“Once upon a time there was no alphabet… only numbers.” William Joyce’s app The Numberlys (Moonbot Studios, January 2012) introduces users to a highly detailed, Metropolis-inspired city scape, where a society of cute blobby creatures manufactures numbers. Numbers form the basis of all organization and communication, but this world, though “orderly,” lacks color, creativity, and fun.
Five friends — feeling they “need something different” — secretly challenge the status quo and build the alphabet through a long process of trial and error. The other Numberlys are initially shocked when these experiments come to light, but celebrate when the introduction of the alphabet also brings color (and jellybeans!) to their lives.
Some parts of the app function like a movie, automatically advancing the narration and film-caliber animation from page to page. Other sections require user interaction; when and where to touch is indicated with red icons glowing against the gray backgrounds. The bulk of the app invites users to help the Numberlys construct letters by tapping and swiping their device. The letters are formed in various whimsical, often mechanical ways: the Numberlys (usually rotund #3) jump on shapes as though on trampolines to burst them, direct falling numbers against gears to chip off pieces, and wind cranks to pull shapes apart. Producing each letter of the alphabet gets a little long, but turning off tutorials once you’ve got the hang of the activities helps pick up the pace.
Occasionally the text strains to include the featured letter(s), as when the letter U “take[s] considerable ‘umph’ to unfurl.” In other instances the text is unrelated to the means of creating the letter, e.g., the text “A bit of jujitsu at just the right juncture would readjust the I into something more jaunty” introduces the letter J, when to form the J users actually shoot Numberlys like human cannon balls at the letter I .
I wasn’t a fan of the narrator’s faux-German accent, but found the Numberlys themselves (who speak in long strings of numbers, inflected with plenty of emotion and personality) charming. Excellent sound effects and an epic score add to the app’s cinematic feel.
The app is user-friendly; access the settings menu at any point during the story to turn narration, music, all sound, or the activity tutorials on or off. A turning gear in the menu allows users to select from thumbnails of the action on each screen and easily navigate through the narrative. The tutorials preceding each activity are brief and helpful.
There are a few logic gaps in the story — how do the number-minded Numberlys think up the letters’ sounds and names? why does a number-based reality make food unpalatable and the world colorless? what is the connection between letters and color — not to mention jellybeans? — but users will be having too much fun to care. Visit the official website for making-of videos.
Available for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad (requires iOS 5.0 or later); $5.99. Recommended for primary and intermediate users.