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.

 

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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.

 

Firefly thoughts coalesce and disperse, like all ideas do

Firefly thoughts coalesce and disperse, like all ideas do

 

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.

 


References

 

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/

Never Alone, by Upper One Games in collaboration with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and E-Line Media, is a ‘side-scrolling’ digital game. It’s unique in that it was developed in partnership with the Iñupiat, an Alaska Native people, who seized an opportunity to deploy the medium of digital games to preserve and explore their traditional values, share stories of native Alaskan folklore, and revitalise interest in Iñupiat culture (de Matos, 2014). Upper One Games state Never Alone is part of a new genre, “World Games”. Other pundits have called the game an “interactive piece of folklore” (Starkey, 2014) and a “playable fable” (Narcisse, 2014). Overarching these labels, Never Alone, sits under the broader umbrella of electronic game narrative (Unsworth, 2006).

 

Due to the collaboration with the Iñupiat the story content of Never Alone is authentic and compelling. You play as Nuna, a young Iñupiat girl and her animal companion Fox. A blizzard has decimated their village leaving starvation and destruction in its wake, and the duo set out to find the source of the blizzard. As you control Nuna and Fox through the various scenarios, an age-old Iñupiat voice narrates the action, while a translation in English rolls across the top of the screen. In addition, as you traverse the arctic environment, players unlock “cultural insights” in the form of mini-documentaries – real life interviews and footage of different aspects of Iñupiat life and culture which expand on the themes explored in-game. The story of Never Alone is dispersed evenly throughout the narration, cultural insights, animated cutscenes, and gameplay scenarios (Unsworth, 2006).

 

Together, Nuna and Fox traverse the harsh arctic environment

 

The digital affordances of the game medium in Never Alone enhance the story’s themes. Nuna and Fox each have unique abilities. Fox can crawl under small areas, climb up walls, and jump high. Nuna can throw her bola (a many-tasseled projectile used for traditional hunting), move heavy objects, and climb ropes and ladders. Players can switch between either character depending on the type of obstacle faced. You cannot succeed by simply using one character. This relationship embodies the theme of interconnectedness which the Iñupiat so valued – the interconnectedness of the people, the land, and the creatures who inhabit it. Further gameplay elements add to the diegesis: erratic blizzard winds can knock players off icy cliffs if not reacted too at the right time and ghostly Aurora Borealis phantasms can reach down and snatch the life from you, reflecting the dangerous weather conditions Iñupiat had to be weary of on a daily basis. In addition to these gameplay elements, inky animated “scrimshaw” illustrations of traditional Iñupiat artwork act as cutscenes which advance the narrative between chapters and a soundtrack of eerie and atmospheric music adds a sense of suspense and adventure to the unfolding story. When digital affordances such as these mix with a wonderful story, it creates a synergistic experience more than the sum of its parts (Yakota & Teale, 2014), and Never Alone certainly qualifies as an example of this.

 

Between chapters, traditionally illustrated cut-scenes advance the narrative

 

In terms of usability and accessibility, Never Alone is available on a great many platforms. The game offers support for 17 different languages, is updated across these different platforms regularly, and has an online customer support portal with frequently asked questions and help ticket submission. In game, the controls are customisable – players are able to change the sensitivity and layout, and the menu contains quick access to cultural insights, previous chapters, and game settings. On the downside, the game will stretch the processors of even the newest tablets, creating heat and draining the battery considerably. In terms of gameplay, while Nuna and Fox are generally “smart” when not being actively controlled, the characters can sometimes become stuck on random objects, breaking the immersion of the story and causing frustration.

 

Never Alone presents many opportunities when considering alignment to the curriculum – the key though, of course, is making sure students activate thinking and the teacher promotes comprehension (Lamb, 2011). Digital games, perhaps more than any other medium can captivate and engage a student so they get caught up in the game elements rather than taking time to consider and reflect. Unsworth believes relating game activities to literary aspects is one way to begin unpacking a game’s narrative, it’s themes and messages, just as you would a novel (2006). Never Alone can also be used to explore concepts of values, culture, and interconnectedness; as a primary resource for learning about traditional Alaskan culture (Fuhler, 2010); and as an example of cultural preservation and new forms of oral or traditional storytelling.

 

Mini-documentaries called “Cultural Insights” extend the learning

 

Never Alone’s story and design reflects Iñupiat values and principles: interconnectedness, coexistence, community, communal stories, respect for nature and one’s elders, and binding together to achieve impossible tasks. It is a rich, unique transmedia digital game created to share, celebrate and extend traditional Iñupiat culture. It powerfully leverages the affordances of the digital game medium to disperse a literacy experience across a rich transmedia environment.

 


References

 

Fuhler, C. J. (2010). Using primary-source documents and digital storytelling as a catalyst for writing historical fiction in the fourth grade (Ch. 11). In B. Moss, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Teaching new literacies in grades 4-6: Resources for 21st-century classrooms (pp. 136-150). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

 

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

 

de Matos, X. (2014) Sharing legends with the world in Never Alone, a game inspired by Alaskan Native communities. Retrieved from https://www.engadget.com/2014/03/19/sharing-legends-with-the-world-in-never-alone-a-game-inspired-b/

 

Narcisse, E. (2014). Never Alone: The Kotaku Review. Retrieved from http://kotaku.com/never-alone-the-kotaku-review-1659789150

 

Starkey, D. (2014) Never Alone Review. Retrieved from http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-11-20-never-alone

 

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

 

Yokota, J. & Teale, W. H. (2014). Picture books and the digital world: educators making informed choices. The Reading Teacher, 34(6).