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The Fantastic App of Mr. Morris Lessmore

So, I'm not much of an Oscar viewer. I used to really look forward to the awards ceremony. But in recent years, probably as a result of having two little kids at home, I've morphed into my parents. I haven't seen any of the movies, I hate staying up past 10, and I find myself squinting at the screen and muttering things like, "Who is that and why is her dress so short?" until I get depressed and go to bed. At 10. So I pretty much skipped the Oscars this year. There was, however, one bit of Oscar news I was really happy to hear - The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, directed by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg, won the award for Best Animated Short. I was excited about this not because I'd seen the short (I hadn't), but because I really love the app that they made along with it.
March 5, 2012

So, I’m not much of an Oscar viewer. I used to really look forward to the awards ceremony. I’d go to Oscar-watching parties, filling out my ballot in advance, critiquing the outfits, jumping up in victory when my random guess for Best Art Direction turned out to be correct and won me the 25 bucks at stake – you know the drill. But in recent years, probably as a result of having two little kids at home, I’ve morphed into my parents. I haven’t seen any of the movies, I hate staying up past 10, and I find myself squinting at the screen and muttering things like, “Who is that and why is her dress so short?” until I get depressed and go to bed. At 10. So I pretty much skipped the Oscars this year.

There was, however, one bit of Oscar news I was really happy to hear – The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, directed by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg, won the award for Best Animated Short. I was excited about this not because I’d seen the short (I hadn’t), but because I really love the app that they made along with it.

Carla and I have written here before about the interplay of games and story, and this app is a total inspiration on that front. Clearly, the creators of this app were working with some great source material as far as story and character are concerned – I’ve finally watched the short now and it’s no surprise that it’s won accolades. It has a compelling story, beautifully drawn characters, a gorgeous art style, and somehow manages to evoke Buster Keaton, The Wizard of Oz, and memories of Hurricane Katrina all while remaining very much its own narrative and its own world. I’d argue, though, that the app is just as impressive. What the team at Moonbot Studios did with that source material truly feels like a marriage of games and narrative in which each gets its due.

The way the app is structured, the player follows an edited-down version of the short film’s story in sequence. The words are written out as a storybook with accompanying narration in a familiar eBook format. Then things get interesting.

Each page contains a game or task that the player needs to complete before the story continues. These little puzzles are very much tied to the action of the story – you swipe your finger across the screen to start a windstorm that carries Morris away, you assemble puzzle pieces to repair a torn book that he has found, you learn to play, “Pop Goes the Weasel” on the piano in the library where he is living. These games don’t loudly announce themselves and how or when you’re supposed to play them. Instead, subtle clues in the animation (for instance, almost transparent arrows that show you where and when to swipe) lead you to do what’s intended without breaking out of the world of the story.

The games are simple, exploratory, and perfectly in step with the narrative. They’re also often as easy for kids as grown ups – my three-year-old figured out several of the puzzles before I did when we played it together for the first time. The inputs are varied, using a lot of different features of the iPad, but because the mechanics are truly tied to what’s going on in the story, you never feel like you’re playing a tap game or an accelerometer game – you’re making the seasons change around a reclining Morris or steering him through a dream world of books.

This app is one that gives me hope for truly narrative games and the future of eBooks, because it manages to be just as successful a game as it is a short film, and vice versa. Its creators have taken a huge step to a place where story and game are each given equal weight, and where one experience supports and deepens the other in a way I’m incredibly excited about. And the great news is, I just found out that Moonbot has a brand new app out, The Numberlys. I just downloaded it and I can’t wait to play!

We’d love to hear about apps that inspire you in their blending of games and narrative. And one more reminder that we’re going to be at GDC and SxSW in the coming weeks. Email us if you’ll be around the conferences and would like to meet up or if you know of a session we should check out (kidsGotGame@noCrusts.com)! We’ll be tweeting as much as we can (@noCrusts).

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