Monday, 18 October 2021

Interrobang?!: The Curious Departure of Dustin Spektor

This Wednesday 20th October sees the launch of Interrobang?!, a genre-busting theatre-meets-online gaming experience that draws you into a real-time thriller, where you become the investigator in a shadowy murder case.

It’s a unique experience full of intriguing characters, interviews, challenges, moral quandaries and puzzles. It’s theatre away from the theatre, and gaming away from the console.

Players use QR code technology and a custom-made website to take a journey through multiple digital spaces. You’ll delve into a database of documents and video interviews, with original music and the odd surreal musical number.

And that’s just what you can play from home. Take your sleuthing outside in Interrobang?! Local, an immersive location-based audio experience that expands the Interrobang?! universe.

Set in the town of Brentford, decipher the locations of hidden messages to uncover the mystery of powerful forces shaping the very places we live. Look out for copies of The Echo newspaper at Watermans and other places around Brentford to begin your journey.        

Interrobang?! Has been created by trailblazing immersive theatre company Gideon Reeling in collaboration with StoryFutures and supported by Watermans, West London’s leading arts centre.

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Hopefully what is written above has whetted your appetite!

You may be wondering what connection I have to this thrilling project.

Throughout my PhD at Royal Holloway, I’ve been a consultant for StoryFutures, an initiative that helps to create and fund R&D projects focused on immersive storytelling. Part of their remit is to connect academics with companies and organisations that can benefit from their expertise.

Back in March, StoryFutures approached me to say they’d had an enquiry from a company called Gideon Reeling, who had just reached their crowdfunding target to develop an interactive murder mystery game. The game would be partly location-based, and they were looking to work with an academic who could help to finesse the user experience and game mechanics to achieve their vision for the project.

I’ve always been a massive fan of murder mysteries as a genre of fiction. And after looking at their Crowdfunder and learning more about Gideon Reeling’s vision, history and ventures as a company (they were once sister company to the immersive theatre pioneers Punchdrunk and have worked with huge names across different industries), I was sold.

Since then, my actual contribution to the development of Interrobang?! has morphed into something much more hybrid and more deeply invested. And I’ve loved every minute of it.

One of my main roles has been helping to shape the game’s narrative design.

In the initial pilot version of Interrobang?! that I tested, there was no website hosting the database of evidence you explore as a player. The whole mystery was divulged via documents, emails and QR codes contained within them, which led to videos.

I was blown away by the detail and intricacy of the story, as well as the acting and humour throughout. I was engrossed with the challenge of identifying the important details in the case and very satisfied when I’d correctly solved puzzles or noticed crucial bits of information.

But there was so much content that I had to play it over two days, taking over 10 hours in total! Part of that was down to me being the kind of player that wanted to note down every detail that might be important. But many of the videos were also very long.

It also wasn’t the smoothest experience moving between all the different pieces of evidence, via the individual documents and emails.

So together with the artistic directors and web developer at Gideon Reeling, we worked to make navigating the game content more intuitive, identify any plot holes and decide what could be cut down (e.g. times when evidence was corroborated by more than one character) to make the experience more streamlined.

One of the most impactful suggestions that I and other testers had was to host the game on an integrated website framed as a police database, which would allow players to view and move between the different pieces of information more smoothly.

I also thought it would be effective to incorporate the player’s note-taking and information-gathering process into this website, through something like an interactive evidence board.                                    

Both of these ambitions have come to fruition. The evidence documents and videos (now much shorter edits) are all accessed via the police database website, which has an interactive evidence board that updates depending on which information you’ve uncovered. It’s a much tighter, more user-friendly experience that envelops you in the Interrobang?! universe.

My other main role in working with Gideon Reeling has been to lead the development of the location-based element of Interrobang?!.

In the pilot version of the game, the only way the player’s physical location mattered was in the suggestion that players go to (or imagine they were in) certain kinds of places to watch the videos that loaded when the QR codes were scanned. The characters would say things like ‘go to the local church’ or ‘find somewhere quiet’, with the idea that the game could be played anywhere.

But we found that players unanimously preferred to be accessing evidence sitting at a desk, preferably in front of a computer, where they could easily take notes, watch/read things multiple times and not use lots of mobile data loading content on their devices. The story also stood so well by itself that being in certain kinds of places made little difference to how it was received.

Through my prior experience in location-based game design, I knew that this component of the game would need to be something much more bespoke; making the most of the specific affordances of engaging with material outside and in physical places.

This led to the creation of brand-new, tailored content that expands the Interrobang?! universe through the use of location-based audio. QR codes positioned around Brentford (home of Gideon Reeling and local arts centre partner Watermans) play a series of voice notes when scanned. These follow the story of one very important character and how they became entangled in the wider mystery and peril of Interrobang?!.

I would love to say more, but I can’t give too much away!

I’m proud to say that I came up with the concept behind this new design of Interrobang?! Local and also wrote the scripts for all of the voice notes, which I then edited together with Gideon Reeling.

