Sunday 9 July 2023

Time Travel as Wayfinding: Assembling Past and Present in Location-Based Games

Below is a written version of the paper I presented at the Virtual Realities as Time Travel workshop hosted by the Bristol Digital Games Lab on 12th May 2023. In the text below, I have indicated where each slide should be viewed in the embedded PowerPoint above.
I’d like to thank everyone at British Digital Games Lab for making this excellent event happen, in particular Richard Cole for inviting me to participate. I'd also like to thank the other speakers and attendees for contributing to such interesting and rich discussion.     

(Slide 1)

Hi everyone. I’m Jack Lowe, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of the West of England’s Digital Cultures Research Centre. I also design location-based games and I do narrative design for digital games and other media.

(Slide 2)

I’m here to talk about what time travel might mean in the context of location-based games – that is, games in which players’ physical locations and/or actions are incorporated into the gameplay through media interfaces. What does time travel mean in the context of these types of games?

(Slide 3)

Well, I want to start by stating the obvious: we can’t literally be transported back in time, nor can we create perfect emulations of the past through media, no matter how ‘immersive’ they supposedly are.

However, we can literally engage with elements of the historic past in the places we inhabit.

(Slide 4)

Throughout this talk, I’m going to be talking about places as assemblages. Assemblages are relationships between component parts that aren’t stable or fixed. Things can be replaced or displaced, and some things can also remain.

By thinking about places as assemblages, we can grasp how elements of the past remain in the present, but how there are always elements that are changing too – whether they’re material things, meanings or lived practices.

(Slide 5)

I’ve got this quote here from Tim Ingold, an anthropologist who talks about places in this kind of processual way. He says:

“…every place holds within it memories of previous arrivals and departures, as well as expectations of how one may reach it, or reach other places from it. Thus do places enfold the passage of time: they are neither of the past, present or future but all three rolled into one. Endlessly generated through the comings and goings of their inhabitants, they figure not as locations in space but as specific vortices in a current of movement, of innumerable journeys actually made.”

So when I look at this quote, it really makes me feel that places are sites of time travel. They have multiple time periods folded into them, produced by the journeys of the things that assemble in those places.

(Slide 6)

And what I’m here to discuss today is how our engagement with these elements from different time periods depends on how we navigate through places.

In particular, I going to use the concept of wayfinding in this presentation to discuss how we interact with different time periods in location-based games.

Wayfinding is a practice of coming to understand your whereabouts by connecting your movements with the narratives of other journeys made in that place, by you and by other people and things.

But wayfinding isn’t a clear-cut process. Not everyone finding their way through a place will make the same connections.

(Slide 7)

And this is a theme I’m going to be returning to when I talk about how we engage with the past in location-based games.

My aim is to highlight how location-based games present compelling opportunities for expanding and complicating understandings of the past and how the past connects with the present through place.

And I’m going to do this by exploring the relationships between navigation and narrative in the design and play of two games I created that directly focus on historic events.

Let me introduce them briefly.

(Slide 8)

The first is The Timekeeper’s Return. The Timekeeper’s Return is a story-based treasure hunt designed for all ages, in which players scan QR codes to discover the hidden histories of locations in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter. The story follows the journey of a time-travelling researcher called Mia Augustina, whose time machine has malfunctioned and trapped her in the past. By interacting with role-playing local businesspeople and using the information they provide, players must find and scan all the QR code ‘triangulation markers’ in the Cathedral Quarter to recalibrate Mia’s time machine and help her return. These QR codes also communicate Mia’s research diaries, sharing the stories of what she has encountered in the past, in those same locations.

(Slide 9)

The second game is The Gates to Dreamland. The Gates to Dreamland is an interactive audiowalk set around the Dreamland Amusement Park in Margate. The player triggers audio diary extracts to be played when they find each of the 5 gates located around Dreamland’s perimeter. These diary extracts describe the journey faced by Italian scientist Galileo, as he attempted to publish his final book. Through symbolic and metaphorical connections to the landscape around Dreamland, the audiowalk explores the obstacles Galileo faced, as he lost his eyesight and his health worsened, and how his perspective on the world changed. It’s ultimately about the power of imagination in changing how you see the world, and it can be played in person or online using Google Streetview.

