Freedom Without Freedom: Writing with Odyssey.js

“A simple way…” This is how Odyssey.js introduces itself, and it is a justified statement if one chooses not to venture beyond the homepage.

Disclaimer: This page was not created using Odyssey.

The first thing I look for — more by habit rather than necessity — is an option to log in or sign up. There are times when creating an account feels superfluous (Do I really need to create an account with, but with blogging and online writing applications, the option of saving one’s work seems imperative. Odyssey is the first such application I have encountered without an option to sign up, and it is a red flag I should have taken more seriously.

‘Create Story’

Odyssey’s final attempt at justifying its claim of “simplicity” lies in the homepage’s clear sense of direction, highlighting Create Story in order to get the user started quickly. *CLICK*

At this point, I am still operating under the assumption this could be fun. “Maybe I’ll actually use this someday,” I think, in the same vain that Hindenburg passenger’s might have said, “I’m going to travel exclusively by zeppelin from now on.” As someone educated in a post-Windows 98 world, and thereby possessing an intense familiarity with PowerPoint, I choose the ‘Slides’ template.

Uh oh.

Upon selecting ‘Slides,’ I am greeted with a page bearing no resemblance to Odyssey homepage. The ‘Sandbox’ positioned to the right makes me anxious on account of the code, but the directions lead me to believe I will be taken step by step. Coding implies freedom, right? I decide to get started by taking a look at the full image below the Sandbox.



In my attempt to hide the Odyssey Sandbox, I have only made it more of an issue. I decide to return to what we had.

Let’s go step-by-step.

This will have to do for the moment (I did eventually learn you can contract the Sandbox down to its heading, but the user remains unable to move the feature).

I am finding myself a bit overwhelmed at this point in the process, so I backtrack and glance through the step by step menu on the left hand side of the webpage.

Step one: Your first Odyssey.js story. This information is pictured above, and has failed to provide me with any insight on getting started.

Adding more states? I have an odd feeling that Odyssey has a specfic outline for how they want to tell my story.

Step two: How to add more states.

Looking at step two leaves me with a question: what steps did I miss? I am not quite sure how to add one state, let alone more. I have also concluded that Odyssey’s “interactive stories” are relegated to Geography based narratives.

*image of me in tears*

Step three: Adding images to your story.

Once I have taken the time to carefully look over step two, I am confident moving on to step three. Before attempting to create my story, I decide to see what else Odyssey has in store.

This is not what I want to see. Export means publish, and publish means finished.

I am beginning to question this application’s target demographic, and, considering what I am given, I can only assume its intended audience is:

  • Programmers
  • The creators of Odyssey.js.

I have not given up hope yet, and move on to the final slide.

Advanced users? I imagine any proficient user of Odyssey.js is advanced, rendering this final slide redundant. It does, however, include a link to “documentation,” which was the one link on the homepage not highlighted.

In following the link, I lose all of the (very limited) progress I had made, as I anticipated.

It’s all become so clear to me now.

The documentation further details how one should use the Sandbox, and with my newfound knowledge I begin work on my story. I do not have a personal narrative revolving around a dramatic amount of travel, so I choose to adapt the freshly viral “Zola’s Story”.

Over time, I accept that I am going to have to operate by plugging in my information into the interface. While I have figured out how to operate the program, at no point does it feel “simple.” The “center” label requires the user to input latitude and longitude. The user must literally find the exact global coordinates to change the map’s position.

This is the first time latitude and longitude has been used by someone other than treasure hunters in a hundred years.

I find the latitude and longitude of Detroit, Michigan (where Zola’s story begins), and successfully reposition the map marker from San Francisco. I feel quite accomplished in doing this.

I should not feel so accomplished.

Odyssey.js markets itself as “simple,” and dares to exist in a web landscape increasingly concerned with “How quickly can this task be completed?” requiring the user to find latitude and longitude points in order to move a map maker is, frankly, unbelievable. No data require analysis for me to infer a more successful application would simply allow the user to drag the marker across the map and place it; or, at the very least, offer an option of entering the city and state.

My lack of programming experience becomes a larger hindrance when I accidentally delete a bracket — meaning I have disrupted the code, even after attempting to replace the bracket. As I am not a programmer — lacking the knowledge to repair the code or why a single bracket is so important — I do not know how to fix it, and have to start over.

Coding has always been depicted as a means of gaining freedom and increasing customization in the computing world. With Odyssey, the notion of freedom is given and then taken away via its constricted format. While you an add images to your story, the dominant image will always be a map, and not even an aesthetically pleasing map. Here are the user’s options:

‘For your story, you can choose the greyscale model, the ‘Can you name each state’ exam, or my personal favorite — the watercolor painting I did.’

If I have failed to make it clear, Odyssey.js is highly inaccessible. It is only after an hour of trail and error that I learn how to add a new slide to my story. I try to download my story in an attempt to save my work and an error message is summoned: “Download is not fully supported in this browser” (I worked with Odyssey using Safari, and have not attempted to use the application in browsers such as Google Chrome or Firefox). Throughout this process, my question of, “how do I use this?” has shifted to “who would use this?” In an article by CNET writer Igor Faletski, approximately 1% of application developers are successful enough to earn a profit, meaning in order for an application to earn a wide audience and yield profits, it must have something other applications do not. People seek new applications for the sake of making task completion more simple than another application can. With a fraction of the effort (or frustration), I could create the same story using Microsoft PowerPoint. An interface, if it is well designed, should not make returning to Microsoft Office a relief.

Odyssey is a solid concept in theory and poor in its execution, and in 2015 there is no room for it. Its most heinous crime is not its difficult interface, but in the fact that Odyssey.js is an imposter, a highly restricted program masquerading as simple. It offers a unique way to create a story — as long as you create the story they want you to create.