The Chimerist

Posts tagged apps

Possibly the most impressive thing to be said about Ryan Woodward’s comic/app “Bottom of the Ninth" is that it got me to read about baseball, a subject I usually exempt myself from due to extreme indifference. True, the story is set in a slightly sf future (the characters play, or follow, a game called New Baseball) and the central figure is a pitcher who’s the first young woman to play in a professional league, two elements that somewhat softened my resistance to it. But still: baseball, and the way some writers go absolutely sappy over it? Not for me.

Then I fell into “The Bottom of the Ninth,” which despite subjecting me to not-great music and a parody version of sports radio, is a lovely piece of work. The art is a very palely-tinted sepia, and the lay out is much like that of traditional graphic novels, albeit a particularly well-drawn one. Select panels feature animations, which are sometimes full-blown action scenes and at other times just the subtlest of details: fluttering pennants, a curl of smoke, a flicker of hair. Some of these barely register, but, along with the excellent sound effects, they create a pervasive sense of place, which, given that the setting is a crazily high-tech sports arena festooned with holograms and jetpack transports, is remarkable. 

The story (of which the currently available “Bottom of the Ninth” is just the opening installment) relates the experiences of Candy Cunningham, whose first time up on the mound is greeted with scorn and skepticism by the fans. Of course, she wows them, but this only attracts the sinister attention of The Corporation, a monolithic entity that has previously been unaware of Candy. You’d think that the public would have noticed her when she made the team, but I will not presume to quibble on points of sports culture.

Tapping on the app’s speech balloons delivers audio versions of the dialog — particularly welcome given that the lettering can be hard to read — and the voice acting is uniformly excellent. An opening sequences dwells overlong on a pair of hamburger-munching, goofball fans as they race to the stadium to catch the game — there’s a particularly nifty animation in which their car zips across several panels, providing a literally moving illustration of how the form should be read. But I for one would be really happy never to see either of those guys again. I suppose the pair is meant to be relatable and humorous, but instead, they’re exemplary of a nagging problem with too many comics, animated or otherwise: sophisticated images married to callow, hamfisted stories and characters.

The truth is, sometimes you’re willing to put up with mediocre narrative content to look at something as visually ingenious and elegant as “Bottom of the Ninth.” It would just be so much better if the words and ideas were at a level comparable to what meets the eye! Woodward’s app could well take Candy’s story into more intriguing territory, however, and The Corporation could wind up being more than just an action-movie baddie. It will always be about baseball, however, and even so, I’ll still be reading it.

Laura Miller

Like Maud, I fell for text adventure games in the 1980s. They were exciting precisely because you couldn’t detect the boundaries and limitations of the world they constructed, and because it felt like you could navigate that world at will. If you turned left, you might discover a castle, while turning right would lead to a dark and menacing forest. Your choice!

But the earliest adventure games, like many of their graphical descendants, turned out to be a lot more constrained than they at first appeared. You could do “anything,” but somehow you always wound up looking for a crowbar or a box of matches so that you could execute some banal task that would ultimately give you access to another bit of imaginary space in which you’d have to perform yet another inane job. These games are fun in the way any puzzle can be fun, but they aren’t really stories. The best of the bunch, the game Myst and its sequels, could be gorgeous and absorbing, but not ever truly moving the way a novel or dramatic work can be. It was once fashionable to claim that games like Myst pointed to the future of storytelling, but the rudimentary stories offered by the vast majority of the genre are less compelling than the average folktale, let alone a play or film.

For that reason, Yesterday by Pendulo Studios is an intriguing departure. Yes, there’s a lot of rummaging around for pen knives and oil cans in order to fix machinery or unearth hidden keys, but the game is more story than puzzles, and the story itself is a gruesomely baroque concoction of satanic cults, renegade academics, mad preachers, gnomic martial arts masters, serial killers, reincarnation and a sinister billionaire.

The central narrative of Yesterday is like the plot of an adequate B-movie in the supernatural thriller genre. This may sound like faint praise, but this is the only game I’ve ever played in which the plot achieves that much substance. There’s a prologue involving a volunteer for a homeless center who falls into the clutches of religious fanatics living in a deserted subway station, then the action resolves around John Yesterday, a private detective with total amnesia striving to recover memories of his past after an apparent suicide attempt. Amnesia is a fairly common affliction for video game protagonists; the player doesn’t know who the character is, and memory loss puts the character himself in the same boat. But Yesterday is unusual in keeping the purpose of the game firmly focused on reconstructing the narrative of John’s life.