So now I’ve introduced the games, let’s use this idea of wayfinding to think about how we engage with the past by navigating through places in location-based games.

(Slide 10)

In location-based games, one of the features of how you navigate is that you can generally look and move in any direction that your body allows. You are in control of your body and what you choose to focus on in your surroundings.

This feature is one of the reasons that many digital games and other interactive experiences are considered different when compared to other narrative media like films or books. You have more agency to determine the perspective from which you encounter things happening in the world.

This is called ‘dynamic focalization’.

(Slide 11)

However, in digitally-rendered worlds, designers still have tactics to influence what you pay attention to. They can use visual techniques like lighting and signposting, they can use sound design or they can change the characteristics of the avatar you control. So while it still feels like you have a great deal of agency in where you direct your attention, it is still being manipulated by the designers of the digitally-rendered world.

In location-based games, you engage with a material world using a fleshy body, not an avatar, in a way that isn’t limited by what has been programmed into some software.

But this agency brings with it an awful lot of uncertainty.

(Slide 12)

I’m going to use an example from The Timekeeper’s Return to illustrate this, which was the QR code treasure hunt engaging with hidden histories of Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter.

One of Mia Augustina’s research diaries from the past, communicated through a QR code sticker, referred to the building pictured here. This building was believed to be the inspiration for the house of Mr. Wickfield in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.

When I tested the game, some players misinterpreted that the building being described was the stone tower you can see in the image on the right. To me, it seemed obvious from the positioning of the QR code that the building people would look at would be the white building. As it turned out, players would usually end up focusing on the more intricate, striking features of the stone tower instead. So in the end, I had to change the research diary text to deliberately direct players to look across to the other side of the road, where the relevant building could be seen.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, though, because this is a common outcome when wayfinding in an unfamiliar setting. I’m sure all of us can recall moments when we’ve been following directions that describe landmarks, or when we’ve looked at the road layout on a map, yet still managed to go the wrong direction because of what we happened to notice at the time, or what we were paying attention to.

(Slide 13)

For Misha Myers, this is one of the particular qualities of mobile media storytelling: that even in a linear story with pre-determined routes, the narrative experience can be “undone by the particularities of ‘just this body in just this place’ at just this time.” Wayfinding is an embodied practice, and each body will have different capacities in different contexts.

Okay, so the embodied navigation that people do in location-based games introduces contingency to the experience, which can affect how players engage with historic elements in their environment.

(Slide 14)

But what happens if you lean into this contingency? What happens if you accept the possibility that people might not notice certain historic details, or will actively ignore information connecting to the past?

This is what I experimented with in The Gates to Dreamland, which was the locative audiowalk about the Italian scientist Galileo.

Whether you’re playing in person in Margate or using Google Streetview, when players listen to the audio diaries describing events in Galileo’s life, as a designer I had no way of knowing what players might be looking at or paying attention to at the time.

For example, one player described how, at this point in the experience, they decided to use Google Streetview to zoom in on the person pushing the pram. As you can see, that’s just one detail visible in the 360-degree view of this location.

(Slide 15)

But rather than deliberately directing players’ attention to particular things, like I did with The Timekeeper’s Return, instead I decided to write audio diary scripts that were saturated with references to all sorts of things in your surroundings. Even though Galileo was living in 17th-century Florence, I could make connections to present-day Margate using metaphors and symbolism.

When I interviewed players about the game, they all described how what they focused on completely changed the connections they drew between Galileo’s experiences and the area of Margate they were navigating. They might only notice maybe a maximum of 40% of the references in the audio diaries, because of what they happened to be paying attention to at the time. But that’s fine, because when they did notice them, it was they themselves who had uncovered that link to the past. And often they would perceive connections I never even intended too.

This then helped them to understand the wider themes of the experience: about the power of the imagination in creating connections across different time periods and different parts of the world. Perception itself is a form of agency.

