Why isn’t Sony’s Wonderbook being used to educate?

Mariel Hurd takes a look at Sony's latest innovation - an interactive storybook - and asks why it's just a tool to expand the Harry Potter universe.

Wonderbook: Book of Spells

In the spirit of innovation, Sony have bred a Living Books CD with a Choose Your Own Adventure book and made Wonderbook. Presumably kept together in a small, warm box; dosed with pheromones and Barry White tracks until they conceded to mate and bring forth a Harry Potter spell list.

Sorry, that’s an uncharitable way to describe the offspring. It is, in fact, ‘a new range of experiences that brings stories to life in your living room’. Imagine sailing the seven seas to explore an Atlas, walking with dinosaurs, travelling beyond the stars to discover astronomy. Imagine a presentation where they’d actually shown us any of that.

While there’s nothing wrong with the Wonderbook as a concept, its unveiling did leave something to be desired. After the promise of spectacular sights and dizzying heights, receiving someone’s magical homework notes was a bit of a letdown. It’s understandable that Sony wanted to get straight down to the business of flashing around their Big Name, but the whole demonstration would have benefited from something a little more solid, something to really show off the possibilities. A brief glance was spared towards a noir game titled ‘Diggs Nightcrawler’ but, alas, no more attention was paid to the little fellow, who looked rather blue about the whole malarkey.

Dub-a-dee-dub-a-di, dub-a-dee-dub-a-di.

If you took the Wonderbook as it was presented at E3, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a blatant money grab. The new IP being developed for it was swept aside almost immediately, like an embarrassing relative you felt obliged to invite to your wedding, in favour of the glamorous guest star. The Harry Potter name has status attached to it, but the game itself came across as a half-hearted, half-hurried cash cow. ‘Beautiful poetry’ that tells a ‘unique and witty tale’ is mentioned without ever being shown, skipping even a taste of the first few lines, while the visual effects are lingered over lovingly; almost caressed by the camera lens. Which, y’know, YKINMKBYKIOK*, but it didn’t help with the overall soulless feeling.

Despite that outpouring of cynicism, I have high hopes for the Wonderbook. Similar things have been done before – the Living Books series being both aforementioned and utterly obvious – but there is plenty of room for newcomers to make their mark, and to make it well. Games can provide a level of flexibility which is hard to replicate in other mediums, like branching plotlines or murdering a sullen protagonist in a fit of pique, and having the freedom and power to influence the story would delight a lot of children.

(Those of you who actually remember the games you made up as a kid are probably looking a little queasy now, and maybe making plans to be unavailable when your seven-year-old sister gets her hands on interactive Little Red Riding Hood.)

As an educational tool, it could be invaluable. Tim Rylands proved years ago that games can educate and entertain children, even when you’re running them through the gauntlet of Myst’s famously frustrating puzzles, so it’s baffling that Sony doesn’t have any (publicised) titles in the works. Andrew House talked about educational games, and I snidely quoted him, but there was nothing solid forthcoming. Which is a little confusing, since it has the potential to be the Wonderbook’s biggest selling point.

There’s a proven audience for a more informal attitude towards history – see: Horrible Histories’ viewing figures – and light-hearted learning is always popular with kids, and the Wonderbook is perfectly designed to take advantage of that. The past is a lot more entertaining when you can help the luddites smash up machinery, tug cartoon brains through the noses of (soon-to-be) Egyptian mummies, and build your own terracotta army. Jam in rich, colourful environments to go hunting through and you’ve got something to keep ‘em quiet for an hour.

Selling the Wonderbook as a teaching tool might also help it over the highest hurdle it faces: the cost. For a family who already owns the Playstation Move gear, adding a Wonderbook isn’t a huge step but adding the price of each individual title on that might start to stagger the pile. Playstation Move Starter Kit, plus Wonderbook, plus Sparkly New Harry Potter Game? Probably more of a landslide. And with how little content the Book of Spells looks to have, I wouldn’t blame any parent for gently nudging little Jenny over to a beanbag Hedwig.

And therein lies the rub: is the Wonderbook worth it? It’s interesting, but expensive. Creative, but sporting a tiny library. This is justified by the fact that it’s early days – prices will drop and titles will rise – but with a negative for every positive, I’m not sure Sony will be able to balance the books.

*Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay. And it is, man. It really is. Mariel Hurd takes a look at Sony’s latest innovation – an interactive storybook – and asks why it’s just a tool to expand the Harry Potter universe. Mariel Hurd takes a look at Sony’s latest innovation – an interactive storybook – and asks why it’s just a tool to expand the Harry Potter universe.