Thankfully, Gideon were on-hand in Brentford to do the location scouting, place the QR codes and make the necessary local contacts to turn our vision into a reality.

So, again, when can you take part in these dual online and location-based experiences?

They launch officially this Wednesday, 20th October!

This current version of Interrobang?! is live until 27th January 2022. I say current version because Interrobang?! is an ongoing project. Not only will we be addressing any feedback from this run, but there are plans to add more exciting features to the game website in future versions.

Furthermore, we’re planning to bring the location-based experience to places other than Brentford, partnering with local theatres and arts companies across the country to bring a slice of Gideon Reeling’s immersive magic to different audiences. The script is deliberately designed to be adapted to other places and it’ll be fascinating to see how to story connects to a completely different set of sites.

I’m really excited to hear what people make of both the online and location-based aspects of the game. Do get in touch with me if you want to know more about the project or have any feedback that you want to share.          

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How to take part

Visit the Interrobang?! booking page on the Watermans website to book your ticket to play the game online. Tickets cost £15 and the game takes approximately 2-4 hours to complete. It is suitable for anyone aged 12 or over (contains moderate bad language).

You’ll be asked to provide an email address for each player.

Register to play by following the email link. Log in and begin.        

You’ll need a laptop or desktop for the best viewing experience and a trackpad, mouse or direction keys to make choices through the game.

To take part in the Interrobang?! location-based audio experience, look out for copies of The Echo newspaper at Watermans and other locations in the Brentford area. You’ll find everything you need in The Echo.


Thursday, 2 September 2021

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2021: Designing digital games as a geographical research method


Above is a recorded version (with subtitles) of the paper I presented in the Innovative Digital Geographies session at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Annual International Conference on 31st August 2021. This paper discussed designing digital games as a geographical research method and considered the relationship between this method and digital geographical knowledge more broadly, particularly in terms of what we consider 'innovative'.

I'd like to thank Zoe Gardner, Stefano de Sabbata, Katy Bennett and Tess Osborne for convening this fascinating double session, and the Digital Geographies Research Group (DGRG) for sponsoring it. Thank you also to the other presenters in the two sessions for sharing such inspiring research insights and techniques.


Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Digital Geographies Research Group 'Work in Progress' YouTube Series

Since the beginning of this academic year, I have been a Postgraduate Representative on the committee of the RGS-IBG Digital Geographies Research Group (DGRG). The DGRG brings together scholars and practitioners from a wide range of disciplines, whose work engages with the relationship between the digital and geography.

As part of our work within the DGRG committee, we’ve been thinking about ways we can better provide a platform for sharing the research that is happening in our community.       

One popular and successful feature of DGRG events in recent years has been our ‘digital shorts’. These are 2 – 5-minute videos made by researchers to give an overview of an aspect of their work.

Digital shorts have proven particularly popular during the pandemic, as a simple and quick way to communicate research that does not require too much work from the presenter. There were 13 shorts presented during last year’s DGRG Annual Symposium and 11 created for the DGRG-sponsored session Digital Geographies and the Everyday at the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Midterm Conference earlier this year. Other research groups such as the Participatory Geographies Research Group have recently even begun to use the digital short format for their own events.

Following the utility and popularity of the videos in these events, we considered whether we could create an ongoing programme of digital shorts, as a way to share the diversity of digital geographies research with a public audience on a regular basis.       

This idea has led to the launch of our new Work in Progress series on YouTube (also linked at the bottom of this post). This series will feature digital geographers at different career stages and from different disciplinary and methodological backgrounds discussing a wide range of current research.

A couple of weeks ago, we released our first digital short by Phil Jones, discussing the opportunities and challenges of analysing VR content.

Today, our second video has been released. Created by Jeremy Crampton, it discusses his research interests in facial recognition technology and its implications for surveillance in urban life.

We are aiming to publish a new digital short roughly every fortnight from now on.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in hearing more about digital geographies research, you’re in luck. Our annual symposium ‘Where Next for Digital Geographies? Pathways and Prospects’ is taking place online this Wednesday 14th July and is completely free to attend. You can find the full programme and Eventbrite page to book your ticket here.            

    



Monday, 3 May 2021

Making The Gates to Dreamland: Future Directions

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On 25th September, my new locative audiowalk game The Gates to Dreamland launched to the public. Created as part of the A Different LENS project in Margate, The Gates to Dreamland explores how interpreting our surroundings figuratively, through imagination and motion, can connect us to different places, times, stories and circumstances, finding resonance within our own lives.

Set around the boundaries of the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, it tells the story of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei’s journey towards publishing his final book – one that would change the study of science forever. It imagines the obstacles he faced, under house arrest with his eyesight and health failing, and the changes in perspective that entailed.

In this series of blog posts, I’m delving into how The Gates to Dreamland was made, discussing how my contribution to A Different LENS came about, how the design of the project evolved, ideas and inspirations, research and planning, writing the script, how I created the audio, and how this project connects to my other work.

