Production credits: Canongate Books and Somethin’ Else
Launch date: 6th March 2013
Last September, the content design company Somethin’ Else produced a glossy app version of Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality. They have now collaborated on another ambitious product, the Wildwood Storymap app, this time with the publisher Canongate Books. It is based on Wildwood, the first book in a fantasy adventure series by Colin Meloy.
Meloy is the frontman of the band The Decembrists, and this was his first attempt at writing a novel. Aimed at 8-12 year olds, Wildwood was created in collaboration with his wife, the illustrator Carson Ellis. Meloy has admitted that he included some specific elements in the story because he knew that his wife would like to illustrate them, and the visual aspects of the book are used to great effect in the Storymap App – more of the large and detailed map is revealed as the story progresses.
Wildwood follows twelve-year old Prue McKeel as she tries to rescue her baby brother Mac after he is carried off into the ‘Impassable Wood’ by a ‘murder of crows’. Prue lives in Portland, Oregon (as do Meloy and Ellis) and has been told by her parents never to wander into the Impassable Wood. Like many protagonists in fairytales, however, she is ‘not a person to let a promise or fear stand in her way.’
The app has been designed to work in two modes: story and game. Condensing this 541 page book into an app can’t have been easy and Somethin’ Else clearly grappled with how much to reveal in the app, attempting to make it suitable for both those who had read Wildwood and those who hadn’t. Their efforts to balance this are not always successful and as someone who has not read Wildwood, I found following the locations that are flagged up in the story mode bewildering. For me, following the story via the locations was too confusing and meant that I often ended up reading the narrative out of sequence. It is far easier for those who haven’t read the book to read the story by switching on the ‘hide locations’ function and swiping the Chapter Ribbon so that the story can be followed chronologically.
The strangeness of both the text and illustrations from Wildwood has been well-harnessed in the app version. The slightly off-kilter language of Meloy’s text is thoroughly respected in the app and the sense of Prue (and her classmate Curtis, who joins her quest) establishing their own identities as they venture into danger is sensitively handled. Although it sounds hackneyed out of context, Curtis declaration that he hopes his parents will know ‘I was truly, truly happy’ and ‘I really found some place where I belonged.’ is touching when it is made just as he thinks he may die.
The game mode is best used after following the story, I think, as players then have a real sense of the dangers they need to escape and the importance of rescuing Prue’s baby brother, Mac. Players need to tilt the device to follow Prue and collect purple tokens along the way, which will ultimately enable them to unlock the cage baby Mac is in. Devices need to be tilted carefully, however, as there are many obstacles in Prue’s way and the sleight of hand involved in dodging these is where the real fun of the game comes in.
The game is fairly addictive and is appropriate for 8-12 year olds as well as adults. I played through several times alongside another player, trying to beat my score of collected tokens on another device. It’s hard to say how much long-term enchantment the game holds beyond repeatedly challenging one’s reflexes, and engaging with Prue’s fear. I did, nonetheless, find playing the game the most immediately engaging part of the app as something of the book’s danger (as far as I can tell) has been diffused slightly in the story mode.