Tuesday 31 December 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: Legacy

After the big day, I was invited to run one more meeting with the Cathedral Quarter team – to talk about how The Timekeeper’s Return went, and to celebrate the efforts of everyone involved in making the event a success.

When planning my presentation for this meeting, I decided to gather all the information I could find that would gauge how much work went into the event’s development, and the impact we made on both participants and the wider public. 
I worked out that I’d spent about 800 hours of my time on the project in total (the equivalent of 33.3 whole days!), while voluntary work from other individuals included 24 hours of graphic design work, 22 hours of acting and recruitment, and 6 hours of continuous work from the film crew who helped us capture the day (and many hours on top of this to edit the footage).

I had no way of measuring the substantial workloads taken on by individuals in the Cathedral Quarter team, which included help with the initial concept and ideas, marketing, admin, logistics, printing and organising meetings. But judging from the many hundreds of emails that passed between us all, I know it must have been significant – certainly when you’re running a business at the same time.

I also spent some time looking at the impact we made on social media.

In total, the main event page on Facebook reached 17,300 people with nearly 1,000 total views; while posts from the Cathedral Quarter Canterbury page on Facebook were received by 6,100 people (up 1000% from before the event), with 1,700 of these users engaging with the posted material (up 1800%). This led to an additional 40 people ‘liking’ the Cathedral Quarter Canterbury page, an increase of 900%.

On Twitter, the Cathedral Quarter account made 10,600 impressions since the event’s online launch, with 38 link clicks, 36 retweets and 66 likes in total.


Let’s now have a look at some of the feedback from participants on the day.

Edd Withers, local entrepreneur and founder of Canterbury Residents Group:

The Timekeeper's Return was enlightening, exciting and intriguing. The storyline delivered a fascinating experience, and the people we met along the way enchanted with clues and messages from the story. The method of using hidden QR codes to keep us on the hunt to continue the game was easy to use and a great use of the technology we all have in our pocket, and the simplicity of the process was welcome. When we arrived to start the game, we were given clear instructions but still felt like we were starting on a mysterious journey. A wonderful way to spend an afternoon, exploring and learning - we felt like children again with a sense of wonder!

Lisa Carlson, CEO of Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District:

The Timekeeper’s Return was a magical and remarkably successful event, with more than 200 people of all ages enjoying following Mia Augustina’s adventures through time and space. Burgate was buzzing on the day, with locals walking alongside visitors from other parts of Kent (and even other counties) to discover what the Cathedral Quarter has to offer. What struck me most as I completed the treasure hunt was how Jack Lowe’s enthralling story weaved past and present together so expertly. Blending local history with real-life connection to businesses in the Cathedral Quarter today, participants had the opportunity not only to learn about the often-overlooked stories and landmarks that make this historic quarter so unique, but also to visit a diverse range of shops and eateries, engaging with people there who are passionate about what they do. It was heartening to see how much shopkeepers really seemed to enjoy the experience, playing their roles enthusiastically and doing their utmost to accommodate participants, even when they were busy. This is also a testament to the depth of planning that must have taken place to ensure all the different components of the event ran smoothly. Altogether, The Timekeeper’s Return will live long in the memory for the way it has helped to develop and promote a coherent, exciting Cathedral Quarter community. It’s a wonderful example of what can be achieved when the enthusiasm, work ethic and creativity of local artists and businesspeople come together. I can’t wait to see what Jack Lowe and the Cathedral Quarter do next.

Comments from feedback sheets and The Timekeeper’s Return event page:

I thoroughly enjoyed The Timekeeper's Return. Not only was it fun to spend the afternoon doing something different, but it also gave us an opportunity to get to know the history of Canterbury better, thanks to the vivid storyline. We also spoke to people we never would have had conversations with otherwise, like the shop assistants and other people who were doing the treasure hunt. Really impressed and I hope there'll be another treasure hunt soon!