By actively drawing on the contingency of wayfinding as an embodied practice, the game demonstrated that there are no stable, unchanging understandings of the past. The past is always encountered in a present, lived context.

(Slide 16)

So we can see that the relationship between past and present isn’t a neat one.

And this is clearly shown by places. In all places, some elements of the past remain, others don’t, some are detectable, some aren’t, some we know about and some we don’t.

In location-based games that engage with the past, the aim of designers is to find forms of navigation that assemble interesting or compelling connections between the past and the present in the places people inhabit.

(Slide 17)

The Timekeeper’s Return was all about the hidden histories of Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter, and the excitement of following the journey of time-travelling researcher Mia Augustina as she encountered them.         

Some of these histories are still visible in the environment in some form – players just needed the opportunity to notice them. In this image, the stones you can see embedded in the brickwork are the last remains of the Burgate, a gate in Canterbury’s city wall that existed in various forms from the Romans until 1822. Simply through the placement of a QR code at this location, the attention of players who successfully found the sticker was drawn to this material feature.

(Slide 18)

For other histories, however, there is no obvious physical remnant for people to find. For example, while Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter was extensively bombed during the Baedecker Raids of WW2, many of the bombed areas have since been rebuilt.

In these situations, connections with the past must be made in other ways.

One technique is to use the material features that do exist as a reference point. For example, referring to the heights and distances between things in players’ surroundings to indicate the scale of something no longer there.

For the WW2 bombing example, one of the QR code research diaries draws players’ attention to a street where the entirety of one side of the street was flattened by the bombing, while all the buildings on the other side remained intact. While the bombed side of the street has now been rebuilt, I could still use this comparison between the two sides of the street to demonstrate the extent of the destruction.

In The Timekeeper’s Return, then, wayfinding by using historic details in the story and its comparison to the present-day landscape gave players dramatic agency in how they assembled connections to the past.

(Slide 19)

But in The Gates to Dreamland, where the history being explored happened somewhere else entirely (17th-century Florence), how could players’ navigation of the environment engage with the past in a compelling way?

The answer was to draw figurative and symbolic connections between material features in the player’s surroundings and Galileo’s situation, as described in the audio diaries.

At one of the gates to Dreamland, between the metal bars, the amusement park’s Helter Skelter is visible in the distance. The words from the scripted audio diary at this location imagine how Galileo’s first action, when returning to his villa under house arrest in 1634, was to climb straight to the highest window of the house. Here, he gazes upon the familiar view of the Torre del Gallo – a tower in Florence – but his sight problems render the view inaccessible.

Here, the listener is invited to draw a figurative connection between the inaccessibility of Dreamland’s landmarks and that of Galileo, in being house-bound and increasingly visually impaired.

Of course, there are slippages in this process. In discussing mobile media storytelling, Misha Myers describes the breakages and detours that occur when participants ‘move between the fault lines of two presents’ – one represented by the media, and one inhabited by the participant.

What’s compelling about this process of juxtaposition, however, is that it provides gaps for players to fill in.

(Slide 20)

This can lead to all sorts of unexpected impressions too.

For example, one of the people who played The Gates to Dreamland using Google Streetview decided to play with the platform’s date range feature as they were navigating. As they witnessed the Margate landscape change over time, their interpretation of the audio diaries shifted depending on the version of Margate they navigated through.        

Wayfinding is ultimately a propositional process: proposing a way through the world by finding connections between the diverse range of information you encounter, however jarring or conflicting it may be.

In these location-based games, players navigated the fault lines between present-day contexts and information from the past, and then used this to construct an understanding of place and its relationship with time.

(Slide 21)

The juxtaposition of a mediated history with an embodied encounter of a place means that the impressions of the past that players form typically aren’t simple, singular narratives. There are all sorts of influences and perspectives that shape what people perceive about these histories.

Often, players of these two games would report how their perceptions of places and their history changed as a result of playing.

