The members of Radiohead have spent the bulk of their career less interested in being a rock band and much more interested in being a sort of universally beloved art project. With that in mind, it's not a shock that, when the band launched its first official app, Polyfauna, it would be a kind of weird—but not so weird as to be alienating—exercise in open-endedness and experimental play. The app is animated with a greyscale palette, stocked with ambient noisescapes, and features a meandering opportunity to interact in vague ways with outtakes from sessions for the band's 2011 album The King Of Limbs—instead of, you know, mp3s from the band's albums, a few live performance vids, and links to sites where you can buy tickets for upcoming concert dates.
Polyfauna isn't exactly a game, at least not in the Flappy Bird sense, but the interactive elements have a definite playfulness to them. For the app's creators—U.K.-based digital art and design studio Universal Everything—the experience of working with the band was equally playful. "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," explains Matt Pyke, co-founder and creative director of Universal Everything. "The band are so open to challenging musical conventions—both in composition and structure, and in how music is experienced and delivered. It sat perfectly with our studio's motivation to make inventive, emotional experiences with new technologies."
The studio was approached by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and visual artist Stanley Donwood, who creates all of the band's album and poster art, with the idea of building an app that was an immersive world that constantly changes—and it succeeds there, as the app immediately launches upon loading into a floating landscape that the user navigates through by tilting and rotating their device. Drawing on the screen with one's finger results in the appearance of strange plant-like creations that resemble work from Donwood's sketchbook—a style that is immediately recognizable to fans of the band's aesthetic.
As the app progresses, users have more opportunities to explore—something that Pyke is excited about. "We built a vast map, with varying terrain, colors, species, and sounds," he explains. "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. Users can bring their own life into the world by drawing on the touch screen—a drawn spine grows into a floating life form, drifting into the wild."
While Polyfauna doesn't have much objective besides continued exploration, that exploration is enjoyable enough—and it includes the ability to capture the scenes users have explored and share it with others. It makes for a fascinating world to play in, more compelling than might have been expected from an app intended to showcase studio outtakes from a band's album from three years ago—unless that band is Radiohead, in which case a fastidious attention to detail is exactly what fans should have expected.