The characters, including John himself, are the robotic animated figures typical of many computer games, and the quality of the animation here is not especially high. (Particularly unsettling is the rendering of people’s mouths as they speak — they all seem to suffer from a surfeit of teeth.) This is, of course, a big problem in all such games, even those whose animation is much more realistic; however accomplished, these drawings will never be as emotionally engaging as a real actor’s face, although the player’s investment in scoring and achieving other goals will usually compensates for that. 

A good test of the strength of any game’s narrative is to ask whether it would be at all interesting if the gameplay and goals were subtracted — if all the fighting/killing were removed, or all of the puzzles. What makes Yesterday exceptional lies in the answer to that question. To my surprise, I found myself genuinely curious about the mystery of John’s identity and how he lost it while engaged in some highly dubious research. This is largely due to the game’s ambiguous villain, Henry White, who looks like an over-dentated Ron Howard in the “Happy Days” era and whose true motives remain enigmatic up to the end.

Storytelling and gameplay, however, are almost always at odds with each other, if for no other reason that that a game hinges on the player’s volition while stories require the audience to surrender to the storyteller’s vision. With Yesterday, the tasks demanded to move the narrative forward feel like trivial, mildly annoying obstacles that don’t have much relevance to the player’s real concern: getting to the bottom of John Yesterday’s dilemma and figuring out what Henry is up to. This sensation isn’t helped by some fairly awkward game mechanics.

Yesterday offers a choice of endings, although there really isn’t that much difference among them. (Some are more gruesome than others, but the game overall is not for the squeamish.) That feels right; one of the great satisfactions offered by a good story is the feeling that its conclusion is both unpredictable and, when revealed, inevitable. 

— Laura Miller

Elizabethan sonnets are like fantastically complex little puzzle boxes made of words, crammed with extended conceits, puns, double meanings, shifting authorial personas and more. For that reason, Touch Press’ latest and predictably magnificent app based on Shakespeare’s poem sequence, The Sonnets, is both exactly what you need to better understand the sonnets, and a bit more than you need as well.

Touch Press also produced The Waste Land, still a benchmark in adapting a complex literary work for the iPad, so the expectation is for beauty and elegance of design and that expectation is more than fulfilled. The Sonnets features standard texts of the poems, with the option to toggle to a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto, the first published edition.

The accompanying notes — essential for any modern reader trying to plumb the nested and layered meanings of many of the lines — come from the Arden Shakespeare edition, the full introduction of which is also included. These feature not only explanations of some of the more enigmatic terms and expressions, but also brief discussions of scholarly debates about word variations. (Elizabethan spelling was not standardized, and copyediting was pretty much nonexistent in the early 17th century, so there’s a lot to argue about.)

In addition, the app includes commentary by the Scottish scholar Don Paterson, taken from his terrific book “Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary.” You can also add your own notes, if you feel bold enough to follow Paterson’s first-rate act. The original content in The Sonnets, which is primarily video, features Paterson and other experts, such as James Shapiro and Katherine Duncan-Jones, speaking extemporaneously on such matters as the origins of the sonnet form, the context in which the poems were written, arguments for and against interpreting them as autobiographical works and such burning questions as the identity of the young man and the dark lady to whom they are addressed. These extras alone are worth $13.99 price tag of the app.

Where the riches become embarrassing is with the inclusion of videos of assorted actors reading each poem. Among the performers are Patrick Stewart, Fiona Shaw (whose rendition of “The Waste Land” was the crown jewel of that app), David Tennant and Dominic West. It’s a commonplace to say poetry ought to be read aloud, and indeed much of it should. Furthermore, Shakespeare himself probably read the sonnets aloud to his friends before they were published.

However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for modern readers the sonnets are best appreciated on the page, in close, multiple readings. The actors, who for the most part approach the poems as dramatic works, evince the common modern view, a legacy of Romanticism, that poetry is an outflow of pure, sincere, personal emotion — not how the Elizabethans (or, for that matter, many contemporary poets) regarded it. (Shaw, who can convey the intellectual dimensions of complex verse better than anyone, is an exception.) On top of that, the sonnets are famous love poems, so the performers address the camera head-on, as if confessing their deepest feelings to the viewer. What gets lost in this approach is the reality of the poems as public, performative works and displays of virtuosity. 

