‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: the story remains King

Dean Johnson, Creative Director, Brandwidth

Although the App Store has been with us since July 2008, this Christmas sees the newly-initiated iPad audience given access to a 24/7 store with instant delivery – and they’re hungry for apps.

In much the same way that any retail outlet features an increased number of seasonal offerings, the App Store is no exception. I was asked to cast a critical eye over ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’ last week and on first inspection Popup Pixels have given us a reasonable digital interpretation of Clement C. Moore’s classic, in much the same vein as ‘Alice for the iPad’.

Alice has always been a great demonstration of the iPad’s capabilities, utilising the accelerometer and touchscreen to great effect. It was the first of its kind and paved the way for developers and publishers to bring static content to life without the need for complex animation or the production of new assets.

Taking a second glance, I uncovered a number of different interpretations of the same title…

Popup Pixels

This is a sensitive and tasteful re-imagining of the original text, complete with accelerometer and multitouch interactivity. Children will love it and adults will appreciate it. The illustration has been nicely adapted to allow the stockings above the fireplace to swing as you turn the iPad. Tap a window to see Santa and his sleigh sweep past or roll a toy ball around the room as santa delivers his presents.

I could leave it there… but I won’t. Alice for the iPad was available in April and this app doesn’t feel as if it has moved the game on. If anything, the game seems to have slipped back as the animation is not as smooth and the illustration just doesn’t have as much impact. It’s not always obvious which part of an illustration to touch but this can be a charming way to discover new content (if you’re 5) or annoying (if you’re 35).

Summary:

A charming app that falls short of its potential by not pushing enough boundaries  7/10

LoL Software

Take the classic text, a set of original illustrations and place them within a theatre – simple. On starting the app, we are presented with an antique book cover, which opens smoothly when swiped to reveal a stage, complete with working red drapes and a set of controls for lighting, music and falling snow.

The developers have made a valiant attempt to bring the book to life in a well presented 3D environment and the stage has clearly had some care and attention lavished upon it but the text has been neglected, relegated to a scrolling box at the base of the screen and looks like an afterthought rather than the centre of the story. Various items within the illustration move when touched but accelerometer tricks are absent from this app.

Each new page is introduced by pressing a ‘next’ or ‘previous’ button but I would rather have seen a single swipe left or right to scroll the scenery within the stage area. The transition between each page involves a drawn-out animation sequence where the curtain descends, the lights dim and the individual illustrated elements slide in. Unfortunately, all animation is far too slow and this makes the storytelling feel laboured and disjointed.

Summary:

An impressive new digital setting. Poor text integration. Frustratingly slow  6/10

Flying Word

Greg Hildebrandt’s illustrations are given a new level of vibrancy thanks to the iPad’s 16.9 million colours and a few animated elements including roaring log fires, swinging pendulums, flickering lights, chimney smoke and the (worryingly extraterrestrial) green glow as Santa materialises in the fireplace.

This app’s unique feature is its level of visual depth, thanks to the 3D layering of each ‘room set’. The viewing angle is controlled by dragging the image around to view from your chosen angle.

I admire the effort put into creating something different, although the novelty of the 3D artwork wears off as the sets still feel as if they have been cut from card, with visible edges floating in a black void. Some nice animated effects help to move this one step beyond a simple recreation of a pop-up book, however, the typography and accompanying design are just not up to scratch. I have a personal loathing of Zapf Chancery and the icons are some of the worst I’ve seen in a long time, both for their design and poor screen resolution.

Summary:

A good effort using interactive 3D environments and excellent narration to bring flat artwork to life  7/10

Moving Tales

How do you retain full control of the look and feel of an app, whilst following an existing script? Start the illustration from scratch and create a style of your own that doesn’t rely on any existing assets.

This app is a visual treat. I love the illustrative style and the animation lends real personality to the characters with the undulating sketched edges, music and effects making the iPad feel alive in your hands. This production team also brought us another animated masterpiece ‘The Pedlar Lady of Gushing Cross’ and both feel cinematic in quality allowing you to sit back and be read to by the versatile narrator (available in ‘English’, ‘British’ and ‘Southern’). If you want to add a personal touch, you have the facility to record your own narration – ideal for those moments when you want to read to your kids when you’re not even in the room.

As this is such a stunning app, I feel guilty for wanting more interactivity but other than the customisable narration and simple page turning, there is very little cause to touch the screen. This is a shame as the animated content could so easily have been created in a way that gave the user a level of control above and beyond the interaction that feels slightly forced in the other three apps. Just combining the fabulous animation with accelerometer control would move this closer to full marks.

Summary:

Children and parents will love this app. The book is brought to life but its full potential remains inrealised. Deserves more interaction  8/10

The conclusion:

With each of these apps seemingly based on the same ‘brief’, this review felt like an assessment of a creative pitch. It was interesting to see how each developer had approached the same text and how the eventual app had been digitally produced.

This is where Children’s books (apps) have an incredible opportunity to thrill, engage and educate a new generation. Wherever there lies an opportunity to create new artwork from scratch – do so, as this unshackles the storytelling and allows the images to match the words.

The lesson to learn from the apps listed here is that the story remains king and no matter how much interaction becomes accessible to us, the words form the script that the images follow.

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