Firstly, congratulations on creating such a fun treasure hunt! We spotted it advertised on Facebook and it looked great, so we thought we'd join in and do some exploring! Loved the simplicity of interacting with the QR codes, which are a good size to hunt for – learned a little about the area and Bell Harry Tower which we didn't know either! Impressed with how all the shop staff were keen to join in and make the event entertaining too!

Thank you so much for a great afternoon! We all had fun following the clues. The story was good and kept the kids interested. We went into a part of Canterbury we don’t normally venture to and enjoyed going in the shops we haven’t been in before.

That was so much fun! Learnt so much about the area and saw things I'd never noticed in the 30 years I've lived in Canterbury. Thanks so much for organising such a fantastic event!

And a big thank you to all the businesses that were involved for being so gracious with us treasure hunters even though they were so busy.

Very fun time, exploring and learning about the town. Loved the sense of discovery when you finally figured out a clue. Mia was the bomb – very immersive and convincing acting.

A well-researched, organised and interesting experience. A wonderful way to experience this part of Canterbury.

Brilliant event, well done to everyone involved. The organisers, the local businesses and the roaming helpers (who were very much needed!) This kind of event is what makes our local area great. Bravo.

Thank you for a lovely afternoon exploring shops and learning history from Canterbury that we had no idea about! It was so immersive and such a joy to take part in, from the hosts to the fantastic staff in the shops we visited we were thrilled!! Thank you again!

We had such a great time doing this!! Thank you so much for organising it. So many lovely shops we'd never been in before despite living in Canterbury. I'm planning a Christmas shopping day to revisit without the kids very soon!!

We had a great time following Mia's adventures and finding out more about Canterbury. Thanks for a great afternoon activity. Looking forward to another one?!

Absolutely brilliant idea. Our 3 year old loved it. Hope you do another next year :)

Thanks for creating this treasure hunt, it was great fun, and nice to see so many local businesses participating. Will the whole story be available anywhere to read through (when we're not excitedly rushing from clue to clue!)?

My partner and I thoroughly enjoyed the timekeepers return event. It was fun for all ages (we are both 21) to do and we learnt a lot more about the city we live in. I think more activities like this need to happen to encourage people to appreciate this city. Thank you!

Thank you. Had so much fun. Was reminded of history I learnt a long time ago, and learnt some new things too! Looking forward to the next trail.

Alongside this positive feedback, perhaps the most heartening interactions I’ve had since the event are with those asking me how I found sources for research into Canterbury’s history, how this fits into my own plans for the future, whether I’d be making other events or games of this type, and what it takes to make this kind of work.

On this last point, over the past year I have frequently given informal advice to individuals about the different possibilities of location-based and AR media for a wide range of projects. This has often revolved around particular apps and technologies that might be useful and the kinds of knowledge and/or skills typically required, as well as the possibilities and challenges for storytelling in these contexts.

Professionally, my experience of creating The Timekeeper’s Return has even led to consultancy work on location-based and narrative games.

Prize draw

As well as receiving rewards on the day, everybody who completed the treasure hunt was entered into a prize draw to win a bunch of excellent prizes donated by local organisations.

I had the pleasure of handing out the prizes to the happy winners in person two weeks after the event, at a small prize-giving held in the heart of the Cathedral Quarter.

We were especially delighted to see the winners of the grand prize – tickets for four people to attend the Christmas Pantomime at the Marlowe Theatre – enjoying their evening out.

The bigger picture

Since last autumn, Simon Yule from the Canterbury Cathedral Shop has written this short report of the event for the Cathedral Quarter website, and I gave a presentation that featured The Timekeeper’s Return at the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum Midterm Conference in April, which discussed the opportunities and challenges of making digital narrative works as a researcher.

Looking forward, many of you will be aware that this is just the start of my ambitions when it comes to designing location-based narrative games.