But since those and many other facets of the sonnets are in ample evidence elsewhere in the app, I can’t say it matters much. In one of her videos, Duncan-Jones says she finds it peculiar that people give volumes of the poems as Valentine’s gifts, considering how dark and ambivalent is their depiction of romantic love, but then goes on to speculate that in such cases the giver and recipient probably never get around to actually reading them. Perhaps the videos will charm that constituency, but the true riches of The Sonnets await anyone who chooses to dig deeper.

— Laura Miller

If the Euro falls, what should the coins of Greece, Spain, Italy and the rest of the member states look like? The Money Museum’s Coins app, with its high-definition photos of ancient and modern currencies, offers a lot of ideas. 

I’m particularly fond of this impractical dolphin coin, which dates to 480 B.C. in the Greek City of Olbia (and shows that the Ichthys — the Christian fish symbol — wasn’t as unique as it seems now). You would definitely always be able to find it by touch in your pocket.

Contemporary Greece might want a more powerful and rousing symbol, though, and no one fits the bill better than the Goddess Athena.

Some of the writing is a little stilted and clumsy, but the history is solid. 

Even if you (like me) aren’t into coin collecting, this app is surprisingly pleasurable to spend time with. Also, it’s free. The Celtic collection is especially beautiful.

Maud Newton

Sometimes, when people ask me how useful my iPad is (meaning: compared to a laptop), I’m at a bit of a loss. How do you measure the utility of taking a ten-minute break to dip into Fotopedia’s spread on the Alhambra or to glance at the Guardian’s photo of the day? Hours of reading and writing can leave even the most bookish person starved for images and color. The iPad is a relaxation and consumption device for me (the laptop = work), but it provides a refreshment of eye, mind and spirit that surely do me more good than a whole suite of productivity software. I use it to look at art.

Apps for looking at art abound. One of the best-known is Art Authority, a big barn of images, ranging from classical to modern works, fronted by a modest facade. What Art Authority lacks in sophistication, however, it makes up for in volume: the developers have pulled tens of thousands of images — including many high-resolution ones, for you retina screen users — from all over the web and served them up in a format designed to look like a museum.

Some users have complained that all of this stuff — from the images themselves to the Wikipedia pages that pop up when you touch the information button — is already available for free online. Art Authority is basically a big database of that material, which you can search using a limited range of fields: artist, title, location and “subject,” if, say, you really want to find paintings of horses. There’s no presiding curatorial sensibility, no narrative, no analysis. The developers have also produced a companion art-history book available for free in the iBook store. That consists of some very basic information about the various schools of Western visual art, but as with the large chronological categories in the app (Renaissance, Baroque, etc.), the framework is strictly for beginners. This app isn’t going to replace your Janson. Then again, you can find pictures in here that Janson didn’t have room to include.

And you can set Art Authority on shuffle, prop your iPad up and gaze at a seemingly endless stream of gorgeous images, quite a few of them in high resolution. You can pinch zoom to get a closer look, or try an interesting (if somewhat mysterious) tool that picks out “similar images” from the trove. At five bucks, the app’s seamless presentation is well worth the cost, although it would be great if — in addition to being able to save a list of favorite images — users themselves could add tags to aid future searchers. Technically, for example, it’s correct that the Pre-Raphaelites belong to the Romantic era, as does the Hudson School of landscape painters, but otherwise these two groups don’t have much in common. Yet you can’t currently search the database for either school. 

You’d think, then, that I’d appreciate the more strictly curated artCircles app, which serves up images hand-selected by “the artists, musicians, designers and innovators of our time.” (I had heard of none of them.) You can look at all the images picked by a single curator while listening to an audio narration explaining his or her choices. There are also circles organized by dominant color or theme. The images include paintings, photographs, illustrations, even some vintage advertising.

