Metamorphabet: a creepy and beautiful app for children and adults

A is for Aaargh!

I was curious to see how Metamorphabet would handle X.

In alphabet books, X is always a pain. Or rather, it's always an X-ray, and since alphabet books are generally aimed at kids - by the time a person has grown up, publishers have despaired of trying to teach them the alphabet - X-rays present something of a problem. In the Peppa Pig alphabet book (I looked, so you can leave your copy on the shelf), the X-ray is a baggage machine at an airport. Interesting trade-off, really. Agreed that nobody wants to think of Peppa Pig maybe following up with a biopsy, but it's strange that the idea she might be smuggling drugs through Nicaragua is clearly not a problem.

In Metamorphabet, an interactive alphabet app, X is an X-ray. But here's the thing: it's an X-ray of a giant X, a letter that, upon closer inspection, appears to have two long bones going off on one diagonal, and a bunch of little bones running down the other. A skeleton stuffed inside a letter: it's wonderfully squirm-inducing to think about that. And then, just as you are thinking about that - wow! - it all gets beautiful. Suddenly, the bones turn into a xylophone. A xylophone you can play, fingers running up and down the scale accompanied by some lovely animation. Metamorphabet is creepy and euphoric by turns. It's Videodrome and Goodnight Moon all squished together. In other words, it's Vectorpark.

Every now and then, I check in to see what Vectorpark's been up to. Clearly, I have let this slide, because I gather that Metamorphabet's been out for a while. No matter: Vectorpark - or Patrick Smith, to use his inferior human name - is an artist and designer whose work hinges on animation, simple shapes, and a deeply effective strain of creepiness. In fact, that isn't quite true: the creepiness is so effective, I suspect, because the audience brings it to the table themselves. Smith just puts talons and eyes and tufts of fur into close proximity with the kind of clean-edged solid shapes you might find in a nursery. In a weird way, he doesn't actually set the tone. Your mind does that - possibly, in part, because the talons, the eyes, the tufts of fur and the clean-edged solid shapes all have flat colour instead of more intricate texturing. You already have a subtle prompt to add something of your own, much as you do when faced with the chilling emotional blandness of a Magritte.

As such, a Vectorpark toy combines cute ideas with inferred horror surprisingly closely. Metamorphabet is sweetness itself, but it is also gorgeously disturbing. There's X with his internal skeleton, and there's N, where the letter becomes populated with little people - neighbors - before a huge, human nose pops out of the side. It's comical, but also, um, that's a pretty big nose. With T, the letter branches into a delicate, spindly tree, and then instead of leaves you get tassels, a telescope, a tambourine and a tongue. Everything can be prodded or shaken about, and Smith is adept at giving his animations a sense of weight and life. R becomes a robot, running through the rain. You can flip the guy around and he will eventually shake himself back into his optimal position. He staggers, this robot, mechanically of course, but with more character, more life, than many game protagonists can muster.

I have read a lot of people talking about what a delight Metamorphabet is, and this is true, and true for all Smith's work. But to leave it at delight is to diminish the artistry, which weaves the trinkets of the toy closet together with the whispering of the uncanny. Fear does not work in industrial quantities, so the steady drip-dripping of weirdness Metamorphabet offers is gloriously unsettling. Metamorphabet captures the illogical world of children supremely well - a world that hasn't rejected logic, but rather isn't yet aware of the rules it imposes.

And it does all this with so little! There's nothing quite as familiar and mundane as the alphabet. Nothing quite as ordinary. Smith makes it fresh again, delivering a series of sharp shocks, and strangely arranged bedfellows. A master of texture and recombinations, I reckon he would have been a great chef. But I would never eat as his restaurant.

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About the author

Christian Donlan

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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