Review: PotterMORE? Yes. Yes, That Would Be Nice.
by A Real Person on October 10, 2011
Originally, my headline for this blog was going to be “Hogwarts, We Have A (Bandwidth) Problem,” because for the first week after the welcome letter for Pottermore hit my inbox, this is what it looked like at least 75% of the time:
Wizards and witches, meet the MAGENTA SCREEN OF DEATH. </shudder>
The good news is that, having extended their beta testing phase into its third month following the initial July 31 opening, the developers at Team Pottermore seem to have corrected the server spasms that consistently plagued the site as hundreds of thousands of Harry Potter fans tried to log in to JK Rowling’s post-novels interactive experience. (This was even as they were issuing welcome letters to members in small, carefully-timed increments. It took seven weeks after the site opened for me to get mine.) While Pottermore is now quite easily accessible to all beta testers, however, there are plenty of tweaks to be made. In various respects, it leaves something to be desired, especially for the die-hard Potter nerds who went apeshit crazy during that first week that the Magical Quill challenge was issuing beta invites, like a bunch of kids madly tearing through a pile of Wonka bars looking for their Golden Tickets. Here’s a run-down of what truly seems like Pottermore, and what kinda feels a tiny bit Potterless:
Re-experiencing the novels: The main thrust of Pottermore involves a walk-through interactive Flash game in which you follow Harry’s adventures through all seven books; right now, in beta, only Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – or if you want to be a purist you can select UK English as your default, so it’s called The Philosopher’s Stone – is unlocked. The artwork depicting scenes from the book is indeed quite beautiful, in a nicely impressionistic way (no one’s faces are ever visible, leaving it up to the user’s imagination – after all, if you read the books, certain characters might have looked quite different in your head than the actor who ended up portraying them in the movies.)
As you progress, there are challenges to overcome and an ongoing scavenger hunt in which you zoom in and out, mousing over the images to uncover and collect items that will earn you house points: galleons for purchasing school supplies, books for your studies, and all sorts of other items, some of which are curiously unexplained. Finding wolfsbane outside Hagrid’s hut (pictured above), for example, comes in handy because you can use it for potion making – more on that later – but the salt and pepper shakers on the Dursleys’ kitchen table? And those are for… huh? Let’s file those under “will be explained eventually, we hope.” Moving on…
What to do when you’ve finished a book: As of right now, the ETA for Chamber of Secrets opening up to members is still months away. Presumably, even after the public launch, the rest of the books will be released in phases too. So once you’ve finished the interactive part of a book – and if you’re a hardcore HP lover, you could probably finish in a day if you have time to kill – what else is there to do? Right now, the answer is… not much. Here are the options:
— Spells: There is a section where you can practice casting spells by clicking your mouse over certain letters in “Petrificus Totalus,” or what have you, but that’s all it is. Practice. It does take some skill and speed, but it doesn’t earn you any house points. You can earn points in the Wizard’s Duel area, where you battle in spell-casting with other members. (Although only members from other houses will earn you points; if you’re a Gryffindor and you fight another Gryffindor, that too is practice.) And the problem with the Wizard’s Duel is this: It’s completely FUBAR. Apparently, back in the early days of the beta, it proved so popular that it taxed the servers yet more than they were to begin with, and as such Team Pottermore shut it down… and haven’t opened it back up since. It’s been undergoing “maintenance” for several weeks, and no one knows when it’ll reopen. Harumph.
— Potions: Okay, now it gets interesting. Potions are, at this point, pretty much the only thing you can do on Pottermore to pass the time but it must be said, it is rather challenging and fun. One of the items you are required to buy with your 500 galleons of inheritance early on in the interactive tale is a pewter cauldron, but you can upgrade to a fancier brass or copper cauldron if you wish. (Important note: When it says they are faster, they mean in conducting heat, not in the time it takes to brew something.) Along the way you collect a potion book, and various items that can be used to make them. Although not all required ingredients are free: Mistletoe berries, for example, turn up in the Christmas chapter, and you should note that you can revisit that chapter and get more whenever you run out. Lavender, though, or the just delightful sounding “flobberworm mucus”? You have to buy those at the apothecary in Diagon Alley. Botch too many potions and you’ll blow all your galleons on ingredients, and won’t get more until the next book is unlocked.