Unfortunately, the wince-inducing narrations in artCircles are a reminder of just how hard it is not to sound self-indulgently dopey when talking about art. The selections in the app should have felt fresh and eclectic, full of new discoveries, yet there was something overly familiar about it — Klimt, Warhol, Dali, etc. — that made the experience strangely redolent of a dorm room. That’s probably because this free app is produced by the company, which sells exactly the sort of posters you and your roommate and your best friend taped over your desks during freshman year. The app is actually a catalog designed to sell prints.

The Gagosian app is forthrightly a catalog, but one that’s so intricate and inventive that even a viewer who’s mostly indifferent to contemporary art (my favorite painter is Tintoretto, to give you a sense) can end up being charmed by it. Gagosian is a name to conjure with in the current art world, and even I recognize a few of the names (Damien Hirst, Richard Serra) in the three issues produced so far. While I liked playing around with Hirst’s colored-dots animation, the real fun lay in meandering through the works of artists who were entirely new to me, like Mike Kelley, who, alas, died earlier this year. 

The Kelley “exhibit” presented by the app featured video, stills, quotes from critics, narration by the artist (which also confirmed that most people sound dopey when talking about art, including artists), and information and images concerning how his wacky, brainy installations were made. It helped that the project, “Exploded Fortress of Solitude,” offered a cockeyed version of Superman’s mountain sanctuary you could walk through. There’s also video in which bewigged men chain a groggy bride to a stone wall. I don’t know what it all means (despite Kelley’s efforts to explain it), but it sure was fun.

Even though I try to hit the major art museums in cities I visit, I’d probably never make it to exhibits at the various glittering Gagosian galleries scattered throughout the world. Not my scene. But the Gagosian app has earned a permanent spot on my tablet. Each issue has two or three things that purely delight me, presented in some sly way that invites exploration and play. How useful is that? Very.

—Laura Miller

There is not an app for that, or at least not one I can find: Consider this the first in an occasional series in which The Chimerist will gripe about some gaping holes in the selection in the App Store. 

I’m not a musician. I have no desire to be a musician. But I do like music and have always felt my lack of a decent (or, really, any) musical education, particularly in the two genres I listen to most: classical and jazz. 

So I was excited when I stumbled across The History of Jazz, by 955 Dreams (developers of the Band of the Day app). Then I read the reviews, which indicate that the text is lifted from Wikipedia and that there are “glaring omissions” and other shortcomings, suggesting a lack of will or funds to obtain the rights to use all the musical tracks needed 

I understand that rights are a headache — a constraint on app production that I don’t think many consumers appreciate. Still, could there be a more ideal platform for music education than the iPad? Text and notation can run across the screen as the audio plays. The text can explain basic musical concepts and structures as you hear them. Particularly in the case of classical music, I always feel that there’s more going on than I’m getting, and a little help would make the experience so much richer.

So far, the only classical music appreciation/education apps I’ve encountered have been intended for kids and focus on the lives of great composers, rather than on explaining what makes them great. By contrast, there are countless music-making apps, simulators of everything from drums and pianos to ukeleles. I know I should celebrate the creativity liberated by such digital instruments, but it would be nice of the needs of the would-be connoisseurs were as well-served as those of the dabblers. 

Am I wrong? We’d love to hear about any apps you know of that do this, and while you’re at it, a pianist friend wonders when someone will devise a sheet music app that can listen to the piece being played and turn the page on its own when needed.  

Laura Miller

It’s not hard to guess the logic behind releasing "Timeline World War 2" at this time of year: It’s the quintessential dad app. For many people giving or getting a new iPad for Father’s Day, this Ballista Media/Agant Ltd. production handily illustrates the merits of the tablet medium by taking the material of a zillion History Channel documentaries and presenting it in a fresh new way.

But “Timeline World War 2” is not just for dads! Yes, it focuses on the military (rather than the political or social) aspects of the conflict, but to someone (like me) who’s unlikely to read a book devoted to major battles, key tacticians, warships sunk or scuttled, weapons descriptions and so on, it may be even more interesting and enlightening than it would be to an aficionado. It’s also a beautifully-designed demonstration of the iPad’s powers as a publishing platform for nonfiction.

Wars are mostly strings of discrete, if related, events, which means accounts of them fit well into a timeline format. “Timeline World War 2” includes a video introduction by revered broadcast journalist Robert MacNeil, and he continues to crop up now and then as you explore it. MacNeil’s presence in the app proper is far from pervasive, however, and it’s best to think of him as a badge guaranteeing its seriousness and substance. 