For those who played The Timekeeper’s Return, probably the two most common responses to the game were that a) they became newly aware of historic features in the Cathedral Quarter that they didn’t know were there, and b) that they learnt about the history behind landmarks which they encountered on an everyday basis (as this quote shows).

(Slide 22)

In The Gates to Dreamland, which was often played remotely using Streetview during the pandemic, the experience provoked interesting relationships with memory. Galileo’s history became coloured by people’s existing knowledges and impressions of Margate, as well as the version of Margate they encountered on Streetview. Likewise, their impressions of Margate became influenced by Galileo’s story. Suddenly, Margate became seen as a place connected to many other entities across space and time. The understanding of the past that resulted was deeply hybrid; an impression that cut across many different influences.

(Slide 23)

However, there’s an interesting question about authenticity here, which ties to some of the discussions we had during the last Bristol Digital Games Lab event. Does it matter that people are engaging with Galileo’s history in a context that’s completely foreign to the one he actually lived in? Does it matter that the diaries aren’t Galileo’s own words, even though they’re based on academic research and evidence from the historic record?

(Slide 24)

This is a debate that goes far beyond the scope of this presentation, but what came out consistently from my interviews with those who played these games was a heightened awareness of the range of possible connections with the past that can be made – how multiple impressions of a place and its past can come to define a site. Players recognised that one person’s impression of Galileo’s journey, or one of the Cathedral Quarter’s histories, would be constructed completely different from somebody else’s, depending on all sorts of contextual factors. In The Timekeeper’s Return, in particular, players frequently referred to a sense of community being generated. This collective, extroverted sense of place came about as players engaged with a wide range of historic information shared by several role-playing local businesspeople in order to navigate through the game area.

Which brings me to the final point of this presentation. Wayfinding is an intersubjective practice – it unfolds through the relationships between things, rather than depending on a single person’s intentions.

And the same thing is happening with these games. Impressions of the past unfold through the continual wiring and re-wiring of connections between materials, meanings and practices that people encounter as they navigate through places.

(Slide 25)

So overall, what can we say about time travel in location-based games?

Well, location-based games as media forms are defined by relationships between navigation and narrative. They’re about the synergy between how you find a way through the world and the story of what unfolds.

In location-based games that engage with the past, different forms of navigation are curated to connect what players encounter in the present-day world with historic events.

This happens through a process of wayfinding, which I’ve argued is an embodied, propositional and intersubjective process.

It’s embodied in how players have agency in the ways they move and pay attention to the things they encounter, to feel their way through the world.

It’s propositional in how there are ‘gaps’ or ‘fault lines’ between past events and what players encounter during the game, which players have the opportunity to fill with their ideas and imaginations.

And it’s intersubjective, in how the impressions of the past players form are created by drawing relations between multiple paths and perspectives.

By arguing that time travel in location-based games is akin to wayfinding, then, I’m suggesting that players’ interaction with the past isn’t neat or uncomplicated.

Rather, location-based games present compelling opportunities for expanding and complicating understandings of the past, by demonstrating the myriad ways that past and present are continually assembled in place.

(Slide 26)

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Interment: Showcase and Responses

Since releasing our narrative puzzle game Interment to the public in April, I’ve had the pleasure of being able to watch several people play it through.

It’s the kind of game that’s really compelling to watch other people play, because the journeys players take are so varied each time. Each player notices different details and draws different connections between them to get to the answers.

For the same reason, Interment also lends itself to being played collectively, by two or more people around the same screen, as the different observations each individual makes can guide the group’s decisions.

I’ve watched people play the game individually and collectively. But one thing that is common across both playstyles is that people often opt to make handwritten notes while they are playing, to keep track of information presented to them by the game.

I love watching this happen. There’s a moment where people quickly realise there are deeper layers of significance or connection between these bits of information, and their instinct to write them down adds an extra embodied dimension to the role players adopt.

Some of my favourite games provoke the same reaction: the likes of Return of the Obra Dinn and Sam Barlow’s games Telling Lies and HerStory. One of the previous games I was involved in making, the theatrical detective mystery experience Interrobang?!, actively encouraged this. We even included an interactive evidence board as part of the experience.