More information on how you can try The Gates to Dreamland for yourself is at the bottom of this post.

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When I first agreed to get involved with A Different LENS, I was approaching my contribution as a side project to my PhD research. 

Indeed, I had only just launched Canterbury in 3 Words – a project made specifically in response to my PhD research questions – when I received the brief for A Different LENS. The latter was therefore my opportunity to keep the creative juices flowing, connect with other artists and gain experience in producing another kind of locative digital media art, alongside my PhD work.

It wasn’t until late in the development of The Gates to Dreamland when I realised that my contribution to A Different LENS had been answering those same PhD research questions all along, albeit from a different angle.   

The Gates to Dreamland was fundamentally concerned with the processes through which places become meaningful to us. And being a form of playful locative media that tells a story, I found myself making many of the same considerations as I had done for other projects during the PhD.

These included how to account for the diverse things and processes that make places what they are; how to manage the difficulties of designing for physical locations that can change without warning; and how to make interacting with places using locative and playful media something that is evocative and interesting.

The project seemed too relevant not to incorporate into my PhD research.

So once The Gates to Dreamland launched, I began considering what kinds of material I could gather and analyse to produce useful findings I could write about in my PhD thesis.                        

Fortunately, I am pretty rigorous when it comes to documenting the process behind any creative work I do. I already had numerous design documents, notes and other original files that I could use in my analysis.

But I knew it would also be valuable to discuss the work with other people, to gauge their responses to the project and its relationship with place.

I identified two groups of people who I felt could provide important insights: collaborators in A Different LENS who tackled the same design brief as me, and members of the public who were willing to test the audiowalk and give me feedback.

Opportunities to talk with some of the other contributing artists arose after the opening of A Different LENS for Margate NOW 2020. The project was featured in Sound Walk September, an annual global festival held online to celebrate audiowalks, and as a result we were invited to host a ‘café’ event with Walk Listen Create. We ran this as a ‘Long Table’, where all of the participating artists spoke about their projects as if talking at a dinner party, while attendees could openly ask questions and discuss the work with us.                 

After this more performative event, a group of us then took part in an ‘after party’, where we chatted with each other about how we found the process of taking part in A Different LENS. This allowed me to ask each contributing artist more targeted questions about their experiences in responding to the project brief.             

Alongside this group discussion, I organised a separate conversation with the project curator Elspeth Penfold, who incidentally also wanted to interview me about A Different LENS for her MA research. In the end, the 90-minute discussion we shared left us both with plenty to work with.

As for feedback from people actually trying The Gates to Dreamland, over November and December 2020 I ran a handful of tests with some really great people who volunteered to take part. Due to the pandemic, all of these people participated online using Streetview, with the A Different LENS webapp open on a separate browser tab. After completing the walk, I then interviewed the testers for 30 minutes about their experiences.

I’m pleased to say that the feedback I’ve received so far has been very positive. It was heartening to hear all the connections the testers identified between the areas around Dreamland and the events described in the audio diaries, which were based on Galileo’s life in 17th-century Florence. They picked up on lots of the key themes and ideas I wanted to explore in the work and praised the writing for being engaging and evocative. The testers were also complimentary about my voice performances and the audio quality in general.                      

Alongside this positive feedback, I was grateful to get some constructive comments that could help to shape the future of The Gates to Dreamland.

There were some useful suggestions of small technical changes that might improve the experience for different kinds of participants, such as raising the overall volume of the audio for those without headphones. Many of these ideas were tweaks that can be made relatively easily.

However, the testers also offered some interesting thoughts on how remote participation in the walk via Streetview could be developed further.

I was fully aware before testing that the online-only version of the walk was not a seamless experience. The Gates to Dreamland was primarily designed to be completed in Margate, so simulating the walk via an internet browser was always going to be a compromise.                                          

The testers still found the format effective, though, and wondered whether there could be an opportunity to make a more bespoke online version of the walk.

This would likely involve integrating the audio diaries and navigation via Streetview into a single platform, creating a single, accessible place (e.g. website or app) where people anywhere in the world could access the walk online at any point in the future.

It was also suggested that the online version of the walk could include ambient sound and/or music. This is something I would’ve liked to do for the original version if I had more time, and is certainly a feature I’d be interested in working on for any future versions.

While writing my PhD thesis will prevent me from working further on the project over the coming months, I’ll certainly be thinking about what options are available to take these ideas further.

In the meantime, I’d still be delighted if anybody reading this wanted to try the current online version of The Gates to Dreamland.

To do this, visit the A Different LENS map here and find the blue pin titled ‘The Gates to Dreamland’, with ‘1 of 6’ as a subheading. This is the start of the walk, and the pink pins that lead from it show the route you need to follow.

Then, open up the link here in a separate tab. This is the starting point for the walk in Streetview.