The main panel of the app is a side-scrolling assemblage of items resembling index cards pinned to a cork board. A bar at the top indicates where you are in the years between 1939 and 1945, so you can scroll month by month — or day by day, depending on the setting of the chronological zoom adjuster, which you can set yourself. You can also drag a pointer along the top bar to a desired date. The “cards” are displayed in layers, with the most significant events in the foreground and the rest in semi-shadow behind them, so you know there’s more to drill down to. You can filter to see just the entries about battles, or those pertaining to a certain country, etc. The text is derived from two day-by-day histories of the war (one about the European theater and the other about the Pacific) written by Peter Darman and John Davison, respectively.

Histories of war, especially modern wars, are tricky. Even more than most historical events, there’s a huge difference between the immediate, confusing, frightening experience of living through a war and a retrospective consideration of what actually happened and why. It’s easy to lose track of one perspective when you’re paying attention to the other. “Timeline World War 2” orders its entries with this in mind. It offers three different types of items: news-making one-day events are displayed as telegrams; accounts with a bit more perspective (the Nazi takeover of Paris, for example) look like typewritten reports, and annual overviews or biographies of the major players look like pages from a book. That’s an elegant design strategy that conveys information instantly without calling too much attention to itself. 

There are photos and, most captivating of all, many newsreel reports, streaming from the web. These latter are, of course, largely propagandistic; you wouldn’t want to count on them to give you an accurate picture of how the war was proceeding when they were filmed. A few come with the choice of watching with the original audio or with narration by MacNeil. Both are worth listening to; however stiff-upper-lip the British film announcers get, there’s no better way to glimpse how it felt to be a civilian in a movie theater worrying and wondering about the future and the fates of loved ones.

The only disappointment in “Timeline World War 2” is the map feature, which seems to be automatically generated, a basic world map with a pushpin indicating a site mentioned in the current entry. There aren’t graphic overlays of arrows and other diagrams to explain troop movements or battle configurations, so unless you’re the sort of person who doesn’t know where Norway or Libya are, it’s not the least bit helpful.

Serious World War II history buffs may find “Timeline World War 2” too elementary; I can’t testify to that. There’s not a lot of text in it when you add it up, but text isn’t the only way to communicate in this medium. This reader, for one, found it a vivid and immersive exploration of a defining event in modern history.

Laura Miller

Words That Burn, a poetry app, includes audio and video from the late writer Josephine Hart’s Poetry Hour at the British Library. Beginning in 2004, Hart devoted an evening each month to a poet or two, “introducing and setting their poems in the context of their life,” and staging readings of the work from actors like Dominic West, Harold Pinter, and Elizabeth McGovern.

The idea, Hart said, was that understanding “‘the life and philosophy of the poet illuminates the poetry,” which “readings by some of our finest actors then ignite.” In a video introduction, Hart contends that poetry is “the highest form of language, without a doubt.”

Words That Burn features fifteen poets, and many more pairings: Dominic West reads Percy Shelley and Robert Lowell; Juliet Stevenson reads Emily Dickinson; Ralph Fiennes reads W.H. Auden. Harriet Walter reads Sylvia Plath; Charles Dance reads Elizabeth Bishop; Elizabeth McGovern reads Lowell and Marianne Moore; and so on. And the app is free, created by the Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation in her memory.

Alongside each recording, the text of the poem appears. Occasionally, while reciting, an actor will add or modify a word, changing the meaning of the text slightly, causing the listener to reflect on the difference between the original and what has been spoken. Some read quickly and brusquely, others languorously.

Dominic West inserts an extra “I” in Lowell’s “Man and Wife.” Harold Pinter is all force delivering Philip Larkin’s “Vers de Sociéte.”

Outside the simple poetry layouts, the graphics are both wonderful and ridiculous. The main navigation screen, presented as a library, features a crackling fire, mounted animal head, and ornate gold portrait frames filled with an overlarge italicized font. 

The aesthetic of this room powerfully calls to mind a strange sugar plantation whodunit game that I played in the early ’90s. Other aspects of the design are more evocative of New Yorker caricatures or Monty Python. 

