POTTERMORE Review

     May 1, 2012

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I rarely re-read books, but I’ve re-read J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series numerous times because I love being in the world she’s created.  I always want to see what’s behind every corner, and what’s happening beyond Harry’s point-of-view.  I wish Hogwarts: A History was a real book, and that Professor Binns had new and exciting pieces of information about the Wizarding World rather than being brushed off as a boring history teacher.  I also wanted to know about Rowling’s thought process in writing the books; a kind of “Author’s Commentary” that went beyond annotations and provided something deeper.

The new online experience, Pottermore, provides all of this through a nice interactive experience that continues to respect fans and let them be a part of Harry’s world like never before.  Hit the jump for my full review.

When you sign up for Pottermore, you’re given five options for your username.  This is the name that will be shown to everyone else on Pottemore, and because it’s a site where children are considered as a major part of the audience, the usernames are provided so no one can go around with the name “Albus Dumblecock”.  Of the five random names I was provided, I took OakThorn13127 because it sounded the coolest.  However, the site doesn’t have a way to communicate or build friendship with other users.  You’re basically looking at other usernames and you can challenge them to duels.

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The site then leads you through Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (since this was the book’s original title, I assume that’s why they didn’t call it “Sorcerer’s Stone” even though I was using the U.S. version of the site).  The site will keep adding the other books in the future, but Philosopher’s Stone is the only one currently available.  Pottermore encourages you to use the site as you read along with the books, but it’s not a requirement.  Since I had recently re-read the entire series, I decided to forge ahead without the read-along.

The experience is divided up into the same chapters as the book, but each chapter on Pottermore is ridiculously brief when it comes to a synopsis.  Instead, the synopses function more as a reminder of what happened in each chapter, and each chapter is divided into parts.  For example, if you go to the chapter “Quidditch” and go to the part “Charms Homework”, all you’ll get in terms of establishing the scene are the sentences, “The Gryffindor common room was very busy that evening.  Harry, Ron, and Hermoine sat together next to a window.

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The main purpose of every chapter is to click around everywhere and try to find objects.  Some objects will be added to your trunk, which doesn’t seem to have much purpose until you’re sorted into a house and can collect house points for finding items.  You can also find galleons, which you can use to buy items like cauldrons, ingredients, and other stuff on Diagon Alley.  However, some of the shops aren’t open yet, like Quality Quidditch Supplies.  Cauldrons and ingredients you buy in Diagon Alley can help you brew potions once you’re a student at Hogwarts.

Pottermore wants you to feel like you’re going to Hogwarts, and the site encourages you to answer honestly when it comes to choosing your wand and being sorted into a house.  It asks you a series of quick personality questions, and it’s not difficult to figure out how to answer the questions in order to get into the house you want.  However, I wanted to know where I would end up if I really lived in the Wizarding World so I answered honestly and prayed I wouldn’t get placed into Hufflepuff.*

When it came to my wand, I ended up with one that was Vine, 10-inches, slightly yielding, with a unicorn hair.  But the big question was the Sorting.  I answered honestly, but before I was sorted, the site presents a video message from Rowling trying to ease the user’s fears about where they would be sorted and stressing that the experience will still be wonderful for all.  I assume this message was done mainly for the benefit of people who landed in Hufflepuff**.

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Thankfully, I landed in Ravenclaw, which is where all the smart kids go.  Once I was sorted, I got a huge letter from the house’s prefect telling me about Ravenclaw’s history, its head-of-house (Professor Flitwick, who teaches Charms), and basically making me feel really good about being sorted into the house***.  Once sorted, mini-games begin to open up.  You can engage in duels with friends where you try to tap or click out a series of letters to cast a spell.  You can also brew potions by performing tasks in a precise and measured order.  These mini-games sound a little tedious, and they didn’t have quite the addictive pull I was hoping for, but they do make the experience come alive by stressing the difficulty of learning how to become a wizard.  I finally understood why potions class was so difficult even though it seems so easy.

These little activities will probably be the fun part for younger users, but for adult fans of the books, the real treat is uncovering Rowling’s comments on the development of the characters and reading their autobiographies.  For example, here’s Rowling’s explanation of how she came to sort first-years into their houses:

The Sorting Hat does not appear in my earliest plans for Hogwarts. I debated several different methods for sorting students (because I knew from early on that there would be four houses, all with very different qualities). The first was an elaborate, Heath Robinson-ish machine that did all kinds of magical things before reaching a decision, but I did not like it: it felt at once too complicated, and too easy. Next I placed four statues of the four founders in the Entrance Hall, which came alive and selected students from the throng in front of them while the school watched. This was better, but still not quite right. Finally, I wrote a list of the ways in which people can be chosen: eeny meeny miny mo, short straws, chosen by team captains, names out of a hat – names out of a talking hat – putting on a hat – the Sorting Hat.

I absolutely adored this behind-the-scenes look at how Rowling created her universe.  I’m fascinated by the writing process and the roads-not-taken by the writer.

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But Rowling really went above-and-beyond when she wrote out character histories.  Clicking around to find every little object can be a little annoying, but it’s totally worth it when you get to read about Professor McGonagall’s entire life before we meet her in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It’s the kind of material that has no place in the novels, but they make the world feel even bigger and allow us to spend more time with the characters we loved (or didn’t love; there’s a whole passage about how Aunt Petunia met Uncle Vernon).

Pottermore has something for everyone who loved the books.  I’m glad there’s nothing tied to the movies in the experience.  The movies are wonderful, but Pottermore gets to be its own thing when you don’t have something like Alan Rickman striding in to do a little video intro to Potions class.  This website was done for the readers, and younger users will probably get the most out of Pottermore.  There’s still time to bring in a mini-game that will be addictive for everyone (you can’t do anything Quidditch right now), but the supplemental material is what the adults will love.

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And this is all free.  You don’t have to pay a single penny to play Pottermore.  You can buy the Harry Potter e-books through the site, but there’s nothing intrusive encouraging you to spend real money.  Pottermore is a big love letter to fans of the books, and it’s an online experience every Harry Potter fan should be a part of.

*No one wants to be a Hufflepuff.  Your house animal is a badger for Merlin’s sake.

**Rowling created a living, breathing world in the Harry Potter series.  I assume Hufflepuffs are the boring people in that world.

***It kind of made me want to read the letter Hufflepuff students received.  I imagine it contained the sentence, “Hufflepuff has a proud tradition of graduating the finest and most kindly janitors and maintenance workers in the wizarding world.”

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