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Academy Award winners discuss bringing wonder to PS3's Wonderbook

Sony is looking into a Vita version of the Wonderbook.

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The idea of the Wonderbook, a prop book cover that can be filled with interactive pages through a bit of PlayStation 3-powered virtual reality, didn't really interest me when it was announced this summer.

At least not until I heard that Moonbot was creating a book for the peripheral.

I know Moonbot Studios from its work on an amazing iPad app: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. The poignant, interactive allegory wasn't just a well-told tale, it was the first step in changing the way storytelling happened on the iPad. The short film that the app was based on also happened to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

That Moonbot's collective of artists and storytellers are working on another new form of storytelling, this time powered by the PlayStation 3, seems very promising.

Sony is looking into bringing the Wonderbook to the Vita.

Speaking at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, last week, Moonbot creative director Adam Volker said the studio took on creating a Wonderbook title in part because it gives them the creative freedom to also help create the game design rules for the budding platform.

Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment's worldwide studios, said the company's London studio team, familiar with Moonbot's lyrical work in the realm of creative storytelling, reached out to the studio to gauge its interest on creating a Wonderbook title.

"By working with them," Yoshida said, "I'm sure our team will learn."

The Wonderbook uses the PlayStation 3's camera and Move technology to read the shape of the book peripheral a player is holding, and then recreate a live video of the person holding an animated, virtual reality book on the television.

The first book announced is tied to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise, and seems very game-driven. Both Disney and the BBC have been announced as future partners for the peripheral. Sony is also looking into the possibility of bringing a version of the Wonderbook to the Vita down the line, Yoshida told Polygon.

"There are lot of opportunities for the Wonderbook," Yoshida told Polygon. "From simple stories to reading books to pop-up books. Our ambition is beyond games."

Moonbot Studios' take on the tech is to create a sort of noir mystery adventure game told within the confines of a pop-up book.

In Diggs Nightcrawler, players will peer down at the pop-up book world of Diggs, a bookworm detective modeled off of Humphrey Bogart, Volker said.

In the story, players are tasked with helping Diggs solve the murder of Diggs' boss Humpty Dumpty, the mayor of Library City. Diggs and the rest of the storybook characters of the game will be aware that they have a person peering down at them throughout the game, so the player is sort of a character in the game too, Volker said. As the book progresses, the player will have to earn Diggs' trust.

"Characters will talk to the player; the story won't progress without your help," Volker said. "The story needs you to be there.

"Diggs starts out not trusting you; you'll have to earn that badge. He's going to tell you to turn the page. He's going to tell you when it's the climax of the story. Diggs knows he's in a book."

The game is played by physically helping Diggs out. That might mean tilting the book around to make a street light cast light over a patch of darkened crime scene, using a Move controller as a magnifying glass or helping Diggs into a place he has to search. For instance, Volker described a scene that takes place at Humpty's jazz club, the Frying Pan, where players half close the book to cause the pop-ups to partially collapse in a scene. As the scene folds, a power line droops to the street, allowing Diggs a chance to climb aboard so he get a boost to a window into a club.

Players progress through the story game by turning pages and close a chapter in the tale by closing the peripheral book.

While the game drew heavy inspirations from noir movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and Chinatown, the team had to figure out how to make that look and tone work for children.

"We would watch movies like these and see what was working in these films and what we could take and make work for children," Volker said.

In designing the landscape of the game, which is broken into a number of library sections like horror and reference, the team looked to American realist painter Edward Hopper for a way to mellow out the game's drastic noir aesthetic.

"We felt he visually captured noir without doing it black and white or stark contrast," Volker said.

The team also broadened its hunt for inspiration while fleshing out Diggs and some of the game's other characters. Ms. Itsy Bitsy Spider, for instance, is a jazz club singer inspired by Lauren Bacall's Marie "Slim" Browning of To Have and To Have Not. Her band, played by three blind mice, is inspired by the Rat Pack's Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

All said, there will be about two dozen characters in the game, which will run about two hours long. The team said it is shooting for a "feature film" length for the game.

"Characters will talk to the player, the story won't progress without your help."

"It's a very structured story, but we're hoping there will be replay value or different ways to play through the game," Volker said.

As with Moonbot's Morris Lessmore app, the game is designed to be played by parents and children together.

"We're targeting 7- to 11-year-olds," Volker said. "But it has layers — jokes maybe kids won't get, but parents will."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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