The research upon which my practice-based PhD is based involves creating, testing and producing more participatory media arts of this type, and I’ll be sharing further details about the work I’ve been doing for this project soon.

If you’re interested in getting involved in any upcoming game tests or public events I decide to run, stay tuned here and on my social media, or get in touch using the details on my About page.

As for the Cathedral Quarter, I’m pleased to say that the area is as welcoming and enchanting as ever, and the businesses have built on our previous success by hosting more well-received events.

Although small businesses are facing a very difficult economic climate across the country at the moment, particularly in retail, Canterbury has remained remarkably stable in comparison.

No doubt a big part of this relative success is down to the hard work and positivity of independent businesspeople like those in Cathedral Quarter, who make Canterbury city centre so unique.

I’d like to thank everyone at the Cathedral Quarter once again for commissioning me and for the continued faith they showed in me to deliver this project. I look forward to seeing you all and hopefully working with you once again in the future.


The Timekeeper’s Return
Designed, written and directed by Jack Lowe

Website design
AM Marketing

Graphic design
Sam Lowe

Canterbury Christchurch University Outreach

Oscar Dymond
Paul Dymond
Wendy Dymond
Tim Fairhall
Julian Steward

Maria Cockburn
Jack Lowe

Canterbury City Council Print & Mail Centre
Omicron Reprographics

Participating businesses (in order of appearance)
Canterbury Cathedral Shop
Fitzgerald Jewellers
Canterbury Pottery
Antoine et Lili
Biggs Opticians
The Chinaman
Fired Earth
Moat Tea Rooms
Veg Box Café
Stilwell Jewellers

Rewards kindly provided by
Canterbury Cathedral Shop

Prize draw prizes kindly provided by
The Marlowe Theatre
Moat Tea Rooms
Canterbury Cathedral Shop
The Chinaman
Antoine et Lili
Canterbury Pottery

Special thanks
Maria Cockburn
Stefan Colley
Adam Ganz
Sandra Hadfield
Chris Needham
Mark Pegg


Dr. Mia Augustina
Oksana Savchenko

Rebecca Sampson

Elizabeth Waterman-Scrase


Alex Preston

Camera operators
Zdravko Zhelev
Jules Davison

Laura Bailey

Assistant producer
Lexi Budd

Digital imaging technician
Morgan Davies

The Timekeeper’s Return was created by Jack Lowe on behalf of

Canterbury Cathedral Quarter

© 2018 Jack Lowe

Sunday 22 December 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: The Big Day

Printing and cutting out QR code stickers in preparation for the event

I told myself that I’d get at least 7 hours of sleep before the big day, but who was I kidding?

Instead I spent several hours printing and cutting out about 10 sets of 18 QR code stickers (I needed spares), as well as over 200 stickers with the astrolabe design on, as rewards for those who completed the treasure hunt.

In the end I think I got between 3 and 4 hours of sleep. This obviously wasn’t ideal, but I knew adrenaline would carry me through the day.

On the morning of 20th October I got into town at 7.50am, and the first thing I did was walk around the Cathedral Quarter and stick up the QR code stickers while there were as few people around as possible.

It was a good job I printed spare stickers, as I managed to stick one up in the wrong location at one point! Thankfully I realised what I’d done straight away and was able to replace it with the correct sticker.

After these early morning exploits, I had a bit of time to get some breakfast at McDonald’s and take things easy before the real work began.

The first task was to meet and prepare the three paid actors who the Cathedral Quarter and I had employed for the day.

Arranged by a contact of ours in the Canterbury Christchurch University Outreach team, the actors were there to facilitate the running of the game and, like the participating businesses, help forge a link between the past and present Cathedral Quarter and reinforce the participants’ sense of immersion in the narrative. Dressed in plain clothes, yet acting the roles of characters in the story, they became part of the ‘secret society’ that players entered into as they explored this part of the city.