Getting around can be tricky. Move a balloon to the center of the screen and click just once on it to select a poem. Make sure not to confuse the app into thinking you want to read the poet’s or actor’s bio yet again. I would provide more guidance here, but I don’t want to mislead you. I still get lost, myself.

Juliet Stevenson’s rendition of “I Heard A Fly Buzz— When I Died—” is particularly lovely — slow and melodious, with pauses where I didn’t expect them, underscoring the gravity of Dickinson’s verse in a whole new way.

Hart herself, as the critic Emma Garman has said, “believed in three major destructive powers: erotic obsession, grief and envy. In her six novels, she anatomized each with an unflinching boldness that was, and remains, unparalleled.” The poetry showcased here tends to reflect those and other dark preoccupations.

Maud Newton

Konfetti, designer Stephan Maximilian Huber’s new app, converts your camera’s mirror image into a collection of dots that follow your movements. Transform and manipulate them, creating ever more striking and abstract renderings, by touching the screen. (Via.)
— Maud Newton

Konfetti, designer Stephan Maximilian Huber’s new app, converts your camera’s mirror image into a collection of dots that follow your movements. Transform and manipulate them, creating ever more striking and abstract renderings, by touching the screen. (Via.)

Maud Newton

Robin Sloan’s Fish app is, like it says, a tap essay about the difference between liking and loving something on the Internet — about the way most of us enjoy things only once, in a rush, online. We click the little star or heart or “like” button, maybe even update our “Read it Later” queue. Then we move on, never to return.

For me, it’s more rarely than never. I Google up old favorites; I rummage through my archives for links to and thoughts on things I read years ago; but most of my quick hits have moved to Twitter, and those are a lot harder to track down six or thirty months later. And yes: most of what I like online, I see only once.

That’s always been true for me of some other things, too. Magazine articles. Theatrical productions. Limited-run films. Even books. Plenty of books. The problem isn’t unique to the Internet, but it feels different here, more endemic to the medium. So many new things are always streaming past that we don’t often make time to visit the old ones. 

Sloan advocates going back to things. Really sitting with them, getting to know them. To say much more than that might spoil the Fish for you, so I’ll just recommend downloading it and reading through, possibly more than once. There is no back button.

For a good companion app, try the beautiful and mysterious Everything Is Its Own Reward, which I, like Laura, find myself returning to often, especially at the end of a stressful day. It took me several readings to remember to look for the hidden parts.

Maud Newton

Whatever interactive fiction is (and we’re still figuring that out) it suffers from all the problems of traditional fiction and then some. The vast majority of novels and short stories aren’t much good, but when a branching fiction — along the lines of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books — fails to engage, the first impulse is to blame the form rather than the content. Let "Frankenstein," just released by Inkle Studios and Profile Books, serve as a reproach to that reflex. The app is a creative, subtle and sensitive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novella, and it has singlehandedly renewed this critic’s hopes for interactive fiction.  

What this “Frankenstein” isn’t is a replication of the source text with the addition of a lot of digital doohickeys like sound effects and illustrations that animate when tapped. The app is all about the text, even if it is beautifully framed by period art and anatomical illustrations. The reader is presented with a screenful of narration and then offered one or more responses to it. The preferred response, when tapped, delivers up another screen of text. (In an absurdly pleasing visual touch, these appear as sheets of paper fasted together by straight pins.) According to the press materials, the reader’s responses will shape the way the narrative is presented, although not to the degree of substantively changing the plot.

This is an important point. The pleasure of storytelling lies in the dynamic between the surprising and the inevitable. The reader wants to feel the story is going somewhere, that its events follow from each other in meaningful, but not too obvious ways. When a story can go anywhere, it feels meaningless. In Mary Shelley’s novella, which is saturated with the Western tradition of the tragedy, Viktor Frankenstein’s character is such that he must create a monster, and the monster’s body is such that he can never belong among human beings however much he yearns to. A “Frankenstein” that ended with either misfit finding a comfortable place in the world would be a travesty.

But that doesn’t mean the reader doesn’t long for the story to unfold otherwise; that’s the nature of tragedy. The great insight that writer Dave Morris brings to this adaptation of the novel is that while a reader cannot significantly change the outcome of the story, the interactive element can change the shading and flavor of the tale. It can be mournful and reflective or action-packed. The creature and his creator can show greater or lesser ambivalence about their own behaviors. The ambiguity of both figures is baked into Mary Shelley’s novella, and while Morris has nearly doubled the word count of the original, this mostly amounts to playing up or down what’s already there.