Each point of the audiowalk is located by one of Dreamland’s gates. When you reach the next gate on the walk in Streetview, navigate back to the A Different LENS map and click on the relevant pin to play the audio for that location. Try to stay in Streetview as much as you can on the walk, but there may be times when you need to check that you’re at the correct location by switching to satellite view and comparing with the A Different LENS map.

The walk should take about 30 minutes to complete.

If you do try it and have any feedback you’d be willing to share, do send me an email using the contact information on my About page.

Before I wrap up, I’m delighted to tell you about one special piece of positive feedback relating to this project.

In January, we learnt that A Different LENS received an honourable mention at the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards! In total, there were 50 different soundwalk projects that were submitted to the event, which were narrowed down to a shortlist of 13 for the awards. To not only be shortlisted but also to receive an honourable mention is a huge credit to everyone involved in the project, and it made me very proud to have contributed myself.

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To finish off this series of posts exploring how The Gates to Dreamland was made, I’d just like to thank a few people who made all of this possible.

First and foremost, Elspeth Penfold, for her sterling work in curating A Different LENS and for inviting me to contribute to the project. I’ve mentioned all the different jobs Elspeth took on in this role previously, but I can now add organising the post-launch events and chatting with me about her curation of the project to the list.

I’d like to thank the other artists who contributed to A Different LENS for their valuable advice, ideas and the numerous conversations we shared that have helped me to make – and make sense of – The Gates to Dreamland.

Thank you to Arts Council England, Margate NOW, Kent Country Council and the Margate Bookie for funding and supporting A Different LENS.

And finally, many thanks to those who have tested The Gates to Dreamland and taken the time to share your impressions with me. Your contributions have been a huge help for my PhD research, and will help to shape how the project develops in the future.


Monday, 26 April 2021

Making The Gates to Dreamland: Mapping Between Worlds

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On 25th September, my new locative audiowalk game The Gates to Dreamland launched to the public. Created as part of the A Different LENS project in Margate, The Gates to Dreamland explores how interpreting our surroundings figuratively, through imagination and motion, can connect us to different places, times, stories and circumstances, finding resonance within our own lives.

Set around the boundaries of the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, it tells the story of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei’s journey towards publishing his final book – one that would change the study of science forever. It imagines the obstacles he faced, under house arrest with his eyesight and health failing, and the changes in perspective that entailed.

In this series of blog posts, I’m delving into how The Gates to Dreamland was made, discussing how my contribution to A Different LENS came about, how the design of the project evolved, ideas and inspirations, research and planning, writing the script, how I created the audio, and how this project connects to my other work.

More information on how you can try The Gates to Dreamland for yourself is at the bottom of this post.

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The final stage in making The Gates to Dreamland was uploading all the materials for the audiowalk to the A Different LENS map, hosted on a webapp called CGeoMap.

By this point many of the other A Different LENS projects had already been uploaded, and I was able to see how their content was displayed. It was inspiring to find such a treasure trove of media types on the map, including images, audio, text, video and links to external websites, with each entry combining these in different ways to make connections between works by visually-impaired authors and places in Margate.           

I knew that I wanted my entries to remain focused on the spoken diary extracts I had recorded. But seeing the other map contributions did make me consider what might or might not be interesting to include as additional relevant information. I briefly flirted with the idea of summarising or linking to some of the materials I found during my research on Galileo’s life, which I’ve highlighted throughout this blog series.

In the end, I decided that the only content I would include alongside the audio would be a single image for each pin on the map. I wanted users to be as engaged as possible with the spoken diary extracts and their surroundings, rather than feeling the need to spend much time looking at their phone screens.

By sticking to a single iconic image for each pin, the images would help users to easily distinguish between the different entries, which are situated fairly close to each other. I was also able to use the image titles and captions to give little leads to follow, for anyone who wanted to delve deeper into the life of Galileo and the events described in the audiowalk.

The images I chose for each entry all related to an element of the subject matter described in that diary extract. For example, the opening entry includes a present-day image of Galileo’s former villa in Arcetri, Florence, to contextualise what you hear about the building. This then also guides interested listeners to the knowledge that the villa still stands today.

Another example is the portrait of Vincenzo Viviani in the entry where his character is introduced, with a caption explaining how he remained a disciple of Galileo for the rest of his life. Those who were curious could then do their own research, if they wished to find out exactly how Viviani devoted himself to his former master’s studies.

The map entry introducing Vincenzo Viviani, viewed on PC

The one entry that did contain more than just the diary audio and image was the opening entry, which needed some text to introduce the walk and provide guidance as to how my series of entries worked. Because the character limits for sections of text in CGeoMap were quite narrow, I needed to provide this scene-setting and guidance as concisely as possible, but still convey all the necessary information clearly so that anyone could understand.

Fortunately, I was able to get a couple of people who had no prior knowledge of the project to read over what I’d written, advising me on how I could make the text more understandable on first view.