For Interment, the most common notes people made were drawings of family trees, as players sought to understand how the characters buried in the Hawthorn family graveyard were linked to each other. Maps of the graveyard were also common, as people wanted to have the information from each gravestone to hand when looking through the graveyard’s archive documents. Little diagrams of connections between characters and/or documents, key dates, names and theories were the other details that would frequently show up in players’ notes.

It’s fair to say that I’ve enjoyed watching people make sense of the game’s world, slowly unravelling the threads that tie it together and re-assembling it in their own unique ways.

On 5th May, Interment was showcased as part of the Pervasive Media Studio’s monthly social event, First Friday. This gave me the opportunity to observe how a large audience of players reacted to the game.

For this event, with the fantastic support of the Studio team, we were able to set up six laptops with headphones for attendees to play the game, as well as a larger screen where we could demonstrate the game in front of an audience.

Of course, I also made sure each player had pens and paper to hand.

Credit for all event images: Shamphat Photography

The event was very well attended and the laptops were occupied throughout, with lots of people giving the game a try (there were perhaps 60-70 people in the Studio that evening). Many players gave the game 5-10 minutes of their time and then took the game’s details from our posters to finish it at home. One person did manage to complete the entire game during the event, which was very impressive in the limited time available.

There were a couple of attendees who got very engrossed in solving the puzzle and would’ve liked to spend more time on it, but were limited by the timing of the event. Even so, it was heartening to see that the little game we put together in 48 hours inspired such deep engagement.

The feedback people gave us was positive too. As an hour-long event that is primarily for networking with other people, attendees dipping in and out obviously wouldn’t have time to unravel all the intricacies of a narrative that’s typically experienced over 30 minutes. Yet players told us they appreciated the level of detail in the game and enjoyed the time they could commit to it. I was told by several people that they wanted to go back to the game at home so they could take the time to delve into the world properly.

As the game’s creators, we’re very aware of the limitations that the 48-hour development time imposed upon what we made. Even if we’d had all the time and resource in the world to perfect it, the game wouldn’t have been everyone’s cup of tea. Happily, these limitations didn’t seem to hold much sway in players’ opinions of the game.

All of the feedback we received during the event was told to us directly. However, I did get sent one generous piece of written feedback from a Studio member who played the game in their own time:

“I really enjoyed playing it, you did a great job creating an engaging narrative and I enjoyed the graphics and sound design. I got super focused in the first few minutes and went into detective mode scribbling away which I didn’t expect to do straight away, you’ve done a great job at hooking people in quickly and keeping them involved.”

If you’d like to try Interment for yourself, it’s free to download on Windows and Mac here and takes roughly 30 minutes to complete.

I’d love to hear your comments on the game if you do try it. And do feel free to send me any scribbled notes or esoteric diagrams you make while playing!

Read more about the making of Interment here.

Monday 5 June 2023

Designing Place-Based Games (Pervasive Media Studio Lunchtime Talk)

At the end of April, I gave a lunchtime talk at the Pervasive Media Studio, located in Watershed on Bristol's historic harbourside, which hosts a diverse community of artists, academics, technologists and businesses exploring creative technology and experience design.

Since July last year, I have been part of the Pervasive Media Studio community myself, as part of my post-doctoral research role at UWE's Digital Cultures Research Centre. Now thoroughly embedded in the life of the PM Studio, I wanted to use the opportunity of a lunchtime talk to share insights from my creative practice and research into designing games that engage with place.

Not only was the aim to  give some practical tips for those designing (location-based) games, but to provide something thought-provoking or inspirational for those interested in engaging with place across any kind of interactive or digitally-mediated experience.

The Pervasive Media Studio's talks take place every Friday at 1pm, both in the building and streamed live online via YouTube. You can watch the recorded stream of my talk above, which also has BSL interpretation.


Wednesday 12 April 2023

Upcoming Public Appearances in Bristol

In the next few weeks, I’m sharing creative and academic work as part of three different Friday events in Bristol.

