The rapid evolution of technology, and the many affordances it provides is not only changing the way we read or “…tell stories; (it is) changing the very nature of story, of what we understand to be narratives”
(Hunt, in Unsworth, 2008, p.63).
The model below represents a process that will be used to evaluate digital literature, recognising that it is important to consider digital literature as a different form to traditional print literature (Hancox, 2013). The model has been created using ideas from Yokota & Teale (2014), the Australian Library Service for Children Blog (Parrott, 2011), and Meyers, Zaminpaima & Frederico’s Expanded Ecology of the Book App (2014).
The literary elements of the texts will be evaluated first, as it is primarily the quality and clarity of content that makes a great story (Lamb, 2011). Once the literary merit of the text is established, further criteria need to be layered onto that, because of the multimodal nature of digital texts, each of which has its own syntax and semiotics (Walker, Jameson & Ryan, 2010), and the usability features that affect interaction with the content. Taking these three distinct elements into account will help determine whether there is “…an aesthetic synergy between the technical features, the artistic creations of the text and the ideas within it” (Walsh, 2013, p.187) in a package that is easy to access and use.
The digital book app, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore was written by William Joyce and published by Moonbot studios (2011A). It is a good example of a piece of transmedia literature, beginning as a “silent” film in 2011 with no text or speech (for which it won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film), then being remediated as an app that same year ($4.99). In 2012, it was published as a print book (Joyce, 2012) at a cost of $16.99. Later that year an augmented reality app called IMAG*N*O*TRON (Moonbot Studios, 2012) was released ($2.49), to be used in conjunction with the print book. Jenkins (2003, p.3, in Tikka, Kankaanranta, Nousiainen, & Hankala, 2009) writes “…in the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best…” and this is evident in the various platforms this piece of digital literature has been published in. This review will focus on the digital book app.
Like most good pieces of digital literature, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore was created by a multidisciplinary team of writers, sound engineers, graphic designers and more, which is reflected in the paratext in the Credits section of the app. The beginning of the story is reminiscent of the black and white imagery used in The Wizard of Oz, where a man gets carried away by a storm and lands in a strange, new place. After meeting a woman flying through the air with a flock of books, the world becomes colourful, and he is lead to “…an extraordinary building where many books apparently ‘nested’” (Moonbot Studios, 2011A), which becomes his lifetime home. The story would appeal to readers of all ages, especially to bibliophiles, and has received over 6,000 reviews on Goodreads with an average rating of 4.57 out of 5 stars. The app is rated 4+, however younger children may not appreciate it as the “lovely whimsical concoction” that Joyce intended (Moonbot Studios, 2011 B).
Meyers, Zaminpaima & Frederico (2014) argue that good digital literature is not just a designed narrative experience, it is also a designed multimedia experience, and this book app delivers both. The story needs the reader to turn the pages after interacting with each page in some way, and the page turning cue will not appear until this interaction has been completed. Sometimes there is a cue to readers (eg. hand swiping across screen), while at other times the reader needs to problem-solve for themselves. There are a number of game elements in the text that may distract some readers from the story (eg. making words with ABC breakfast cereal), and some of the audio features have the potential to drown out the read-aloud narrative, however Moonbot studios have generally used the multimodal elements in this story to enhance the text, making many of the interactive elements integral to the story.
The menu which can be accessed from the setting icon enables various multimodal features to be switched on or off, allowing the reader to customise their experience of the app. It is available in a number of languages, making it accessible to a large number of people worldwide. The menu feature also allows you to explore and/or revisit parts of the text in a non-linear fashion if desired. The app is only available on iOS devices, and has had thirteen updates (the latest on August 13, 2015), however it did drop out a few times whilst trying to jump between pages.
An iPad is an ideal device to use to become immersed in the fantastic world that Morris Lessmore finds himself in, as it allows for interactivity that engages sight, hearing, touch and movement. Publishing the story across multiple platforms, and updates to the apps have ensured that we are still engaging with this text five years after it was created. It has been described as a groundbreaking app (Sargeant, 2013), but only time will tell if it becomes a classic piece of digital literature.
