The Numberlys: With New iPad App, Ex-Pixar Designer Unleashes A Masterpiece

Moonbot Studios, which astounded us with “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore,” avoids the sophomore slump with its latest story-app.

I wrote about an iPad app last summer called “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore”, which was basically the acme of interactive storytelling on the iPad to date. In November, I visited the company that created it, Moonbot Studios, and saw what they were working on as a follow-up: a story-app called “The Numberlys,” about a group of cute misfits who invent the alphabet in a gray, stern world inhabited only by numbers.


Moonbot gave me a preview of the full app, which is available today, and it’s amazing. Better than “Lessmore.” A complete mother*$#&ing delight. (Moonbot co-founder William Joyce, who wrote and co-directed the app, swears like a sailor.) People like to compare Moonbot to Pixar, not only because Joyce used to work there, but because their commitment to quality storytelling is just as fierce. Now it looks like they might be following in Pixar’s footsteps as a back-to-back hitmaker, as well.

“Numberlys” is essentially a bedtime story whose punny prose style and simple interactive games will appeal to very small children. But like the best children’s books, “Numberlys” is stuffed full of so much sumptous art and witty design (Joyce conceived the experience as a stylistic homage to Fritz Lang’s black-and-white sci-fi classic Metropolis, of all things) that parents will end up just as entranced as their kids. There’s even an emotional payoff at the end that made this new dad very nearly tear up.

The story unfolds in a silent-film-esque series of animated vignettes and title cards. Joyce and his co-director, Brandon Oldenburg, wanted to shake up the traditional wide-screen view of most “cinematic” apps, so “Numberlys” only plays in portrait orientation. But that suited Joyce and Oldenburg’s vision for the Numberlys’ vertically emphasized world, which is full of belching smokestacks, heaving pistons, art deco skyscrapers, and of course, the letters of the alphabet themselves. Film buffs will appreciate subtle nods to Metropolis like the glowing rings that surround newly-minted letters of the alphabet. The animation even has a constantly flickering “grain” to it, as if it were shot on film from Fritz Lang’s day.

Once the plot gets going (five Numberlys revolt against their mechanistic drudgery and sneak off to manufacture each letter of the alphabet, using numeric characters as raw material), the app intercuts a brief, very simple interactive game for each new letter of the alphabet. This creates a momentum that will be very appealing to anyone under the age of five, but I found it surprisingly effective myself–I went through the entire story twice and only very rarely skipped any chapters or games. The games are more like interactive diversions–there’s no way to “lose” them, and most of them are over in a matter of seconds–which is a good thing, because the flow of the story could easily feel too choppy otherwise.

Still, some games are better than others. I could never really get the hang of (or discern the point of) a game involving springing a fat Numberly on a trampoline over and over again, and unfortunately this dud of a game is one that the app often repeats. (There are a lot of letters in the alphabet–even with clustering letters into groups. “The Numberlys” reprises certain games more often than I expected.) But other games sparkle with narrative and interactive cleverness. “W” was one of my favorites: by frenetically spinning a platter with the letter “V” on it faster and faster, the “V” flickers and doubles on itself to form the “W”. It’s easy to imagine a pre-schooler squealing with glee during this particular interlude.

The whole book takes about 15 minutes to get through, and the ending is as pitch-perfect a payoff as any of Pixar’s best. I don’t want to ruin it, but it’s a brilliant bit of design that any parent reading “The Numberlys” alongside their little one at bedtime will truly appreciate. As for the Moonbot crew, they can sleep easy too: “The Numberlys” is a bona fide work of art.


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.