James is a Gulf War vet turned demolition worker. James is also going through a crisis: he's beginning to lose his sight, and possibly his mind. What if you were there to voyeuristically witness it all from James' point-of-view? What if you had the ability to pry his eyes open and see what he sees? If you could delve into his subconscious and peer at his innermost thoughts, what would you find there? This is the concept behind Pry, the new iPad novella created by art studio Tender Claws, of which the first installment has recently been released.
Tender Claws, the art collective and studio founded by Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman, has been working on Pry for two years now, seeing it as a chance to explore what (and how) multitouch devices can add to the long and noble tradition of telling a story. Interactive ebooks have been around for awhile now and have been produced to various levels of success, but Tender Claws believes that the importance of interactivity in Pry differentiates the project from other film-novel hybrids.
"We were excited when tablets came out and there seemed to be a new readership for works that were experimental in form," Tender Claws explainied to The Creators Project. "Early projects we saw though, were mostly mimicking print conventions. Interactivity was as an add-on. We wanted to make something that could only exist on the platform that delivered it and made use of the advantages and constraints of the iPad in an interesting way. We wanted reading gestures that were integral to the story."
As the story revolves around an unreliable narrator, it is concerned with both memories and thoughts, stringing the reader along a a fragmented structure that is open to intepretation. This interpretation is essential to the experience and to the interaction it seeks to facilitate: "It was our goal that the project captures something of the ineffable qualities of thought and memory that exist in the gaps between language and image," Tender Buttons notes.
To create the world of Pry, Cannizzaro first had to teach himself to code, via reading how-to books on Objective-C and watching iTunesU Stanford iOS classes. The project's multimedia structure meant that Hollywood levels filmmaking, plus the task of actually writing a novella, were necessary towards creating something coherent and whole.
Different mediums service different parts of the story: video is used for what's going on in the external world, while text provides a window into James' mind's eye. "Text has a long history of representing free-flowing stream of conscious narration," the pair note. "Language seems to hold a privileged position when it comes to thought. We liked the idea of readers hearing their own internal reading voice, just as James would hear an internal voice of his thoughts."
In the novella, interaction comes not only in the form of prying James' eyes open or shut, but other ways too—like using your fingers to help James read a braille Bible. The second chapter consists of a seemingly endless wall of text that readers can scan through at will. For this latter part, Tender Claws explains, "The whole point of the interface is to capture the sense of being overwhelmed. We use this sense of overload and endlessness as a way of mirroring James’ internal state. The text represents an obsessive thought that repeats endlessly. This is one example of how the type of interaction resonates with and, in many ways, is the content of the story."
So the gestures, as well as the iPad's functionality, are integral to the narrative, revealing insights and clues, and helping readers empathize with James' struggles. "The most important question to us is, Why? Why use the interaction presented? What does it add to the experience or how does it distract?" Cannizzaro and Gorman state, naming Device 6 and Silent History as two examples of app novels that use interactivity to service the story rather than as a superflous add-on.
Pry was nominated as a finalist in the 2014 Future of Storytelling Prize, alongside with John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes by Michael Epstein and Mark Thompson, and Possibilia, the prize-winning film from Daniels. So, what of the future of storytelling? Is it a buzzy phrase or something much more interesting?
"The future lies in approaches to storytelling rather than core judgements about how stories will irrevocably alter." hypothesizes Tender Claws. "What excites us most is an attention to form in service of the narrative. The idea that the platform, interactions, and way in which a story is told are just as important and are indeed a part of the story itself. I think we’re seeing more and more apps, games, and interactive projects of all type using technology as a meaningful part of the experience rather than just as a delivery mechanism or gimmick."