The actors were briefed by me in advance of the event, which gave them a back-story to their character, some suggested lines they could use in different circumstances (e.g. based on questions they were likely to be asked, or problems that could arise during the game), and some key adjectives to describe how they should portray themselves in front of the participants. Everything else was open to improvisation.

On the day, I gave them all a tour of the relevant parts of the Cathedral Quarter too, to make sure they were aware of where the key locations were, and what to expect in the different sites.

Our first actor played the character of Mia Augustina’s research assistant, Rose, who stood at the starting point for the treasure hunt at the compass in Longmarket Square. Her job was to introduce herself to those who had turned up to take part, present them with the opening QR code, and provide guidance on installing a QR code scanner, how to scan QR codes, how long the treasure hunt would roughly take to complete, and any other general information about the event.

Rose positioned at the compass in Longmarket Square, where the treasure hunt began

Then there was another assistant, Max, who was asked to float around Burgate and the Buttermarket where some of the early points of interest were. She was on hand to provide any guidance to participants who weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing, were lost, or were having problems with mobile internet coverage.

Finally, there was Mia Augustina herself, who was positioned at the end point of the treasure hunt. As well as letting the participants know that they had finished, she was responsible for giving out the small rewards earned by each participant who completed the game, taking down contact information for those who wanted to enter the larger prize draw, and making a record of how many people finished the trail in total.

Once the actors had been fully prepared, I had another group of people to meet. Thanks to the brilliant people in the Media Arts department at Royal Holloway, I managed to enlist the services of a small student film crew to capture footage of the event (at very short notice!), as well as interview me about the process of making The Timekeeper’s Return and the story behind its inception.

After making sure that all the actors and businesses were fully set for the event’s start at 10 am, the film crew and I went to Antoine et Lili, where we had been given space to shoot the interview. Having set up the camera equipment, they hooked me up with a microphone and asked me questions such as “how did the event come about?” and “why Canterbury?” to prompt the monologues that would provide narration for the film.

Knowing how difficult it is to edit films filled with broken speech and hesitations, I did my best to make sure that my responses flowed clearly and steadily. Thankfully, we therefore didn’t have to do too many takes.

After the interview, we also decided to record a segment of me talking about digital storytelling while walking through part of the Cathedral Quarter. This proved much more difficult than we imagined, however, as Burgate was so busy with people (and occasional cars!) that it was impossible to get a clear run. In the end we moved to the slightly quieter Butchery Lane, but it still look us four or five attempts to get passable footage. The cobbles were also a unique hindrance because of how difficult it is to walk steadily on them while carrying a camera.

The film crew on Burgate

After the filming with me was complete, the crew went off to capture the game in action and to get some B-roll footage of the Cathedral Quarter.

Meanwhile, I set about checking in on all the actors and participating businesses, to make sure that everything was working without a hitch. I also visited all of the QR code locations, to ensure that all the stickers were still in place and intact.

Most of my time during the hours of the event was spent like this – running around like a headless chicken in my directorial role, to make sure that everything was running as smoothly as possible.

The wonderful cake made by the staff at Lakeland for The Timekeeper's Return, complete with the astrolabe logo

Participants read one of the story passages after scanning a QR code 

I did find some time to pursue other opportunities that came up during the day, and give myself some much-needed breaks.

At one point I met with another local artist, who I had connected with online as a result of advertising The Timekeeper’s Return on a mailing list. Then, later in the afternoon, I shared lunch and caught up with friends who had purposely travelled to Canterbury – some travelling quite significant distances – to try out the game I’d created and to support me.

It was very touching, and part of what made the day such a special one for me when I look back. It helped me to recognise how I wasn’t just a designer or director who had been brought in to run an event, but a valued part of these wider communities of artists, friends and local businesspeople.

A participant put a sticker with the event's astrolabe logo on her smartphone!

A gathering of participants

Though I was rushing around a lot on the day, on the whole it was apparent that everything was going remarkably well. Every time I entered one of the participating businesses, they remarked at how busy they’d been with people taking part in The Timekeeper’s Return, and how Burgate was buzzing with activity. I could see that myself just by stepping outside onto the street.