Speaking of botching potions: Holy hell, is that easy to do. Here’s where some props must be given to Team Pottermore for devising a bit of Flash sorcery that genuinely takes getting the hang of to master. Not only must you follow all the steps of a potion in the right order, but you must learn how to control the heat so you don’t burn it, or make sure you don’t get any lionfish spines in your cauldron when they’re supposed to go in the mortar. (There’s a real trick to controlling the items that come in vials. Hint: Grab the vial by the neck and rest it on the side of your cauldron to pour slowly.) On top of everything, you’re being timed on all this so even if you do every step right, run out of time and your potion will expel the dreaded green smoke that means “Well done, Weasley, you borked it”:
And then Snape gives you the side-eye and you don’t earn any house points. You’ll also screw it up if you leave it for too long, and you must actually walk away from every potion for a long time before completing a second round of steps. Sleeping Draught, the hardest first-year potion that generates the most points, requires a 100 minute wait (!!) between the first round of steps and the completion. So it’s particularly easy to forget you were brewing a potion if you head off to do something else – and at this point, as noted, Wizard’s Duel isn’t working so you could totally end up watching Deep Space Nine on Netflix (Not that I’ve done this… </cough>) and forgetting that potion entirely. So you see, it IS challenging and fun… except when there is no other alternative on the site to pass the time. Then it totally feels like work.
And just what is all this work for, exactly?! Well, that isn’t quite clear, either. But let’s look at the short term picture: Theoretically, it’s about earning house points. And before we discuss that, we need to discuss…
—The Sorting Hat: This right here, it seems, is where Pottermore begins and ends for some users. In the book experience, you get your money out of Gringotts, buy your school supplies, get your pet (I chose a Siamese cat) and your wand from Ollivander’s (Cypress, phoenix feather core, 10 ¾ inches and “surprisingly swishy,” thanks very much). But Chapter 7 is the moment of truth. Literally, you are presented with a video of Jo Rowling, who tells you, “This is it, the moment of truth…” before explaining you’re about to be sorted. Then you are given a sort of personality test, apparently devised by ol’ JK herself: choose what most closely represents your deepest fears, or the environment you’re most comfortable in, and finally a curiously flippant question where you’re literally asked to choose “Heads or tails?” Some users have reported getting a Hatstall where it can’t decide where to place you and then you actually get to pick between two options.
Here’s the thing, though… if you know enough about the books and the characteristics of each house, it’s not that hard at all to manipulate the quiz to get sorted into the house you want. Sure, Rowling tells you to answer honestly and you’ll have the best experience, but for the purpose of writing this blog, I had to test a theory, right? The good news is that I actually felt as though most of my answers were the ones that would generate the result I wanted as well as my honest opinion. Except for one glaring instance where I went against my instinct and chose what seemed like the “right” answer, but I only regretted it for about half a second. And the result of my experiment….
SUCCESS! Truly, though – bookish and eccentric know-it-all, that’s me. Ask anyone who knows me. (Also, I was an AP kid in high school. Basically, I envision the Ravenclaw common room as being like Head of the Class, but with robes and wands and Warwick Davis instead of Howard Hesseman. You know Flitwick is a smart-ass when Dumbledore’s not around.)
Anyway, in spite of what should be a relatively easy sorting experience (whether you manipulate the system, or just roll the dice and see where you end up), a little research of the Pottermore variety (Read: Tumblr. Man, it’s full of Potterheads!) indicates that a lot of beta users didn’t quite get all they wanted. First, some of the Gryffindors were miffed that upon being sorted, their welcome letter is short and pulled directly from the books. Which is logical given that Gryffindor is the house we know the most about — the other three houses get lengthy letters revealing lots of details about the common rooms and such — but still, they felt gipped. (This is easily fixable before actualfax-launch, so get on that, Pottermore.)
