Pottermore : Beta Experience, Impressions and Reactions

This will be a long one, so here's the short version for those in a hurry : If you have the slightest bit of interest in Harry Potter or (even better) have read the books, you need to experience Pottermore. Atleast once.

Apart from the story of Harry Potter and his battle against Voldemort, the biggest attraction of in J.K.Rwoling's masterpiece has always been the world itself. I have known people, young and old, among whose greatest desires has been to become a part of the magical universe, where the subjects of portraits are never still and children learn Cheering Charms in their classes. I, like any other kid, wished for all of this and more as I grew up with Harry. After this part of my childhood came to an end in 2007, I knew that something would always be missing. Thanks to Rowling, I can now return to obsession in the form of Pottermore.

A couple of days back, I woke up and checked my inbox early. Guess what I found ? My invite to Pottermore, the real - you can actually use it now! - thing. The whole day was spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Pottermore and after a day spent in reflection and calming my Pottermania, I am typing out my experience with Pottermore while my Forgetfulness Potion is brewing in the background.
First the site layout. The upper panel is divided into two parts. The left side displays the locations you can go to : Gringotts, Diagon Alley, Common Room, The Great Hall and a 'locked' place I haven't discovered yet [Update : Its most probably the 'Shop' area where eBooks and other Harry Potter merchandise will be sold] . The right side contains your stuff : Friends, Your Trunk (your collected items), Potions , Favorites (whichever ones you have saved during the book experience) and Spells. The bottom middle has your house crest the points earned by you and your house's points. The lower panel is where all the action and animations happen, with a simple navigation bar at the bottom.

We start with the first book, and progress through the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone chapter and scene-wise. So, unlike the movies, we get to go through every major situation that was penned by Rowling.
From the deluge of letters at the Dursleys, to the secret dispatch of Norberta, the Norwegian Ridgeback, to getting sorted into houses and of course, choosing or as Ollivander says, getting chosen by our wands, this is as close to living Harry's life as you will ever get.

  •  The first thing that strikes you on the whole website, and the 'Gateway' storytelling mode is the amount of detail and overall feel of the illustrations, animations and transitions. The first moment, in Privet Drive, captures enough parts of the books that the first chapter comes rushing back to your mind almost word to word. The art is rich and feels very Potteresque.
  • After going through the (very simple) tutorial and getting started pages, you are set to start the exploring the magical and muggle worlds created by Rowling's imagination. If you have ever played those 'Spot the object' games, then Pottermore's collecting game won't feel very new, though the multiple zoom levels definitely add some depth to it.
  • Right from the start, you get to uncover new information and side stories that weren't present in the books. Petunia's life before Harry arrived, Minerva McGonagall's amazing backstory, the creation of the Hogwarts Express, different aspects of wandlore are just a few of the MANY tidbits sprinkled throughout the pages of the first book that we experience. Keep checking back on character bios as these seem to get updated with new info as you progress. The 18,000 words that J.K.Rowling has written for Pottermore have the same enchanting feel that the books had. Don't worry, you will be satisfied.
  • By the time I reached the chapter where Harry and Hagrid meet at the Hut on his birthday (Acceptance letter. YAY!) , I knew that one thing was severely missing : Sound . As beautifully designed it is, Pottermore lacks in the audio department. When I was expecting waves crashing against the rocks or the hisses of the Boa Constrictor, there was nothing. And not just me, this seems to be the biggest complaint of the beta users and expressed at the bottom of almost every page.
  • Coming to the social aspect of Pottermore, you can connect your Pottermore account with your Facebook account and also add friends from people you meet or see in the comments section. The only way to communicate so far, seems to be via the comments section which is found at the bottom of every page where you unlock something and at the end of the chapters. You can add friends, give them nicknames, send them gifts from the items you have collected or purchased and duel them (more on this later).
  • Next up, we head off to Diagon Alley accompanied by Hagrid to do shop for everything mentioned in the school letter and more. Almost every shop (Madam Malkin's Flourish and Blotts, you name it)mentioned in the first book is present, though not accessible. I expect them to get unlocked as we reach specific plot points in the later books. First thing we do is open an account at Gringotts where we get 500 Galleons for opening the account (Wish all muggle banks were this generous), the money that we will use to buy everything throughout the first (and possibly later) book. After finishing off the rest of the items on the list, we proceed for the most awaited item...
  • A WAND! Upon entering Ollivanders, you are given a set of seven questions which decide the type of wand you get. You also unlock three separate pieces that Rowling has written regarding wandlore. Except for the text which described the life of Hogwarts' Deputy Headmistress, this remains my favorite piece of new info so far. I got a Hornbeam wand, 13 inches, Dragon Heartstring. Solid. Incidentally, its the same wood which is in Ollivander's personal wand and is said to favor passionate wizards.
  • Next up is the best school that ever existed , Hogwarts. After the wand, the sorting was the biggest thing I was looking forward to and I was not disappointed. You are asked a set of questions which determine your character and which house you best fit into. The questions are actually pretty tough and probing and whatever the Sorting Hat decides is final and binding. When I last checked, there were about fifteen thousand students each in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Slytherin while Ravenclaw had about sixteen thousand. These numbers will obviously continue to grow as more and more people are let into the beta. Which house was I sorted into ? Gryffindor, of course.
  • Next up are the lessons, though we only get to attend Potions class. Potion brewing is fun and complex, everything I did not expect when Snape was teaching it. You have to add a very exact amount of ingredients, maintain you concoction at the correct temperature and stir the ladle the exact no. of times specified, in the correct direction. You can collect ingredients while playing the story or purchase them from the apothecary as you wish.
  • Throughout the story, you keep experiencing the key moments, upto the final confrontation with Voldemort. Th final mini-games, based on the challenges the trio face to reach the chamber containing the Mirror of the Erised, especially the Potions riddle, were slickly done. When you finally get to the last chapter (took me about 4 hours, while collecting everything) and finish with Gryffindor winning the House Cup, you actually get that magical feeling of happiness (that will change to euphoria when we actually win the House Cup in the Great Hall).
  • Chocolate Frog Cards, Potion Ingredients, Galleons, and book specific collectible items (Norbert's egg, the Invisibility Cloak) are spread through out the 18 chapter experience. Keep looking for these as these add to your points tally, up your ranking in the leaderboards and help your house win the House Cup.
  • Among the biggest and apparently buggiest aspects of PotterMore will be Wizards' Duel, since it has been online only once durin the time I have expended on the site. Users will be able to 'duel' by casting spells, the mechanism of which is a good balance between simple but hard. If the practice duels are anything to go by, this will automagically become the most addictive thing on PotterMore. The leaderboards in every common room and the great hall will only add to the competition.

Final words : Pottermore is immersive, it defines addictive. While the added information from J.K.Rowling is great stuff (Wanna join F.A.R.T. ? ) , easily drawing you back into the charm of the books, it will be the community, the fandom which will be fostered around this official focal point. With promised interactions with Rowling herself, and the next part of the series Chamber Of Secrets arriving in early 2012, Pottermore has me hooked. To quote Dumbledore, Sherbet Lemon, anyone ?