Sitting mysteriously in the centre of The Artifacts title screen is an open cardboard box. A reader might assume, at this stage, that the box is for “the artifacts” whatever they may be. Some kind of storage. As whimsical instrumentation plays in the background, a 19th/20th century musical box tune, you might be considering the contents of the box, or the other selectable options (sound effect toggle, narration, page selection, author information). Or your finger might touch the box, accidentally, or with curious intent, and discover that with each tap a different symbol floats upwards and out – currency, mathematical, Greek, and zodiac symbols. It hints at deeper, more complex themes, and it’s at this point that The Artifacts, an interactive storytelling app (Lamb, 2011) first released in 2012 by Lynley Stace (author and illustrator) and Dan Hare (programmer) of Slap Happy Larry, begins to weave its magic – and it’s much more than meets the eye.
The protagonist of the story is Asaf, a twelve, going on thirteen year old boy from suburbia who loves to collect all kinds of “bagatelles, baubles, gewgaws and gimmicks”. His parents don’t share his passion however, and one day after school, Asaf comes home and is greeted with an empty room, his precious things discarded carelessly and the family ships off to a new house where he is under strict conditions not to clutter his room anymore. The story content and its themes are quite sophisticated: the leaving behind of childish things, isolation, alienation, transition, and eventually a celebration of an active, creative mind. The illustrations range from lush and dreamy to stark and minimalist, depending on Asaf’s mood. Colour symbolism is used with effect throughout – warm colours in the beginning to cold greys and blues after Asaf moves house. There is much here for older readers to examine, unlock, and reflect on.
While the style of writing is rather minimalist, the digital affordances present in The Artifacts serve the expression and imagery, evoking rich sensibilities and emotions, extending the story experience rather than derailing the act of reading (Guernsey, 2011). While the story is narrated in a flat Australian accent, endowing the story with a sense of sobriety, the real story here are the interactive, haptic elements of the pages. Readers tap, rub, lead, find, watch, tilt, and add to the rich illustrations as they traverse the story experience. Making precious artifacts appear, and keep appearing, more and more, until every spare scrap of room real estate is taken up really drives the idea home that Asaf loves his collections. Tapping into existence dialogue, particularly the forceful gone, gone, gone Asaf’s parents dole out, swiping the condensation from the mirror to reveal a reflective Asaf staring at himself, or collecting effervescent firefly thoughts in an empty lightbulb really deepen the connection a reader has with the story. Not all of these haptic enhancements are obvious – readers need to hunt for them, to test and try, giving the experience an exploratory quality which adds a more active, participatory dimension. The soundtrack, story, illustrations and haptic enhancements combine to create a temporal contiguity, with the effect of making the text more real and more meaningful (Roskos et al., 2014), particularly for younger readers.
The Artifacts is currently $2.99 (NZD) exclusively in Apple’s App Store, restricting the access of the story to particular devices and to schools with available budget. The main splash screen offers options to tailor the in-line experience, increasing usability and accessibility by toggling sound effects options and narration on or off, and allowing a page selection feature for non-linear navigation – important for readers who wish to retain agency over the reading experience (James & de Kock, 2013). In a noble tilt towards the over-commercialised state of similar children’s apps (easy links to in-app purchases, similar products etc), Slap Harry Larry state they will never advertise other products in their apps – that young readers deserve immersive reading experiences which don’t pull them away from the app and into the commercial side of the internet (Slap Happy Larry, 2016).
The iTunes description for The Artifacts states the interactive storytelling app is appropriate for ages four to twelve, and while on a surface level, certainly younger children will enjoy a funny story about a boy with a big imagination who likes collecting things, making caterpillars munch on leaves, little dogs bark, and shooing away shadows. In many respects though, The Artifacts is a mature exploration of teenage alienation, emotion, and transition, and would appeal to children much older, perhaps giving these older students permission to access their inner lives, imagination, and help them understand their place in the world (Conley, 2012). From the information menu on the front screen is linked a very helpful Teacher Notes document, which details thematic and symbolic meaning in the story, key questions teachers can pose students, and other post-reading activities. Alignment to the curriculum can be achieved at many different levels with a skilled teacher able to “tease out the variables” (Gurnsey, 2011).
The Artifacts is a versatile, high quality interactive story app which leverages the haptic and digital affordances of modern tablets to appeal as much to childish whimsy as to deeper themes of loss, alienation, and transition.
Conley, Susan (2012). The Power Of Story. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkqb6uDRNQs
Guernsey, L. (2011). Are ebooks any good? Retrieved from http://www.slj.com/2011/06/books-media/ebooks/are-ebooks-any-good/#_
James, R. & de Kock, L. (2013). The digital David and the Gutenberg Goliath: The rise of the ‘enhanced’ e-book. English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies, 30(1).
Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.
Roskos, K., Burstein, K., Yi Shang, Gray, E. (2014). Young children’s engagement with e-books at school: Does device matter? SAGE Open, 4(1).
Slap Happy Larry. (2016). The Artifacts [website] Retrieved from http://www.slaphappylarry.com/story-apps/about-the-artifacts/