Sunday 4 September 2011

Pottering through Pottermore

For some people the name ‘Pottermore’ signifies the most exciting development of 2011, to others it means nothing. To cater for those people for whom it means nothing, it is J K Rowling’s latest extension of the Harry Potter series and is a website described as a ‘unique online reading experience’ where users can ‘share and participate in the stories […] and discover additional information about the world of Harry Potter’.

While I have enjoyed being read all of the Harry Potter books by Stephen Fry on long car journeys and seen most of the films, I would – by no stretch of the imagination – count myself as an obsessive fan. I am, however, interested in technology and children’s literature so signing up for one of the million beta tester accounts took me about three minutes earlier this summer.

Having seen my friends receiving their ‘Welcome to Pottermore’ e-mails over the past few weeks, I was getting increasingly frustrated that I was still not privy to the new world until I received my e-mail yesterday morning.

In short, the user navigates through the first book and is obliged to carry out a few simple tasks before they can move on to the next section. The structure matches the original text chapter for chapter but while the book’s reader is allied with Harry, Pottermore confuses this as the narrative is the same as the book, but the user gets to go shopping in Diagon Alley, explore graphical representations of settings in the book, and get given their own wand and sorted into one of the Hogwarts houses as if they are a character in the text but just much less significant than the protagonists.

The allocation of wand and house are possibly the two most significant elements of Pottermore as it stands. In the wizarding world, these are two things which are key to a person’s identity and to have your own (virtual) wand and membership of a house make you feel part of Hogwarts, if not one of the heroes. Both are allocated based on a series of questions some of which are straightforward, but others were more thought-provoking and one genuinely made me ask myself what I would like to be remembered for post mortem.

Users are also able to make potions and cast spells. Sadly the much vaunted wizard duelling (casting spells against your opponent) is currently unavailable as more work is done on the site, so I have been unable to turn someone’s legs to jelly or make their nose run incessantly; such is the hardship of being a beta tester.

Technically the site works well and is quite impressive but, as an aside, as much of it is Flash based I assume that it will not work on iPads. The graphics are good but, in a world where people are used to their Nintendo Wii or PS3 and 3D TVs are starting to appear on the shelves of high street stores, they are limited. While this is a trade off for having an Internet based product at no cost, rather than having the seemingly unlimited worlds of Zelda or Mario to explore on dedicated gaming machines, I can see users getting a little tired of the limiting three level zoom from a fixed position on each scene.

When going through the story I was most put in mind of the interactive fiction computer games of the 1980s where players were given a text description of what they could see and had to type commands such as ‘look north’ or ‘pickup key’ to progress through the game. While these were new thirty years ago and building upon the ‘choose your own adventure’ books of the age, I feel that the twenty-first century computer user expects a little more.

The networked nature of the site means that there are social networking aspects and you can make friends, but (presumably for child protection reasons) as everyone has a ‘magical’ pseudonym this is only useful if you know that your real friend is called CrimsonAsh85 in Pottermore. You can (when it’s working) duel against real people rather than battling an end of level monster, and your collection of house points (earned for duelling and making potions as far as I can tell) engender teamwork by going towards you house’s total. How seriously people are taking this is something about which I am yet to be convinced: with just 41 points, I am currently 13,100th out of 36,030 and while the leader (with 6,459 points) is clearly making an effort the same clearly cannot be said for a significant proportion of the house.

One of the biggest claims for Pottermore is the new material that is featured. For the fan of any book there is always the desire to know more about familiar places and characters, and a comprehensive back story is provided for Professor McGonagall along with some interesting trivia about things like characters’ names and Rowlings’s inspiration. The cynic in me wonders whether much of this material will be things that were cut out of the manuscript for book one: anyone with all seven books on their bookshelf can readily see how much superfluous material made it into the later books once the series took off. Regardless of this, wherever the additional material has – and will – come from, I did not feel that there was enough to add much more to the series as it stands in its printed form. As unofficial encyclopaedias already exist, an official guide with links to a simpler, but informative, website may have been a more lucrative solution.

It is possibly unfair of me to write this after just twenty-four hours on the site, but having had the ‘unique online reading experience’ of the first novel on Pottermore I do not feel that I have really participated in the story much more than did while listening to it being read. While I am pleased that I made it into Gryffindor and have a hard 14.5” chestnut wand with phoenix feather core I could have written an online script to allocate wands and people to houses. But that’s just the point: it was J K Rowling who gave me my wand and put me in Gryffindor and as she created Harry Potter it is – by default – momentous, and the site will duly be perceived as successful.

Yes, I have gone back into Pottermore and revisited sections of the story to find galleons and chocolate frog cards. Yes, I have waited the 85 minutes to brew a potion only to have it fail and then waited a further 85 minutes to get it right. Yes, I will keep logging back in in the hope I can trying duelling, and yes, I will (probably) go through the other books when they arrive online. However, before it goes live to the rest of the world in October, I hope the creators will have a clearer idea of the purpose of the site: users will get bored of re-reading the novels they have already read multiple times with such limited interactivity in a digital medium. The site is neither a game nor a novel but an awkward hybrid: when users reach the end of the final novel on Pottermore they are likely to feel cheated when they realise they knew how it was going to turn out all along.