Pervasive Media Studio Lunchtime Talk, Friday 28th April, 1pm

Every Friday, the Pervasive Media Studio offers free, informal lunchtime talks from people sharing projects, process, ideas and provocations around pervasive media and creative technology.

On Friday 28th April, I’m presenting a Lunchtime Talk titled Designing Place-Based Games. This talk will be sharing practical insights into designing games that engage with place, drawing on findings from my PhD. However, it will also be informed by my more recent creative projects and my earlier MA research on creating a sense of place in video games. It will consider what focusing on ‘place’ means for the play experience and how different design techniques can influence these experiences across digital and non-digital media.

Join us online on YouTube Live, or in the Pervasive Media Studio on 28th April at 1pm. Pervasive Media Studio is located within Watershed in the city centre on Bristol’s historic harbourside.

First Friday, Pervasive Media Studio, Friday 5th May, 5 – 6pm

Then, on Friday 5th May from 5pm, I will be sharing work in the Pervasive Media Studio again. This time, my team and I will be sharing our new narrative puzzle game, Interment, for people to play and learn more about as part of First Friday.

First Friday is a monthly social event open to anyone. These events are somewhere between the last meeting of the week and the first event of your weekend. You might meet an artist or an engineer, a school teacher or a city leader. It is a place to connect with someone you might not otherwise meet, and hear about stuff you didn’t already know. All are welcome: from inside and outside the city, online or in the Watershed building.

Virtual Realities as Time Travel workshop, Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Bristol, Friday 12th May, 9.30am – 5pm

Lastly, on Friday 12th May, I will be presenting and taking part in the Virtual Realities as Time Travel workshop, hosted by Bristol Digital Game Lab.

This workshop will bring together speakers from the Virtual Reality Oracle project team and from across academic disciplines and industry to explore how users and producers of both immersive experiences and historical video games conceive of journeying to the past.

My presentation in this workshop is titled Time Travel as Wayfinding: Assembling Past and Present in Location-based Games. Here’s a summary of what I’ll be talking about:

As a so-called ‘immersive’ media form that typically centres upon people’s live physical locations and/or actions, how can location-based games connect us to different time periods? In this talk, I chart how relationships with the past emerge through the ways designers and players of location-based games engage with place. Drawing on two location-based games I developed and tested as part of a practice-based PhD project, which both focus on historic events, I reframe the concept of time travel away from being ‘transported through time’ using immersive media. Instead, I understand it as a process of wayfinding: a propositional and intersubjective form of navigation through which people assemble impressions of a place (and its past). I show how designers and players of location-based games negotiate the contingency and multiplicity inherent in live, physical, everyday contexts of location-based gameplay to produce diverse, complex and insecure impressions of historic scenarios. Ultimately, I suggest that the significance of location-based games as media for connecting with the past is in the relationships between navigation and narrative that are performed by designers and players. These relationships do not enable mimetic representations or experiences of the past, but create compelling opportunities for expanding and complicating notions of what went before, what exists today and how both are interconnected in place. 

It would be lovely to meet those with shared interests at any of these events. Do get in touch if you want any more information.

Monday 3 April 2023

Interment: making a prize-winning game in 48 hours

For the past five years, I’ve been making games which explore our relationships with the places we live in. These games have all been location-based: taking place outdoors and focusing on interacting with your physical environment. However, until now, I hadn’t been involved in making a fully digital game.

This changed when I learnt about Global Game Jam (GGJ). GGJ is the world’s largest game creation event, bringing together tens of thousands of participants in locations all over the world. Over 48 hours, participants are tasked with creating a game that responds to a central theme revealed when the jam begins. This year, the theme was ‘roots’.

Following the reveal, everybody at the Bristol site where I was participating gathered to form teams. After meeting Grace Ball, a writer who shared my interest in designing a story-rich game, we met Josh Regan, a programmer who would make the interactive parts of our game work. His brother, musician Frank Regan, later joined us to bring our world to life through sound design.

Out of nothing, we had a multi-skilled team of four people who had never worked together before (even the brothers!).