The opening entry of The Gates to Dreamland, viewed on PC

In the spirit of clarity, I also decided to number each of the walk’s entries in their subtitles: ‘1 of 6’, ‘2 of 6’ etc. Unlike some of the other collections of entries on the map, my walk was linear, with the user’s agency coming from the connections they draw between the events in the story and what they observe in the appropriate locations, rather than the order they piece together the story’s events. Numbering the entries would clearly indicate which comes next, how many were left to listen to at any given point and whether an entry had been missed by the listener.

This clarity was doubly important for my walk, as only the first of my six map entries would be visible to those accessing the map via smartphone in Margate. I decided that the remaining entries should only appear on the map when the user got to within 40 metres of the correct location.

This provides a basic ‘treasure hunting’ mechanic when doing the walk in person; encouraging participants to pay closer attention to their surroundings by asking them to find Dreamland’s gates for themselves. Attention to detail is important for the broader experience of the work, as the audio diary scripts make numerous references and figurative connections to things participants encounter when navigating in Margate.

With all these decisions made, the final task was to map my entries.

To make the process of adding the A Different LENS entries to CGeoMap smoother, it was decided that project curator Elspeth Penfold would upload all the materials rather than each individual participating artist.

So once all the content for each of my map entries was finalised, I had to create a document outlining in precise detail exactly where each map pin should be situated (GPS coordinates), what content should be attached to them (titles, subtitles, images, captions, audio files and text – clearly distinguishing between modules, titles and file names) and how this content should be organised.

Elspeth was very efficient with the upload process. After a little back-and-forth to address some small formatting issues, everything was where it needed to be and looked how I wanted it to look.

The Gates to Dreamland launched publicly on 25th September 2020, with the opening of Margate NOW Festival, for which A Different LENS was one of the featured projects.

I’ll finish this series of blogposts by talking a little bit about the public reaction to A Different LENS, the future of The Gates to Dreamland and how it connects to my PhD research on location-based games and site-specific storytelling.

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How to try The Gates to Dreamland from home

The Gates to Dreamland is primarily designed to be experienced by walking at the relevant sites in Margate. When you load the A Different LENS map on mobile, only the first of my six entries is visible on the map, and you must discover the remainder by finding the rest of Dreamland's gates in person.

However, you can try a version of The Gates to Dreamland for yourself online via PC/Mac (this is the only way to access all six points of the audiowalk without being in Margate).

To do this, visit the A Different LENS map here and find the blue pin titled ‘The Gates to Dreamland’, with ‘1 of 6’ as a subheading (it is the most southerly blue pin in the main cluster). This is the start of the walk, while the pink pins that lead from it show the route you need to follow. Read the introduction and instructions that appear when you click on the pin.

Then, open up the link here in a separate tab. This is the starting point for the walk in Streetview.

Each point of the audiowalk is located by one of Dreamland’s gates. When you reach the next gate on the walk, navigate back to the A Different LENS map and click on the relevant pin to play the audio for that location. Try to stay in Streetview as much as you can on the walk, but there may be times when you need to check that you’re at the correct location by switching to satellite view and comparing with the A Different LENS map.

The walk should take about 30 minutes to complete. Think about the relationships between the words you hear and what you can see in Streetview.

If you do try it and have any feedback you’d be willing to share, do send me an email using the contact information on my About page.


Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Making The Gates to Dreamland: Recording and Editing

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On 25th September, my new locative audiowalk game The Gates to Dreamland launched to the public. Created as part of the A Different LENS project in Margate, The Gates to Dreamland explores how interpreting our surroundings figuratively, through imagination and motion, can connect us to different places, times, stories and circumstances, finding resonance within our own lives.

Set around the boundaries of the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, it tells the story of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei’s journey towards publishing his final book – one that would change the study of science forever. It imagines the obstacles he faced, under house arrest with his eyesight and health failing, and the changes in perspective that entailed.

In this series of blog posts, I’m delving into how The Gates to Dreamland was made, discussing how my contribution to A Different LENS came about, how the design of the project evolved, ideas and inspirations, research and planning, writing the script, how I created the audio, and how this project connects to my other work.

More information on how you can try The Gates to Dreamland for yourself is at the bottom of this post.

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Preparation

Once the script for The Gates to Dreamland had been written, the process of recording and editing the audio diary extracts was surprisingly swift.

I was fortunate that I already owned the necessary equipment to make high-quality voice recordings from home. This simply consisted of a condenser microphone, a stand and clamp to keep the microphone steady, a pop filter to eliminate the distortion from plosive sounds in my speech, and my laptop where the files were recorded. Windows has an in-built voice recorder which is perfectly capable, and the files it generates can be imported into audio editing software.

My recording setup

For each of the six diary extracts, I decided to record three full takes. I could then use the editing software to select the best bits from each recording and merge them together into a single track to upload for each entry on the A Different LENS map.