But as with all ‘live’ events, particularly those in public spaces, there are always unexpected occurrences that need to be negotiated. When the event is six hours long on a busy Saturday, as The Timekeeper’s Return was, the chances of unforeseen incidents only increase.

Of the few issues that did occur, nearly all of them were fairly mundane and easy to resolve quickly. At one point, I was informed that one of the QR code stickers became impossible to scan. Luckily, the people who first detected the problem were still at the site when I arrived, so I was able to replace it there and then for them with a sticker which worked properly.

I had also been made aware at one stage that a couple of groups of participants had struggled to spot one QR code in particular, and actually managed to skip it and move directly to one of the later QR codes in the story.

My solution simply involved talking to the businesspeople who were responsible for directing the participants at this stage of the treasure hunt, asking them to give a slightly clearer indication of the area where the next QR code could be found.

Perhaps the most concerning incident of the day came about an hour or two before the event finished.

I walked around to where the final actor was positioned at the end of the treasure hunt, only to find that I couldn’t see her anywhere.

The bag in which she kept all the rewards and sheets with contact details was still propped up against the wall where she had been positioned, but the actor herself was nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, a group of street drinkers were playing music loudly from a nearby bench, to the bemusement of people passing by.

At first, I assumed that she might have just gone for a toilet break, and in the intervening time I filled in by taking on the persona of another one of Mia Augustina’s research assistants. For the couple of groups of participants I encountered, I congratulated them for finding all of the QR codes, explaining that Mia had already left to continue her research, but had left me with some gifts for those who had helped her return home.
However, after a little while someone from one of the nearby participating businesses found me to explain what had actually happened.

About ten minutes earlier, the street drinkers on the nearby bench had been swearing very loudly in front of the young children who were taking part. When my actor approached them and asked if they could tone down their language, they reacted very aggressively, threatening her and shouting directly in her face.
When I spoke to her she was understandably quite shaken up, so I explained to her that I’d be happy to take over her role for the remainder of the event. In the end, though, she decided that she wanted to continue, and just needed a bit of time to regain her composure.
Fortunately, when she returned to her role, the group of street drinkers had since moved on, and everything returned to normal.

Better than normal, in fact, as the numbers of players appearing before us only continued to rise. At one point, there must have been about 25 participants all gathered in the same place, having managed to reach that point of the treasure hunt at the same time.

A large group of participants gathers in the Cathedral Quarter

As the event drew towards a close, I saw a young girl walking the route of the treasure hunt with her dad. They still had a few more locations to visit before reaching the end, but the dad suggested to that they should leave early, as girl’s mum would be finishing work soon.

Clearly, this wasn’t what she wanted, and when the decision was finally made, she got upset and started crying.

Obviously I felt very sorry for her, though I couldn’t help but feel a flash of pride that the event and story I had designed had prompted that kind of emotional response. I had pitched the event as being accessible for all ages, but it’s always difficult to tell exactly how it will be received by different audiences. So it was especially rewarding to see younger participants getting so involved.

In the end, I approached them as they were leaving, and gave the daughter the rewards for finishing the treasure hunt anyway.

Once we were convinced that there were no more stragglers, the actors were free to leave, and I spent some time chatting with a couple of Cathedral Quarter businesspeople.

The overwhelming consensus was that the event had been a huge success, with over 200 people taking part and making the most of what the Cathedral Quarter’s built environment and independent businesses had to offer.

Beforehand, we were saying that we would be happy with half that number.

As the crowds dispersed, I said my goodbyes to those I knew who were visiting Canterbury for the event, and made my way around the Cathedral Quarter to remove the QR code stickers from their positions.

I then shared a celebratory drink with some of my local friends, and returned home completely worn out, but still glowing with an enormous swell of pride at what we’d achieved.

