Digital Literature Review: Upgrade Soul

Upgrade Soul (Daniels & Loyer, 2014) is both a digital graphic novel (Moorefield-Lang & Gavigan, 2012) and an enhanced eBook (Lamb. 2011) available as an app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. It is free for chapters 1 and 7 with subsequent chapters available as in-app purchases for A$1.49 each. First released in 2012, the story will eventually have 18 chapters, currently up to chapter 9 is available.

Upgrade Soul is a collaborative creation of writer and illustrator Ezra Claytan Daniels, interactive media artist Eric Loyer and composer Alexis Gideon, created using the Panoply platform (previously known as Opertoonity). The creators first built on the Unity game engine to develop this new platform for creating interactive digital graphic novels. Creator, Eric Loyer, says they were motivated by the desire to “explore the intersection of comics, games, music and touch” (Daniels & Loyer, 2014).

While not animated as such, images are enhanced as the platform uses the accelerometer feature of iOS devices to produce 3D effects when tilting the screen. The 3D effects can be turned off if preferred.

Navigation is not explained but intuitive and simple – swipe left or up to move forward, right or down to move back. Tapping the top of the screen gives the option to go back to the navigation panel, open the options menu or share on social media. The main menu includes extras such as information about the story’s creators and development.

The display is identical on iPhone and iPad, forcing a landscape view. There is no capacity to “pinch and zoom” which this reader found to be a disadvantage on the iPhone where the text is quite small, but of no consequence on the iPad.

The story centres on Molly and Hank Nonnar, a mature couple who have invested in a company researching age-defying technology, on the proviso that they are the treatment’s first subjects. Navigation is linear (although you are able to dip in and out of chapters) but the story is revealed in a non-linear fashion. The first chapter introduces Molly and Hank before they leave for the research facility, and concludes with a disturbing revelation of the initial outcome of the treatment. Subsequent chapters reveal how the Nonnar’s learned about the research, how they reached the decision to participate, and the backstory of the researchers, and moves forwards and back in the days and weeks before and after the treatment. Throughout the story the soundtrack is an integral part, adding to the developing suspense and tension. Music is fully integrated, for example, beeps are heard in time with speech bubbles announcing an alarm by repeatedly appearing and disappearing.

Unlike traditional graphic novels or comics presented online, the panels are not revealed as complete pages all at once. Instead, just a fragment might appear, followed by a bit more, before opening out to the full scene. Panels and sections appear from different directions and this movement becomes part of the storytelling. In conjunction with the score this feature enhances the suspense. Close-ups are cleverly used – the section in chapter one where bandages on Molly’s eyes are gradually removed, slowly revealing the room from her perspective puts the reader in her position, and heightens the suspense and sense of impending doom.

Upgrade soul 1

Upgrade soul 2

Upgrade soul 3

Once immersed in reading there is little to distract from the experience (Lamb 2011). Tapping on the screen is only for navigation, while tilting the device triggers the 3D effects which enhance rather than distract. Upgrade Soul is a compelling read – this reader found the immersive experience at odds with Liu’s view that screen reading reduces sustained interaction (2005).

Upgrade Soul is a sophisticated science fiction story suitable for readers of secondary school age and older. The non-linear storytelling can be a little confusing and the reader must be able to infer meaning from the illustrations and sound effects to fully comprehend the story. The themes are thought-provoking and would provide an interesting prompt for a discussion of scientific ethics, or the challenges of ageing in the science, health, philosophy or English classroom.

Only half the planned 18 chapters have been released so far. The complexity of the story and the non-linear narrative will reward re-reading as I imagine fans will do as subsequent chapters are released. While it is possible to imagine Upgrade Soul being formatted into a print graphic novel, it would lose much in the translation, particularly in the way gradual reveal of scenes is used. As Jabr says “new technologies [can] evolve screen-based reading into something else entirely” (2013). As an app Upgrade Soul becomes an experience, not just a story to read. It is a pity it is only available to holders of iOS devices as this intriguing, clever, disturbing experience deserves a wide audience.

References

Daniels, E. C. & Loyer, E. (2014). Upgrade soul [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/upgrade-soul/id549051057?mt=8

Jabr, F. (2013). The reading brain in the digital age: The science of paper versus screens. Scientific American, April 11. Retrieved from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and leading with technology, 39(3), 12-17. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=67371172&site=ehost-live

Liu, Z. (2005). Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years. Journal of Documentation, 61(6), 700-712. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00220410510632040

Moorefield-Lang, H., & Gavigan, K. (2012). These aren’t your father’s funny papers: the new world of digital graphic novels. Knowledge Quest, 40(3), 30-35. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/knowledgequest/docs/FREEArticle_TheseAren%27t_30-35.pdf

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