I use Audacity for audio editing. It’s excellent, open-source software that is freely available online for all operating systems. The basics of importing/exporting files, copying/pasting, recording, cutting, zooming and playback are all very intuitive for regular PC users. Many more complex functions are also possible, with plenty of guidance available online.

However, before any recording or editing was done, one consideration I had to make was the 5MB file size limit for audio that could be uploaded to CGeoMap, the webapp which hosted the A Different LENS map entries.

From other map entries already uploaded, I could see that there were audio clips that far exceeded the length mine would be. But the limit did make a small difference when it came to the quality of the final files that would be uploaded, as I had to export my files in Audacity to MP3 at a ‘standard’ quality of 170-210 kbps to ensure they remained within the 5MB limit.


Voice acting

After the technical needs of the recording were sorted, one of the most daunting – yet ultimately rewarding – experiences in this creative process was taking on the role of a voice actor.

Originally, I had toyed with the idea of finding someone with experience in voice performing who could conceivably replicate the voice of a man in his 70s. But with the project deadline approaching ever closer, and not having the money or contacts to hire a voice actor, I decided that I’d attempt the narration myself.

I sought out as much advice and guidance as I could before I made the recordings.

A couple of the other artists contributing to A Different LENS shared their words of wisdom during our regular Zoom calls, including speaking somewhere where you can see your reflection, and over-enunciating your words.

Online, I also found plenty of tips for beginner voice actors relating to breathing, posture, warming-up exercises and practising. I found it particularly helpful to record myself when practising, so I could identify the points in the script where I’d have a tendency to mumble, or where I could afford to take breath.

I’ve mentioned previously in this series of blog posts how I drew inspiration from the video game Dear Esther, in how its narration evocatively connects distant places, times and characters. As well as learning from the game’s script-writing, I was inspired by the performance of its narrator, Nigel Carrington.

Carrington had also performed in a beautiful soundwalk called Fields Were the Essence of the Song (incidentally also made by Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck, the creators of Dear Esther), which was another key touchstone for The Gates to Dreamland. It is described as a ‘site-specific soundtrack to a film which does not exist, one which is created by the ever-changing relationship of the listener, formed by their self-steered journey, around the environment’.

I listened carefully to audio from both of these works to pick out voicing techniques Carrington used.

One of the most noticeable features, I found, was how he varies the pitch in his voice throughout sections of speech; much more than anyone would in everyday conversation.

Lowering the pitch at the end of a phrase gives it the quality of a remark – an observation or expression of something inevitable. Adding a roughness to this kind of phrasing gives it the quality of a sigh. While raising the pitch perhaps indicates a sense of surprise, or that there is something notable you should pay particular attention to.               

As the speech navigates these contours of expression, the recording takes on a sort of melody that leads the listener along a thread of individual thought; drawing you into the headspace of the character being narrated.

Thinking about my voice performance in this way subsequently affected how I edited the script I wrote.

One technique I found particularly effective in Fields Were the Essence of the Song and Dear Esther was the use of short sentences with very few conjunctions. Paying close attention to the words made me acutely aware of how every moment you spend using words that don’t paint a picture, you’re gradually drawing the listener out of the world into which you’re inviting them.

Having learnt from these examples and having sought as much guidance on voice performing as possible, I finally recorded all 18 takes (three for each diary entry) over a couple of hours, in order from the first to the final diary entries.

I took plenty of sips of water throughout, and short breaks between each entry, but it still put a noticeable strain on my voice. Fortunately, my gradually thinning speech was appropriate as I moved towards narrating the later diary entries, which describe events that happened as Galileo has become older and more unwell.

 

Editing

Once all the takes were recorded, I listened back to them very carefully for each point of the walk. I created a document in which I colour-coded the script according to which take I thought sounded best for each line (sometimes even more fine-grained than that, if there were enough pauses to make a clean cut when editing).

This document then guided the editing process. Editing mostly consisted of importing the three recordings for each location side by side as separate tracks in Audacity, then cutting and pasting the relevant sections from each into a single final track.

A screenshot taken during editing of the third recorded diary entry

I was particularly attentive to the pacing of each piece of audio. I wanted to ensure I gave listeners enough time to reflect on the words they heard and their observations at each site, curating a listening experience that was mindful and atmospheric. This meant focusing on the pauses as much as the recorded speech.

I was able to easily adjust the length of pauses between each section of speech by cutting and pasting ‘silent’ sections of the track. In most cases, this involved lengthening the gaps to enhance opportunities for reflection. I also tried to ensure that pauses were of roughly equal length, to create a consistent rhythm that might help participants attune with the words of the script.

Once each final track was complete, the final stage of editing was reducing the background noise picked up in the recordings. Condenser microphones are very sensitive, meaning that even in quiet locations faint sounds will be picked up (the bulk of mine came from my laptop’s fans).

Thankfully, Audacity has a noise reduction tool that I’ve always found very effective. The way it works is that you select a ‘silent’ portion of the track (i.e. that only contains background noise) and feed it into the tool. The tool will then filter out sound from the track that matches the profile of the background noise sample, which is particularly effective when the noise in question is relatively constant, like my laptop’s fans.

