In listening to Radiohead’s eighth album, 2011’s The King Of Limbs, Stan Donwood, a veteran cover artist and a visual collaborator with the band since the 1990s, said that the music conjured “immense multicoloured cathedrals of trees, with music echoing from the branches whilst strange fauna lurked in the fog.” The subsequent sketches that Donwood made have now informed the band’s latest project: an app called Polyfauna. It’s a trippy exploration of an immersive, ever-changing world where sound, flora, weather, and animals are all intertwined.
According to the band’s announcement on its official site, the inspiration to make the app was sparked by Radiohead’s interest in early computer-life experiments and “the imagined creatures of our subconscious.” Released as an iPhone and Android app, Polyfauna uses sounds from King Of Limbs’ introductory track, “Bloom,” and imagery from Donwood’s sketchbook to generate a polyphonic–or, rather, polyfaunic–alien ecosystem.
But Radiohead didn’t build the app alone. To make Polyfauna a reality, they turned to Universal Everything, a U.K. media art studio with a history of bringing strange digital creatures to life. Contacted by Radiohead front man Thom Yorke with the idea of bringing Donwood’s King of Limbs sketchbooks to life as an immersive, ever changing world, Universal Everything was excited to take part in the project.
“It felt like being back at art school, resulting in a lovely back and forth collaboration between their studio in Oxford, and our local pub in Sheffield,” says Matt Pyke, Universal Everything’s creative director and founder. “The band is so open to challenging musical conventions–both in composition and structure, and in how music is experienced and delivered. It sat perfectly with our studios motivation to make inventive, emotional experiences with new technologies.”
An interactive experience more than a game, Polyfauna offers users a procedurally-generated world replete with strange terrain, colors, species, and sounds to explore. There is no proper way to “play” it, although in the world of Polyfauna, a small red dot is never too far off, encouraging players to try and chase it. This is the game’s sole mechanism of guidance.
“As you move around the map, by drifting or teleporting by chasing the red dot, you encounter new environments–giant forests, flat plains, tangled spiky creatures and hidden, rare occurrences,” explains Pyke. “Users can bring their own life into the world, just by drawing on the touch screen: a drawn spine grows into a floating life form, drifting into the wild.” If you like what you see, simply tap the small camera icon and a screenshot of your unique world will be automatically uploaded to Radiohead’s site.
At its best, listening to a Radiohead album is like drifting through some sort of strange, subconscious borderland. Polyfauna is a window to that world.