Mr. Sandman: Fear of the Dark (August 2012), the debut storybook app from French developer Hocusbookus, is one of the most arresting examples of digital application technology I have ever seen. The combination of intricately layered backgrounds (clearly influenced by shadow puppetry aesthetics), deep nighttime colors, an eerie musical underscore, and interactive elements breathes life into the dreamscapes of the narrative.
After a bedtime story from Mummy, a young boy lies under the covers awaiting sleep. Trouble is, he’s afraid of the dark. After a visit from the Sandman, the boy awakens in a lush dream world where he is led through landscapes and night skies by a “noble eagle owl” who explains, scene by scene, why the darkness is nothing to fear.
Interactive elements are used to transition from page to page, such as tilting the iPad from side to side, erasing the scene to reveal a new scene beneath, and whispering “shh” into the microphone. While the technology behind the transitions themselves is innovative and appropriately connects to what’s happening in the story at each moment, finding the interactive elements is not always easy.
The navigation wheel, present at all times in the bottom left corner, contains a question mark icon that clearly explains how to turn each page. However, I didn’t discover this handy tool until I spent a good ten minutes poking and pinching at the first few screens. This app would benefit from a brief explanation of the navigation wheel’s icons on the menu screen, letting users know from the beginning that help is available if they’re having trouble discovering the hidden interactive elements on their own.
The least impressive aspect of this app is the story itself. The clunky text over-tells at every opportunity, leaving no room for the stunning visuals to pull narrative weight, and by the end, you’ve been instructed exactly how to feel about darkness. The masterful design of this app shines, but I wonder if the glare of technology can blind us to the lack of literary merit. Do we hold children’s storybook apps to a different critical standard than children’s books? I hope not.
Available for iPad (requires iOS 4.3 or later) in seven languages; $3.99.