You can adjust the sensitivity of the noise reduction to match your needs, as in some audio projects you may want a degree of ambient sound to remain. In my case, I wanted as little noise as possible, because I wanted the ambiance of the listening experience to come from sounds in Margate that listeners would hear in situ, rather than those from my living room.

After this stage was complete, I was left with six very clean, detailed audio tracks that effectively captured the nuances of my voice performances.

Editing was painstaking, precise work that involved a lot of tinkering and repeated listening back, but ultimately was a fairly swift process, only taking a day or two.

The next post in this series discusses the process of curating each recorded diary entry into an entry for the A Different LENS map.

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How to try The Gates to Dreamland from home

The Gates to Dreamland is primarily designed to be experienced by walking at the relevant sites in Margate. When you load the A Different LENS map on mobile, only the first of my six entries is visible on the map, and you must discover the remainder by finding the rest of Dreamland's gates in person.

However, you can try a version of The Gates to Dreamland for yourself online via PC/Mac (this is the only way to access all six points of the audiowalk without being in Margate).

To do this, visit the A Different LENS map here and find the blue pin titled ‘The Gates to Dreamland’, with ‘1 of 6’ as a subheading (it is the most southerly blue pin in the main cluster). This is the start of the walk, while the pink pins that lead from it show the route you need to follow. Read the introduction and instructions that appear when you click on the pin.

Then, open up the link here in a separate tab. This is the starting point for the walk in Streetview.

Each point of the audiowalk is located by one of Dreamland’s gates. When you reach the next gate on the walk, navigate back to the A Different LENS map and click on the relevant pin to play the audio for that location. Try to stay in Streetview as much as you can on the walk, but there may be times when you need to check that you’re at the correct location by switching to satellite view and comparing with the A Different LENS map.

The walk should take about 30 minutes to complete. Think about the relationships between the words you hear and what you can see in Streetview.

If you do try it and have any feedback you’d be willing to share, do send me an email using the contact information on my About page.


Sunday, 21 March 2021

Making The Gates to Dreamland: Script-writing and Wayfinding

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On 25th September, my new locative audiowalk game The Gates to Dreamland launched to the public. Created as part of the A Different LENS project in Margate, The Gates to Dreamland explores how interpreting our surroundings figuratively, through imagination and motion, can connect us to different places, times, stories and circumstances, finding resonance within our own lives.

Set around the boundaries of the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, it tells the story of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei’s journey towards publishing his final book – one that would change the study of science forever. It imagines the obstacles he faced, under house arrest with his eyesight and health failing, and the changes in perspective that entailed.

In this series of blog posts, I’m delving into how The Gates to Dreamland was made, discussing how my contribution to A Different LENS came about, how the design of the project evolved, ideas and inspirations, research and planning, writing the script, how I created the audio, and how this project connects to my other work.

More information on how you can try The Gates to Dreamland for yourself is at the bottom of this post.

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One of the overriding resonances I detected in Galileo’s story was the feeling of enclosure and inaccessibility.

Galileo was under house arrest for the duration of his time writing Two New Sciences; an experience of confinement that recent lockdowns have only briefly exposed us to. Losing his sight at the same time ‘confined’ him further, in a different sense; altering his ability to perceive the world beyond him.

Along the route between Dreamland’s gates, I used the words of my script to draw attention to moments of enclosure in the listener’s journey through the physical environment.

At the opening gate, between the metal bars, the sight of Dreamland’s Helter Skelter is visible in the distance. The words from the first scripted diary entry imagine how Galileo’s first action, upon returning to his villa marshalled by armed guards, was to climb straight to the highest window of the house. Here, he gazes upon the familiar view of a tower on a hill (though I do not name this, it would have been the Torre del Gallo in Arcetri), but his sight problems render the view inaccessible.

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

The Torre del Gallo in Arcetri, Florence
Dreamland's Helter Skelter

In this early stage of the experience, you walk along a road often busy with car traffic and lined with terraced housing. As you stand beside a seemingly unbreachable metal gate, the words in the audio diary bring attention to these elements of your surroundings that convey a sense of being squeezed in.

This continues as you descend down the hill, still confined by terraced housing but with widening space visible in front, creating the sense of being funnelled down the street towards an opening. At this point in the scripted diary entries, while Galileo is still very aware of the limitations he faces, there is a feeling of progress being made as he begins to chart his plans for writing Two New Sciences.             

As the walker’s perspective briefly widens, another key theme of the work is illuminated: the opportunities for growth, creativity and imagination that restriction can entail.

With the view opening out onto the usually busier area around Dreamland’s car park, Galileo describes the encounters he has with numerous visitors to his home. Vincenzo Viviani, who would become Galileo's student assistant, is highlighted as a key figure; and Galileo describes a clarity and order that emerges from the chaos of his cluttered and busy home life. In an ironic yet symbolic twist of fate, this is the time when Galileo loses his sight completely.

