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Exploring the Discworld app

A vibrant new app presents an in-depth guide to the most famous city in Discworld. Pratchett aficionado Chris Farnell tried it out, and caught up with its creators…

The Discworld is one of the few fictional works that can take on the behemoths of Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who in terms of sheer depth. But while the Doctor Who and Star Trek universes are the result of hundreds of creators working together and separately, and most fans now agree that the Star Wars universe is better the further it is from George Lucas’ “vision”, the Discworld has so far been almost entirely the brainchild of one man, Terry Pratchett. And unlike other fantasy authors who have sat down to create maps, languages and ancient histories for their worlds, Pratchett has done his world building properly – by making it all up as he goes along. This means the Discworld has changed and evolved in ways most fictional universes can only dream of, organically moving from a setting that was little more than a parodic reflection of the worst sword and sorcery tropes to a complex world undergoing its own industrial revolution while dealing with all the awkward implications of the fact that their barbaric trolls, gruff dwarves and creepy vampires are all basically people, with everything that entails.

This is perhaps why, of all the fictional worlds, the Discworld is the one that would make the best holiday destination. Star Trek has its pleasure planets and starships, Middle Earth has the halls of Rivendell, but the Discworld has the widest selection of really good takeaways. More importantly in Ankh Morpork, unlike the Enterprise or the Shire, you have a pretty good idea where all the poo goes.

A tourist’s eye view

This is where Discworld: The Ankh-Morpork Map For iPad comes in. The app is heavily based on the The Compleat Ankh Morpork, a map and guidebook covering the whole of the Discworld’s greatest city. The most impressive feature is the living map. This vast, intricately detailed drawing covers every backstreet and alleyway of the city. It allows you to zoom in at any point, click on any prominent landmarks for information and access book quotes, posters, adverts and drawings relating to the landmark. As you zoom in, tiny animated figures become visible, bustling about the city, including a few recognisable characters who you can poke for further information and achievements.

We asked Sophie Holmes, the digital publishing manager for Transworld, how they went about bringing The Compleat Ankh Morpork’s maps to life.

“When I first saw the amazing scale and detail of the 3D map, I could immediately imagine it being brought to life, and that is what we set out to do. It wasn’t an easy job – the hardworking team at Agant, led by Dave Addey, first had to remove all of the static illustrated characters from the original map, along with the illustrated smoke. They plotted the location of every chimney in the city and added the smoke back onto the map as individual animations. At the same time, they plotted out the entire road network for the city (using a mapping tool normally used in the real world) and converted this into a grid of routes that our residents could take. Each resident was created as a digitally-drawn animation, with extra animations for our Discworld characters hidden in the city. The most painstaking job of all was masking out every single building so that the residents walked behind them instead of over them.”

If you’re the sort of person who can accidentally spend hours exploring a city with Google Earth then you’ll find plenty of hours of distraction in this. If aimless wandering doesn’t appeal to you (though it will) there are also three guided walking tours and a nice, lengthy list of challenges to complete, including “visit all the pubs”.

Sounds of the city

One of the app’s best features – even better than the wandering Ankh-Morporkians or the little clouds of smoke coming from every chimney – is the huge and intricately put together soundscape that becomes audible once you zoom into the closest levels.

Holmes explains: “The soundscape for the living map was created from scratch, working with a brilliant radio producer called Chris Vallance. He recorded and mixed new soundscapes to complement the city. For example, the sound of the docks is based on a recording of a particularly gloopy river, slowed down to a fraction of its normal speed. Some of the audio, including the applause and the chanting at the Hippo, was recorded at last summer’s Discworld Convention, which was great fun.”

I’ve read about the idea that books ought to have soundtracks, and thought it sounded terrible  – you’d screw it up if you read even slightly faster or slower than the writer intended. But a soundscape like this could actually work really well: it’s a great feature.

Doing the research

The only thing I felt the app lacked was a great big “citation needed” feature. While discovering all the little pubs, restaurants and community theatre groups scattered throughout Ankh Morpork, it’d be nice to know which books they’re from. (Personally, I would like to pay a visit to the Quill & Comfort, where the retired publisher landlord offers respite to poor struggling writers.)

However, you can be confident the developers have done their research, working from the books and the author himself.

“We were very lucky to have the book The Compleat Ankh-Morpork as our starting point as most of the research was done for that,” Holmes explains. “The Discworld Emporium team re-read all of the novels, making notes as they went, to ensure that any businesses mentioned in the books were featured in the app, and that they were all in the right place. When we were taking it a step further with the app, we had to go back and check quite a few facts against the novels to ensure the app is as true to the city as possible.

“Terry was very involved from the start. Not only did he create a lot of the written content in the app, he also contributed to some of the city sounds. We had a fantastic day in the recording studio with Terry, his assistant Rob and Helen Atkinson-Wood recording the various character sound effects and the tour guide voiceover. Having Terry on hand to tell us exactly what C.M.O.T. Dibbler would say, or how Foul Ole Ron’s cough should sound, was invaluable. Everything that is in the app was run past Terry so it is as authentic as it’s possible to be.”

Before we leave Sophie Holmes, there’s one more thing we need to know. Does she have a favourite landmark?

“There are so many! You can’t beat the Unseen University for its impressive architecture and it’s fun to keep an eye out for the Librarian poking his head out the library. In terms of the sound effects, I love the way the Guild of Alchemists fizzes and pops when you are nearby.  I have read all the descriptions so many times but they still make me laugh out loud. For example, Keeble’s Job Shop: Vacancies for domestic service and retail assistants. Sorry, but due to previous difficulties we are unable to find positions for the Undead.”

Discworld®: The Ankh-Morpork Map For iPad is available from iTunes for £9.99, and the app has its own website here.

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