What we ended up with 48 hours later was a narrative puzzle game called Interment.

Interment is about the connection between the stories of our ancestors and the stories we make today.

You play as a contractor for developers who are planning to build houses on an old family graveyard. As part of the planning permission, the graves must be reinterred elsewhere with accurately named headstones. Your job is to match the currently unreadable, crumbling headstones to the correct person using archive material and clues in the graveyard itself.

This archive consists of transcripts of documents belonging to family members buried in the graveyard, including a will, diary entry, death certificate, letters and even song lyrics. In these, you get a fleeting sense of the family members’ lives and relationships.

My role in the team was as a narrative designer and writer, working with Grace to build the fictional world of the game.

The first stage of this process was ideation with the entire team on the first evening of the jam, simply using pen and paper.

Our initial responses to the jam theme led to the idea of an old graveyard with headstones that were barely legible anymore. We talked about making a game that involved uncovering the mysteries behind the graveyard, using historic evidence and the scraps of information you could still glean from the headstones, like motifs, initials, types of stone and objects positioned next to the stones.

In asking the question of what fictional justification there could be for deciphering who was buried in an old graveyard, I came up with the idea that the graves were being re-interred elsewhere. The player needed to work out exactly where each person was buried to ensure they would have accurate headstones in their new resting places.

With this basic idea and some initial character designs, we all got on with our individual tasks. Josh developed the 2D graveyard environment in Unity; Frank worked on musical motifs for each character and the game’s theme music. For Grace and I, the task was fleshing out the game’s characters and their stories.

In most cases, we already had a rough idea of what kinds of stories would be interesting to tell in a family graveyard environment. Our job was to create pieces of archive evidence that communicated these characters’ stories – and indicated which graves they were associated with – in an interesting and evocative way.

As this was a puzzle game, we wanted the player’s discovery of the stories and their associated graves to involve a satisfying degree of thought and interpretation. This meant thinking carefully about the relationship between the fabula (the factual events/details of the story) and the syuzhet (how the narrative information would be represented to, and encountered by, the player).

Our design process involved deciding which bits of information would be shared with the player upfront, which would be subtext (i.e. implied or inferred), which would need deciphering based on several smaller bits of information, and which details would be left to the player’s imagination. We also had to think carefully about what order players would encounter different narrative details.

All these factors influenced the writing we did: the types of documents we created, the writing style and the level of detail contained in each piece of text. For example, because we knew the gameplay would involve interpreting relationships between characters, the archive evidence we created would often tie two or more characters together (e.g. a letter from one character to another, or a document that mentions multiple characters).

We used a shared Google Doc to write and edit the game’s text in tandem and decide on its positioning, as well as pen and paper to sketch out the boundaries, relationships and intricacies of the fictional world. Two sketches in particular were crucial here.

The first was a family tree, to visualise how the characters were related to each other, when they were born and when they died. This was important to ensure we were consistent with all of the dates and names we mentioned in our documents (making a mistake with these details could make the puzzle impossible to solve!).

The second was a sketch map of the graveyard, to show how all the individual narrative details would be portrayed within the game’s environment. This not only helped our programmer Josh to know where each piece of content should appear, but also made it easy for us, as narrative designers, to keep in mind exactly what the player would be seeing and hearing at any point.

By having this at the forefront of our thinking, we could design the game such that players would encounter information in a way that was satisfying for unravelling the mystery of the graveyard.

At the end of the jam, each team presented their game to the other participants and a panel of judges.

To our amazement, Interment won the Bristol jam’s Grand Prize. The judges praised the completeness of the game, how it responded to the jam’s theme and the detail in the game’s design.

We each won a mug labelled ‘Global Games Jam Winner 2023’ and some chocolates.

Having since fixed a few small bugs in the game, we have now released Interment to the public, where you can download and play it for free on Windows and Mac.

It will take most people about 30 minutes to complete.

Overall, we’re really proud of what we were able to make in such a small period of time. We hope the game is both enjoyable and makes players think, reflecting on what it is to have roots in a place and what it means when these roots are severed.