Morris — a novelist who has written graphic novels, games and, yes, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories for kids — has changed the original text in other ways, as well. (Let’s take a moment here to point out to all future narrative app developers that hiring a real writer who actually knows what he or she is doing is totally worth it.) He’s moved the setting to revolutionary France, a choice that shows shrewd understanding of the idealistic political climate that affected Shelley’s thinking; the new Republic is its own kind of Frankenstein’s monster. He’s also eliminated much of the 19th-century framing of the tale and converted it into two present-tense narrations. One is Frankenstein’s dialogue with either himself or a (possibly imaginary) companion. The other is a second-person account of the monster’s first weeks of life as it spies on a family of dispossessed French nobility and has the chance to observe the loving relationships it can never enjoy itself.

Morris presents the reader with choices I’ve not encountered in other interactive fictions. Is humanity mostly good, or mostly evil? Does the most recent development make you (the monster) feel hope or despair? Is the revolution the dawn of a brave new world or a descent into chaos and barbarity? While I’m usually skeptical that present-tense narration increases the “immediacy” of a story, in this case, it really does work, particularly in the sections concerning the monster. Depending on your own outlook, you may urge him to keep trying to connect with humanity, or promptly forward him on to homicidal rage. 

In either case, the narrative is shaped not by the reader deciding to turn left or right, to go down into the cellar or to get out of the house — the usual actions offered on the choose-your-own menu. Instead, the options have more to do with personality and interpretation, beliefs and ideas. As a result of the reader’s choices, the characters seem more like him- or herself, with a concurrent ratcheting up of emotional investment. To my surprise, I found myself more moved by this adaptation of the Shelley novel than I have been by the source text. (Although the app does include the original if you want to compare and contrast.) This is the only interactive fiction I’ve ever read with that quintessential, old-fashioned readerly avidity: the hunger to know what happens next. Of course, I already knew, but that didn’t matter at all. 

Laura Miller

When it comes to integrating images, text and video in inventive ways, some of the most promising new tablet apps have been produced by museums. It’s a logical fit: Museums are about both information and looking at things. People absorb their exhibits by wandering around, in a self-directed and often non-linear manner. And museums tend to be funded by corporations who like the idea that their investment will result in their logo being attached to prestigious content distributed all over the world, not just in the city where the museum is located. That means the apps are often free.

The new app for the Design Museum in London is, unsurprisingly, beautifully designed. It features 59 exemplary objects from the museum’s collection, everything from iconic chairs and the original, candy-colored iMac to the first plastic-covered nappy (diaper), devised by an American housewife in 1946 and celebrated in the accompanying text as an example of ingenious “design without designers.” Others are simply beautiful.

The items are presented on a grid, with each column and row scrollable either vertically or horizontally. Select an object and the entry expands to reveal a gallery of photographs from various angles, text explaining the object’s provenance and the reasons for its inclusion, and a brief video of museum director Deyan Sudjic talking about why it’s notable. Although Deyan has a pleasant voice and extemporizes comfortably, the videos are the weakest part of the app because they are superfluous. There’s nothing in them you can’t already find in the text or photographs. Occasionally, they miss an opportunity, such as not including the sound of Alberto Alessi’s famous Whistling Kettle, which was designed to sound like an American freight train, and since many of these objects are praised for their functionality, it would be nice to see some of them in action.

A curious effect of meandering through the Design Museum Collection app and other forms of non-linear media is a low-level anxiety that you might miss something. In a physical museum, you can poke your head in every room and assure yourself that you’ve covered all the exhibit territory in the building. Every so often, using the Design Museum app, I found myself scrolling an interesting object off the main page and then not being able to find it again. (The scrollable “strips” seem to change their composition when you move in and out of an entry.) Where was that weird-looking TV, again? Eventually, I found it, but this nagging sensation of incompleteness is something nonlinear-media creators need to bear in mind. The idea is to make art and information accessible to an audience in new ways, not (or at least not always) to make them wonder if it’s been withheld.

