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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Strange Rain: a review

Hello T, B-T readership,

Operation Transmedia ReachOUT, well, it's in progress. 

And by progress I mean failing. I know now that 20% of the readership wants 'more consistent fucking updates.' Knife me in the gut why don't you? Maybe I should and stream my deaththroes on ustream while I'm at it, desperately jabbing the final Tweets into my phone, mother sobbing via Skype whilst viscera clogs the Macbook. Does that sound the kind of thing you want, 20%? Oh, do comment. Do. That said, I'd do all that and more for a guaranteed bump in the analytics. 

The rest of my small band of followers are much easier to please: they want royalty, ambition and a multimodal experience I cannot hope to deliver if this pregnancy nausea holds firm. With this and the knowledge that the only person to communicate directly in the comments was my flatmate, the future looks grim and no amount of ginger nuts are changing the fact.

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Wigmore B stalks the flat in varying stages of undress in protest because I put her disgusting blue cardigan on to wash. Now the flat only smells of failure and whatever it is that Marion's cooking.

To distract, cover her shame with the Mac, and to implement the strategy that was the cause of her birth, I have dispatched Wigmore B to review an app she's been cooing over on the iphone. She can write sure, but make eye contact? Forget it. She joins the long line of people judging me.

Strange Rain Preview from Erik Loyer on Vimeo.


 REVIEW: STRANGE RAIN by Opertoon (Erik Loyer)

Scroll right with a swiping finger. Again. Again. Tap the icon to open and the production card appears: -Opertoon - 'Stories You Can Play.' It feels right that stories can be told with a fingertap - this little movement controls most of my personal narratives anyway. 'Convertible' is the name of this story, and it is housed within 'Strange Rain' as a narrative to be read to the beat of falling rain and a creepy music-box waltz, all of which is controlled by the familiar tap of a finger.  In 'Convertible,' (written by Loyer, also the developer of the app), the reader is placed inside the mind of a man named Alphonse as he stands outside in the rain, contemplating his sister's car accident, the fate of her kids and the stuttering nature of his faith. As you tap to obtain each of Alphonse's intimate and transient thoughts, the screen fragments into layers, airplanes fly overhead and colours and sounds mutate and change. It is hypnotic, the sound of the rain, the shifting of the colour plates - after about 15 minutes of play, I felt overtaken by vertigo, as though I could vomit or fall into my iphone for good. Either would destroy the warranty.

I suppose it's a little like conducting a Raymond Carver story.  Except that you gain points by accessing new points in the narrative and delving deeper into this character's inner life. This feels sorta anethema. The gameification of life is getting pervasive and while there's nothing innately bad about a story which rewards participation with points or badges or whatever, this gameplay element has to make sense within the context of its narrative.  I don't feel at all victorious at 'winning' the narrative point that this character is experiencing an difficulty in praying, or has a morbid fear of Tupperware. The system isn't organic to the story and so while moments are lovely, this is overshadowed by the need to 'win' what should be a small, human story.

That said, there appears to be a bug in the first release of the app which makes the whole experience a lot more existential. With this bug in place, tapping through Alphonse's thoughts suddenly becomes both infinitely more boring and so infinitely more interesting. The app promises a star icon in the menu that lets you find out your story 'achievements' which then confirms how far you've progressed through the narrative. However, this starry elements is absent on the iPhone 3GS, making it impossible to find out your narrative 'score.'  This means the reader/players spends what feels like hours, tapping through the same interior thoughts on a loop, trying to find the magic waltz-y rhythm that will reveal a conclusion. The same narrative loop materialises again. And then again. And so on.  Soon, the same claustrophobia and frustration Alphonse is supposed to be feeling infect the reader/player. This is a game you can never win, or never know if have won. Isn't this conceptually way more interesting than an achievement ranking?

With the achievement gameplay element muted, the full burden of success of the project falls on the writing. I'm not sure the writing is a success. Maybe I haven't tapped it right, maybe there's much more to uncover, but aside from the occasional potent phrase: 'The sky isn't asking me for a decision yet.' the thoughts occasionally strain for poetry......

'Auntie knows what her cooking does for us. <tap>
We need it. <tap>
Spine of love and comfort'

....and don't quite make it.

But here's the thing, the medium makes participation into collaboration, with the burden of success placed on the reader/player. The line of though perists: maybe, maybe this story will fulfill everything I want, if I just tap it right--two--three--- all will be revealed. The app's infancy as a storytelling device mean the poetics are shrouded in mystery and the reader/player is never sure how much agency they have, or much real influence they have over the narrative. If the r/p taps wildly on the screen, the skies break and Alphonse is given the choice as to whether or not he wants to return to the house. The app touts this multiple ending feature as another way the r/p influences the action but it feels hollow. I successfully made Alphonse retreat homewards once only, and I didn't feel the warm glow of resolution. He never wants to leave the rain. We sit out there for hours, never getting to the bottom of things. Maybe I do deserve a medal.

For all of this, I am excited. 'Convertible' is only one story and though it might fail as a single narrative, it is the start of what could be a bold and thrilling experiment. The beauty of an app is that it can be updated and new stories can grow out of the ether. Imagine: a genre made of music-boxes and rain.  This genre would be small but it has the potential to be beautiful and utterly singular. And that's what storytellers and app-makers should shoot for: the moon, the rain, everything. Imagine the secrets to be tapped.


Well that wasn't so bad. A bit overwrought perhaps but she'll learn to tone it down. This is her first time. I got to read St Augustine, Henry Jenkins and embarrass myself in front of a Transmedia Frenchman on Twitter. Wigmore B and I. We organised. We collaborated. I feel...better.

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