unnecessary to the actual plot, the kinetic manipulations of the book leads to some delightful animations which really add to the reading experience and which fit in nicely with the irreverent tone of the story. The full app will cost you a whopping $9, but a lite version is available for free:
In a similar vein to Alice is The Little Mermaid and Other Stories by H.C. Andersen from GameCollage. Also available for $9, ...Mermaid is another app that lets you physically play with the book you were reading, just as you might when you were a child. The difference being of course that with an iPad, rather than print, your tinkering can generate some really awesome animated and audio responses:
If you're looking for a similar story that's easier on the budget, GameCollage also has Three Little Pigs, a pop-up style e-book for $4. Three Little Pigs is clearly aimed at engaging your young reader with plenty to touch and explore. Thank goodness too, this is one story that was played out years ago. GameCollage's version of the book keeps it fresh, as does their demo of the app:
Finally, as far from Hogworld as you can get and still be in this article is The Wrong Side of the Bed from SeeHere. The app, $3 at the iTunes store, tells a creative story, but the e-book is not very interactive. There's a minimum of what you can do mainly limited to zooming and rotating the images. What The Wrong Side of the Bed does have going for it is that it is available in 3D! Yep, the go to technology of the day allows your young audience to put on a pair of blue-red glasses and watch as the delightful story pops out at them:
Probably best for children who are just old enough to wear 3D glasses at all, this story is only a small step up from all the other plain e-books out there, but it's an important step. The Wrong Side of the Bed shows that even those apps which can't afford all the fancy animations, games, and music will still seek ways to meaningfully enhance their readers' experience. Eventually an iPad e-book aimed at children that doesn't have a gimmick may be hard to find.
Which is one of the major points I've taken away from these new attempts at storytelling. Publishers are driven to explore new avenues of storytelling, perhaps largely because the profits from old avenues are drying up. As I've said before, text-only e-books are ripe for piracy to a point that makes selling them seem like a foolish endeavor. You can download thousands (yes, thousands!) of text versions of books in an hour. To make themselves marketable the creators you see above are telling stories in ways that enhance text as much as possible (when they don't simply leave it behind). These are studios, not publishers, making apps, not e-books. The change in terms isn't trivial. In order to survive the death of print, some storytellers are giving up the trappings of the medium. Sad? No, far from it. There will always be those authors that stick to text, and I'll be glad to read them. But there will also be many new creators that want to explore these new ways of storytelling. Even better, because these new kinds of app-books are as much watched as they are read, as much played as they are listened to, the people who tell these stories should find themselves able to move between media more easily. Write a video game, create an app, or script a movie - the lines are blurring so much that creating one is going to be pretty much like creating the others. It's an exciting turning point in storytelling, and you, the reader are going to be asked to do more and more. Imaginations and fingers ready - it's time to see what the next step in touchscreen reading is all about.