Finally, while I’m leery of the mania for injecting social media elements into every cultural experience, I love that the Design Museum app supports comments on every single entry. The objects were all designed to be used, and it’s delightful to read accounts (both laudatory and derisive) of what it’s like to live with them. 

Laura Miller

I’m looking forward to Samantha Gorman’s Penumbra, an iPad app created with Danny Cannizzaro that blends art and literature and is designed to “challenge the notion of a static ‘ebook’ by carefully integrating short film, rich animation, illustration and fiction.” Gorman has posted several video previews at her site. (Thanks for the tip, Patrick.) 

Maud Newton

When the New York Public Library released Biblion last year, it properly wowed iPad users interested in inventive ways of presenting information. Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic proclaimed it a model for the magazine apps of the future. So far, though — nearly a year later — there hasn’t been another issue.

The theme of the premier issue is the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. The library signed on to get all materials pertaining to the event right from the very beginning, so it’s a fabulous trove of documents, correspondence, blueprints, sketches, photographs, short films, even a menu or two.

The only way to read Biblion is to wander through it, an experience that more than one observer likened to meandering around the fair itself. It’s an impressive emulation, as well, of rummaging through a good archive or taking in a museum exhibit. If you care about women at the fair (scantily-clad ones were a major attraction), or the Czech Pavilion as a commemoration of a republic that fell to the Nazis while the exhibition being built, or what the staff uniforms looked like, or the story of the African-American composer who wrote the music for the Democracity exhibit inside the fair’s giant dome, you can head straight for that and then fork off in other directions later. Navigation is complex, but after a while you get the hang of it.

The material is clustered around short, well-written essays, and this, as well, seems ideally suited to the material. I wouldn’t call Biblion a model for the tablet magazines of the future, however, because it doesn’t offer one of the primary things magazine features and books provide, which is the order of linearity. Making sense of raw facts, pointing out strands of cause and effect, conveying which bits of information mean more than others: These are some of the meaning-making services that writers and editors perform. It’s a mistake — one often made by unreflective technoevangelists — to assume that linearity’s role in that service is no more than a vexing constraint imposed by the print medium.

For a subject like the 1939 World’s Fair, however, the reader’s freedom to browse through the app’s content at will is exactly the right format. Biblion is spectacularly produced with clever little animations and nice touches like a rotating set of opening images and suggestions for which topic to visit next.

It must have cost a fortune to produce, which makes me fear the library will never get around to assembling another issue. (The web version of Biblion has a collection of stuff on Percy and Mary Shelley up at the moment, but no iPad version seems pending.) I hope that’s not the case, because the access Biblion provides to the world’s great library collections is one of the most exciting possibilities of tablet computers.

Laura Miller

The iPad has made me more conscious of my utter lack of talent at visual art than anything that’s happened since the weekend painting class I took when I was nine. I think that’s because tablet-made art, no matter how sophisticated, still seems so novel and so accessible beneath the shiny, shiny glass, like some kind of delightful accident that could happen to anyone: I have this app, too, so why can’t I draw a cherry blossom tree like that?  Obviously the same principle applies here as to actual pencil and paper. It’s not the tools, it’s the ability. And the patience.

As tools go, though, I do like Paper, a simple app which allows you to create, and to sketch and diagram in, unlimited notebooks. Everyone who’s denounced the payment set-up has a point; while the app itself is free, you have to buy the pens and brushes individually, for a total of about $8. And the Rewind feature is cumbersome and limited. I’d prefer an Undo button with endless recall. You’d understand why if you saw the “sky” I tried to draw.

I’ll always be devoted to my actual composition notebooks, but they get cluttered and filled with ephemera, and I can only keep track of one at a time. So I’ve decided to try using Paper for some of my quick notes, outlines, timelines, to-do lists, and ideas related to my various projects and interests. I like being able to sort them so cleanly. 

I’ve also started a travel journal. I haven’t kept any kind of diary, unless my blog counts as one, since I was in my early twenties. Figuring out what to say, even to myself, was too stressful. Excising the stupid things I wrote in them was too complicated. Many pages got ripped out; huge paragraphs were markered over. In the end, I threw all those notebooks away.

With this app, you can erase sentences, pages, and entire notebooks with a quick touch of the screen, so I won’t have any excuse. I’ve made after-the-fact notes on my recent, fun travels and am hoping to keep it up when I’m away in May.

Maud Newton