This morning, news emerged that Radiohead – you know, that really popular band with all those highly acclaimed albums… that one – were releasing an app, downloadable for free immediately from the App Store and also for Android devices. See! Look! News!
The app, PolyFauna (created, actually, by design studio Universal Everything), is described simply: “Your screen is the window into an evolving world. Move around to look around. You can follow the red dot. You can wear headphones.” But what does this actually mean in practice? The band’s frontman Thom Yorke says of the project: “It comes from an interest in early computer-life experiments, and the imagined creatures of our subconscious.” Right, nice one. Is it any good?
Kinda, sure. If you’re massively into Radiohead – not to mention their past collaborations with artist and writer Stanley Donwood – then the aesthetic side of PolyFauna will instantly appeal. The music – the drones and moans, screeches and static, with traces of recognisable motifs – apparently comes from the group’s ‘The King Of Limbs’ (review) album sessions – but truthfully, many a band could make a noise like this, and most of the time nobody would consider it in any way remarkable.
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Interactivity is absolute and yet minimal – the journey into these “evolving worlds” is automatic, although moving around with your smartphone in front of you adjusts the trajectory through what looks like freezing rain, a blood-red forest, mountainous wastes, the edges of space. In-app instructions state: “Tilt / Turn / Draw”. The first two are simple enough, and the third – achieved by swiping a finger across the screen – generates prickly or cubed creatures, worm-like things, which proceed to fly across the environment. They demonstrate no noticeably player-determined AI, seemingly ambivalent to your own presence in their digital space.
Following the red dot by psychically moving your body as it zips around the screen – this is not an app to be experienced sitting down, unless you’re an honorary member of the Moscow State Circus’ contortionist troupe – leads to the world shattering and reforming. This is the “evolving” Yorke speaks of, but it’s essentially just levelling up, albeit on a completely horizontal axis. The scenery changes but the game – and the ‘g’ word is important – remains the same.
When we think of apps we frequently mean games – and, in turn, what games can mean today is very different from what they were when experienced on Commodore 64s and Master Systems. The lethargic commercial performance of the Wii U has been, in some quarters, linked to the lack of a “killer app” for Nintendo’s current-gen console. And while something like Twitter isn’t actually a game in the straighter sense that a Mario title is (what, that’s not killer enough, Wii U doom-mongers?), Charlie Brooker’s placing of the social media tool as one of gaming’s greatest ever releases in his 2013 listicle-style documentary How Videogames Changed The World further blurred the dividing line between app and game definitions.
Think of PolyFauna as a game and it’s one that rests comfortably in the margins of the experimental indie scene, where words like challenge and objective aren’t wholly applicable to the experience. And yet it shares traits with games that have reached wide(r) audiences: the snaking creatures, built of blocks and spikes, are reminiscent of those seen in a game like Q Entertainment’s Child Of Eden, discoloured and stripped of their glowing targets. Another comparison can be made with the stone serpents of Journey, the outstanding 2012 PSN game from thatgamecompany. This familiarity helps progression, keeping you interested in what might snap into existence come your next encounter with a rapidly flashing red spot.
PolyFauna, set to the lunar calendar, promises a different experience each time. A preliminary hands-on with the app is entertaining enough for 10 minutes – but it’ll be interesting to see what worlds it’s generating in a week’s time, in a month’s. Universal Everything’s past credits include work for Warp, Intel and Hyundai, and they’ve a Barbican commission in the London venue’s forthcoming Digital Revolution exhibition. They’ve an impressive reputation to maintain, so the surprises to come in PolyFauna – inevitably, given its associations, the product with which they’ll reach their largest-ever audience – could well shape what the studio’s founder, Matt Pyke, does next.
Right now, PolyFauna’s a curiosity. It’s like a cocoon that you can actually dive inside of – but without ever really knowing what’s going to emerge from the pupal goo. One thing’s for sure, it’s a lot more rewarding to spend time with this distraction from reality than it will be Fall Out Boy’s own take on Flappy Bird (Guardian report).
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Download PolyFauna if you like - links over here.