Up to this point in the work, multiple references are made to plants and weeds, which can be seen in many areas around the outskirts of Dreamland.

I was drawn to the image of his garden being gradually being overtaken by weeds as he committed himself to writing his book, while his view outside to the garden would have become increasingly obscured. There is an interesting parallel here between his intellectual growth and his body being overtaken by its own ‘weeds’ mentioned in the scripted diary extracts: his loss of eyesight and worsening arthritis.

A courtyard garden at Galileo's former home in Arcetri, Florence
Weeds near the entrance to Dreamland's car park

Aside from Galileo’s physical condition, the writing of Two New Sciences would certainly have been worrisome endeavour. All of Galileo’s publications had been banned under order of the Catholic Church, and being under house arrest with armed guards lurking meant that anything potentially illicit would have had to be kept very secretive.

Later on in the walk, you navigate a narrow back-street with tall buildings on one side and a high fence on the other; a road apparently used most often for delivering and loading goods. It’s a place evidently not designed for you to dwell in.

Here, the words in the audio diary draw comparisons between this discomfort and compression you feel when physically walking and Galileo’s own anxiety, as he prepares to release his illicit work out into the world.

In the words of the audio, ambiguous references are made to objects like CCTV cameras, back entrances, invisible onlookers and hidden doorways in the audiowalk's Margate locations, which become symbols of these themes of surveillance and secrets, ‘front stage’ and ‘backstage’.

Streetview image of Hall by the Sea Road, Margate

Ultimately, though, Galileo’s story is one of his work transcending the confined spaces and times in which he lived. As a form of epilogue to the events leading to the publication of Two New Sciences, I chose to set a sixth and final scene on Margate beach.

Here, the view over the sea to the horizon, the coastal breeze, sound of road traffic and sensation of sand under your feet are called upon in the script as symbols of this transcendence: the passing of time, movement between distant places, and the power of imagination and motion to connect everything.

Margate beach

These are just some of the intricate, enigmatic connections that the audiowalk’s script draws between the landscapes of Dreamland in the 21st century and Galileo’s life in 17th-century Florence.

Alongside these broader themes of enclosure, inaccessibility, creativity, growth, surveillance, secrets, motion and imagination, there are many other moments when individual details along the route of the walk are called upon to create figurative, symbolic links between events in Galileo’s life and your immediate surroundings.

I won’t name these explicitly as they are designed to be stumbled upon to achieve their effect. But hidden in the script are references to particular signage, graffiti, road markings, security infrastructure, photographs, historic wall lettering, paving, and a familiar Margate sound.

A final feature of the script worth noting is the series of dates associated with the diary entries you find. You’ll notice that no numbered days are given, only named dates such as ‘Ash Wednesday’, ‘Pentecost’ and ‘Epiphany’.

In historic records, none of the events described in Galileo's story have exact dates. Usually only years are given, and occasionally times of year.

This ambiguity gave me the licence to choose dates within a rough timescale that reflect the symbolic significance these events had within Galileo’s life. In particular, these are all important dates on the Christian calendar. This was a nod to the fact that Galileo was a Catholic, who did not see his scientific findings as incompatible with his faith.

I also figured that a 21st-century listener would struggle to form any kind of impression from a specific date like ‘August 12th 1635’, while these holy days still have importance today. More curious listeners might recognise this level of detail in the work and choose to investigate further, also becoming more alert to other subtle, intricate features of the work.

The next post in this series discusses how I narrated the scripted diary entries, recording the audio and editing it to upload to the A Different LENS map.

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How to try The Gates to Dreamland from home

The Gates to Dreamland is primarily designed to be experienced by walking at the relevant sites in Margate. When you load the A Different LENS map on mobile, only the first of my six entries is visible on the map, and you must discover the remainder by finding the rest of Dreamland's gates in person.

However, you can try a version of The Gates to Dreamland for yourself online via PC/Mac (this is the only way to access all six points of the audiowalk without being in Margate).

To do this, visit the A Different LENS map here and find the blue pin titled ‘The Gates to Dreamland’, with ‘1 of 6’ as a subheading (it is the most southerly blue pin in the main cluster). This is the start of the walk, while the pink pins that lead from it show the route you need to follow. Read the introduction and instructions that appear when you click on the pin.

Then, open up the link here in a separate tab. This is the starting point for the walk in Streetview.

Each point of the audiowalk is located by one of Dreamland’s gates. When you reach the next gate on the walk, navigate back to the A Different LENS map and click on the relevant pin to play the audio for that location. Try to stay in Streetview as much as you can on the walk, but there may be times when you need to check that you’re at the correct location by switching to satellite view and comparing with the A Different LENS map.

The walk should take about 30 minutes to complete. Think about the relationships between the words you hear and what you can see in Streetview.

If you do try it and have any feedback you’d be willing to share, do send me an email using the contact information on my About page.