Monday 31 October 2022

The Materiality of Digital Geographies: Agencies, Affects and Impacts

This Friday 4th November, the Digital Geographies Research Group will be holding its annual symposium as an online event.

The symposium is themed around the topic of materiality, departing from long-outdated notions that equate the digital with virtual realms detached from material reality. We will be exploring the hardwares and infrastructures involved in making what we perceive as ‘digital’, the impacts such technologies have on our physical environment, what agency different people/organisations have to influence how such technologies are used, the politics and possibilities of these potential uses, and the impacts these material processes ultimately have on the bodies, objects and institutions that we live with.

The event will feature a range of session types with plenty of space in between for breaks and lunch. There are three presentation sessions, each with four presentations brought together around particular sub-themes (I’m chairing the session on Place, Platforms, Politics). There is a section during lunch where I’ll be screening digital shorts (videos 2-5 minutes in length that explore an area of research related to the symposium theme). And finally, there will be a keynote presentation from Dillon Mahmoudi, whose research focuses on the relationship between technology, cities and capital. 

You can sign up for the event via the Eventbrite page here, and view the full programme below.

Saturday 30 July 2022

Call for Papers: Digital Geographies Research Group 2022 Annual Symposium

The Materiality of Digital Geographies: Agencies, Affects, and Impacts

Symposium Date: Friday November 4th, 2022
CfP Deadline: Monday September 12th, 2022
Location: Online. Details TBA

Symposium Theme

Digital geographies pose important questions of how digital technologies reshape the production and analysis of geospatial knowledge, and what implications this has on everyday spaces, territories, and places. As digital geographic research continues to attract a wide range of interdisciplinary perspectives, the materiality of digital technologies, software, and data, and their impacts on the natural and built environment has become a focal point of discussion that engender key questions of dematerialization, and the need to better understand the agencies and materiality of technology.

This symposium seeks to discuss and reflect on the agencies, affects, and impacts of the materiality of digital geographies. The objective is to reflect on the everyday relations of technologies, infrastructures, objects, bodies, and institutions that stabilise digital geographies into a coherent body of research. In turn, it is also important to consider the socio-cultural, and politico-economic forces that sustain material investment in digital geographies to better understand the material politics of knowledge production.

This symposium aims to extend our understanding of the materiality of digital geographies by focusing broadly on the historical materialisms, political economies, material affects, and infrastructural affordances that shape the production and dissemination of geospatial knowledge. We aim to better understand the material politics and economies that can steer digital geographic research, including the kinds of tools, labour, platforms and data used to produce spatial knowledge; the impacts of the private sector on academic research; and the ways in which space and place are shaped by political and economic forces.

The Digital Geographies Research Group invites theoretical and empirical contributions that broadly relate to critically understanding the materiality of digital geographies from researchers and practitioners at any level. Topics may include, but not limited to:

- Materiality, agency, and affects
- Political economy and historical materialism
- Infrastructures, interfaces, and Science and Technology Studies
- Everydayness and mundaneness of digital geographies
- Mobilities, boundaries, and hybridities of digital geographies
- Critical theories of inequalities, divides, and exclusions
- Environmental, embodied, and ecological issues of digital geographies
- Digital cartography and territoriality
- Dematerialization, software, and data
- Financialization and digital technologies

Submission information

We welcome abstracts for paper submissions at any stage of research. Beyond paper proposals, we also welcome abstracts for contributions in the form of digital shorts. Digital shorts are short videos (between 2 and 5 minutes in length) that provide an introduction to, or summary of, an aspect of your research. Your video could discuss:

- Recent research findings
- An emerging research idea or interest
- A new or upcoming research output, publication, creative work etc.
- Research methodology
- Approaches to teaching
- Uses of digital technologies within academia

This format has been deliberately designed to require limited preparation, so is ideal for postgraduates, early career researchers, those with caring responsibilities, or other commitments. You can view examples of digital shorts on the DGRG YouTube channel.

Abstracts should aim to be approximately 250 words and submitted before Monday, September 12th.

Please email your abstract to before the deadline.