Yet this is small potatoes compared to the fact that apparently tons of people who were sorted into Hufflepuff straight-up abandoned their accounts because they were pissed about it. Seriously? When are people going to stop shitting on Hufflepuff?! Fine, so I wanted Ravenclaw and I’m happy I got it, but I would have been fine with Hufflepuff. No joke. Tonks was a Hufflepuff. I rest my case. (That common room sounds cozy, too. All round doors and quilts, with plants everywhere. Like The Shire. Who doesn’t like hobbits?!)
The Race for the House Cup: So regardless of where you’re sorted, you end up locked in the proverbial battle for the House Cup with the others, and the Great Hall is where you can constantly check the scoreboard of who is in the lead:
Basically, the entire time I’ve been futzing around on this site, it’s broken down like this: The House Cup is a two-way race between Ravenclaw and Slytherin. Which is interesting for one reason in particular: While all four houses have roughly the same number of members, Ravenclaw has the most. Slytherin has the least… and currently, those snakey bastards are winning! Not by much (Only 22 points in over 70,000 per house, as of this writing), but damn, the Slytherins are in it to win it. (Remember: The only way to gain points after you finish a book right now is to make potions. Over and over.) Gryffindor is a distant third, and Hufflepuff… well, they’d probably be doing better if they didn’t have so many deserters. Spoil-sports.
So, as I noted earlier, the point of the House Cup points – other than a bit of healthy competion, though the hours some of those Slytherins must spend making potions is veering toward unhealthy – is entirely unclear at this point. It would be nice if, periodically, there were some kind of prizes for the house currently in the lead, but what that would be exactly is anyone’s guess. At the very least, some kind of discount on the Potter saga e-books that are on their way, eventually? By the way, now is probably as good a time as any to point out the fact that the release of the e-books has been delayed into early next year, which is a significant stroke in the plus-column for Team Pottermore; the entire site has been decried as a massive marketing tool for the e-books by some, so the fact that they’re delaying the release to prioritize improving the site based on feedback from the beta is a positive sign.
And lastly, the best thing about Pottermore. Which it needs more of. PLEASE: Probably the number one selling point of this site in all the lead-up to the beta launch, and that’s supplemental materials straight from the noggin of Jo Rowling. She’s said it for years in countless interviews, occasionally teasing little bits and pieces at her book signings and such, but there is a ton of material on the Potter universe that didn’t make it into the books but which Rowling has worked out in great detail. A massively appealing aspect of the Pottermore experience is that as you play along with the interactive storylines, here and there are passages of new material that unlocks for you to read and geek out about. Easily the best of these which is available to beta members is a lengthy back-story on Professor McGonagall, which is just as eventful, fascinating, and not just a little bit heartbreaking as you would imagine the grand dame of Gryffindor’s life story to be.
There’s also some amusing (in a laughing-at-them, not-with-them sort of way) anecdotes about those appalling Dursleys, and some details about Professor Quirrell (though not enough, he’s still more or less a cipher)… and that’s it. Now, if you try to look at the long game here, it seems reasonable that Team Pottermore would hold back most of Jo’s Easter Eggs for after the public launch – and for the later books which are obviously more substantial, particularly from Goblet of Fire onwards. Still, especially when there have been so many technical glitches in the beta process, it’s easy to feel like they could have thrown the early birds a few more worms to keep them happy. We’ll just have to wait and see if the developer goblins behind the scenes are really taking the surely gargantuan amounts of feedback they’re getting and putting it into practice. Pottermore Beta isn’t bad. Pottermore Actual could, with some more hard work and a little magic, be excellent good fun.
Follow the updates on the beta process, and await that official launch date, by following Pottermore on Twitter: @pottermore. And hey, if you’re a fellow beta and you want to challenge yours truly when Wizard’s Duel finally reopens… dude, come add me, bro! I’m MistLeviosa119. (That’s another thing, Pottermore, can we do something about those user handles? That sounds like someone’s AOL screen name circa 1997 when the first book was published.)