A number of links to digital spaces have been included at the beginning of the story and in the Credits section (eg. a Facebook page, morrislessmore.com, author blog at williamjoyce.com, a “making of” video clip), that allows access to back channels (additional digital spaces that allow the reader to go beyond the story). However these spaces tend to be one-way mediums for communication from author or publisher to audience, rather than as a means for collaborative conversation between them.
The defining feature of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore as an example of a good piece of digital literature is how the multimedia and usability features of the book app add to the literary features of the story, offering opportunities for the reader to interact and engage with the story in ways that the print version cannot (Meyers, Zaminpaima & Frederico, 2014).
Firestorm is a free, web-based digital text, referred to as an “interactive” by the publishers The Guardian (2013). It is “interactive” in a very basic sense, in that the reader needs to scroll through the story, and can click onto different items in the menu. It was developed to tell the story of a bushfire in Dunalley in Tasmania, after an image of a family sheltering under a jetty in a lake, in the middle of the catastrophic fire, was shared around the world (eg. UK Daily Mail, ABC News Australia, CNN). The story is presented in chapters that are displayed in the menu on the side of the screen, with each chapter following a similar format – personal narrative of the Holmes family’s experience of the Dunalley bushfire, interspersed with video and audio footage from other Dunalley residents, emergency workers, the fire itself, and snippets of media coverage of it, followed by a fact sheet placing this experience into the wider context of the history of bushfires in Tasmania and climate change. The credits at the end of the piece once again illustrate the multidisciplinary, collaborative process of creating digital literature – acknowledging writer, film, editors, designers, interactive developers, multimedia producers, researchers, graphics, sound etc.
Jon Henley is credited as the writer of the text, and he has created a powerful, engaging and informative story that spans various genres – biographical, narrative, factual. A variety of literary techniques have been used very well in this piece – the text is beautifully written, moving between poetic, descriptive text, informal conversational writing (eg. “He wasn’t what you would call concerned. No one in Dunalley was.”), and succinct informative text, which has been structured to build atmosphere and tension.
But the story would be incomplete if it relied on the text alone. It is the addition of multimedia elements to this story that make it such a powerful, immersive piece. The creators have used the unique affordances of each media element (Walker, Jameson & Ryan, 2010) to develop the narrative, by allowing each medium to do what it does best (eg. we see and hear the Holmes family’s story, rather than read about it). There is a lot of movement and ambient background noise as the reader scrolls through the text at a pace of their choosing, yet because they enhance the written text so seamlessly, they become part of the reading experience itself. One review of the interactive describes it as “…meld(ing) text and audio and video” (Johnson, 2013). The team behind the story said that they were aiming to create a genuine backdrop to the story (Reid, 2013), and their clever integration of multimodal features has achieved that.
It is easy for the reader to navigate their way through the story as a linear experience or jump ahead/back to various parts of the story using the menu sidebar. Each chapter is presented using multiple media forms, indicated by self-explanatory icons – text, video, graphics, fact sheet – so it is easy to jump to a particular point within each chapter. Firestorm is best viewed on a computer, as some of the multimedia features do not play on an iPad (eg. ambient sounds, moving footage behind text). The Credits section refers to two ebooks that “…include in-depth analysis and dramatic stories from other Dunalley survivors” (The Guardian, 2013), which could provide a deeper understanding of the context of Firestorm for the reader. Repeated attempts were made to purchase the eBook ($2.99) via the Guardian Shorts website and Amazon, with no success, resulting in disappointment and frustration. An audiobook for Firestorm ($2.99) is available on the iTunes store, but just as the text alone can’t tell this story properly, nor can the audio alone.
An internet search found some back channels for the story including a master class created by Guardian on how to create a multimedia project such as Firestorm, and a behind the scenes story by Alistair Reid (2013), which help the reader to depth their understanding of the process that was used to create the interactive, rather than depth their understanding of the story presented in it. Neither of these sites are linked to the interactive or the Guardian website.
The defining feature of Firestorm as an example of a good piece of digital literature is its integration of multimedia elements into the narrative. The strengths of each medium have been used effectively to develop the narrative, engaging the reader on an intellectual and emotional level as they explore the Dunalley bushfire from a personal and environmental perspective.
My Mother’s House is a project created by writer Victoria Bennett and Minecraft technologist Adam Clarke (2015) which was supported by the Writing Platform Bursary Programme, whose aim is to “…support creative experimentation and inter-disciplinary learning between writers and technologists” (The Writing Platform, 2015A). It stretches the boundaries of what is and isn’t considered literature by embedding a poem within what is traditionally thought of as a child’s game environment. The authors intended to demonstrate “…how writing and gaming can come together and help us explore and engage with aspects of life that are difficult to talk about in a way that is accessible and unintimidating” (The Writing Platform, 2015B). The walkthrough of the poem by the creators can be accessed freely via The Writing Platform website or Youtube. Details published with the video also include links to a free playable map of My Mother’s House that can be downloaded onto a Minecraft server.
Bennett describes this work as a poem and an experience, where she and Clarke tried to create a poem world about love and loss and letting go (The Writing Platform, 2015B). It is categorised in the GAMING genre on Youtube, which goes to illustrate the challenge and complexity of categorising forms of digital literature such as this (Walsh, 2013). The poem is poignant and beautifully written, and Bennett narrates it gently in both the walkthrough video and the Minecraft map. The walkthrough video allows you to experience the poem in a linear fashion as it was written by the author, however independent exploration of the poem world in the Minecraft map gives you the opportunity to interact with the spoken poem differently to how it was originally written, as you move over pressure plates to trigger narration of the poem in different rooms. Given that this “…is not your average poem” (Dredge, 2015) the vlogs created to share how the Minecraft world for My Mother’s House was constructed play a crucial role in developing a deeper appreciation for the design and structure of the poem (eg. “stanza” roughly translating to “room” which is one of the reasons they decided to create the poem in Minecraft), and the authors’ intent.
Clarke goes into detail in one of these vlogs about how they incorporated some multimedia elements such as speech and graphics into the poem world in Minecraft. All of the poem is narrated by the time you arrive at the end of the map, but only snippets of the text are displayed throughout, either floating or forming part of a dream landscape. Text and narration do not always synchronise, which could be distracting for some readers, and opening and closing chests in some rooms drown out Bennett’s narration of the poem. Some music is played at the beginning and end of the piece, but most of the journey through the poem world map is only accompanied by sound effects, such as footsteps, or doors opening and closing. Some parts of the poem world are completely silent which adds to the contemplative mood of the piece. The poem world is explored through the eyes of the builder which gives a sense of walking through the space and seeing it through the eyes of the author. The walkthrough video has no interactivity, while the Minecraft experience has opportunities for the reader to interact with the space (eg. by collecting items from chests (which don’t appear to have a purpose other than to be collected). The reader is unable to edit the Minecraft map.
Accessing the walkthrough of the poem requires little technical expertise other than how to find a video on Youtube, but experiencing the poem world in Minecraft requires an understanding of how to download a minecraft map, and how to move through and explore a Minecraft world. The map has a labyrinth structure, deliberately leading the reader to the end of the poem through its design (The Writing Platform, 2015C).
While the innovation behind My Mother’s House can be appreciated, trying to explore the concepts of death and grief in a child’s gaming platform created discord rather than an aesthetic synergy (Walsh, 2013), which distracted from the poem. It would be interesting to see if children were able to identify and contemplate the themes that the poem explores in Minecraft in the accessible and unintimidating way that was Bennett’s and Clarke’s intent (The Writing Platform, 2015B).
Bennett, V. & Clarke, A. (2015) My Mother’s House. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M91KUQ7sUDo
Dredge, S. (2015, August 11). My Mother’s House explores death, grief and memories as a Minecraft poem. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/aug/11/my-mothers-house-death-grief-memories-minecraft
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Johnson, S. (2013, November 21). Why the Guardian’s ‘Firestorm’ is better than the Times’ ‘Snowfall’ [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://hudsoneclectic.com/2013/11/21/why-the-guardians-firestorm-is-better-than-the-times-snowfall/
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The Writing Platform (2015C, March 10). Building Words and Building Worlds: Poetry and Minecraft Vlog 2. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDRpCPn7Mcg&feature=youtu.be
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