I think what strikes me most, looking back on the day of the event, are the very physical actions and materials that were necessary in order to make sure this ‘digital’ storytelling experience took place and ultimately was successful. From the posters and flyers that were printed in their hundreds, placed by hard-working volunteers on noticeboards, windows and other public displays across the Canterbury area, to the QR code stickers themselves and the surfaces to which they were stuck, the positioning and behaviour of the actors and participating businesspeople, and the smartphones through which the gameplay was largely mediated.

Furthermore, despite some unforeseen challenges on the day, overall we had some very good fortune. The weather remained stunning for the whole duration of the event; the technology stood up to the task (undoubtedly helped by the free WiFi offered by many of the Cathedral Quarter businesses); and the event was able to piggyback on the crowds drawn into the city centre for the opening day of the Canterbury Festival.

While we can certainly acknowledge these turns of fate, one factor that definitely cannot be overlooked is the commitment and hard work of those who offered their help to make The Timekeeper’s Return what we hoped it could be – the actors, businesspeople, testers, web and graphic designers, film crew, and everyone else involved in its production.

The Timekeeper’s Return aimed to foster a sense of community and shared heritage in the Cathedral Quarter, and it's lovely to be able to say that it is this combined effort of Canterbury people that comes to mind when I think back to this big, marvellous day.

The next and final post in the Making The Timekeeper’s Return series considers the feedback the event received, and its legacy.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: Marketing and Coverage

After the relevant changes had been made after testing, and the final QR code texts were ready to upload to the Cathedral Quarter website, the only thing left to do before the event was to continue promoting The Timekeeper's Return as far and wide as possible, with the limited time and budget we had.

Towards this end, I was fortunate to be able to get some invaluable advice from one of my former colleagues at Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District (Canterbury BID), who has worked very successfully in marketing for a number of years. She gave us very helpful tips on writing a press release, which I'd never done before, and how to approach media outlets with the story we wanted them to share.

Once we'd finalised what we wanted to say in our press release for The Timekeeper's Return, we sent it out to all the local news and events outlets we could think of.

As the big day drew closer, we managed to get the event featured in the Kentish Gazette newspaper, Muddy Stilettos (an online guide for local events and activities), the Visit Canterbury website, KentOnline’s What’s On page, promotional material for the Canterbury Festival, and communications to businesses and the public by Canterbury BID.

On social media, we reached out to local organisations and companies whose audiences we'd identified as overlapping with ours, including escape rooms, games societies, local history groups and family-oriented pages, some of whom agreed to share details of the event on their pages. This undoubtedly helped to snowball our engagement with our own target audiences.

Alongside local outlets, we used some of my academic connections to get the message out to people who I thought might find the event interesting conceptually, or who do research on this kind of media. This included promotion via the Royal Holloway social media pages for Geography and Media Arts, communications from research groups I’m involved in, and the Walking Artists Network email list.
You can see some of these features below:

Feature in the Kentish Gazette

KentOnline feature

Visit Canterbury feature

Muddy Stilettos feature

Social media was central to our strategy for reaching people who might want to participate. One of the advantages of using these platforms for promotional purposes is that you have the opportunity to tell stories that people interact can with, in a way that typical public notices don’t lend themselves to. 

In the process of doing research for the game, I came across so many small pieces of history about locations in the Cathedral Quarter that it would have been impossible to fit them all in. Furthermore, many of the locations or details themselves didn’t really fit into the larger story I wanted to tell, or I knew wouldn’t work well as points of interest in a treasure hunt.

So instead, after discussion with the Cathedral Quarter team, we decided to share these extra micro-histories in the week leading up to October 20th by creating a short ‘Cathedral Quarter Secret Facts’ series on the Facebook event page and the Cathedral Quarter’s social media pages.

Not only did this make people aware of the kinds of interesting facts they could discover by taking part in the event, but the content was thematically appropriate and primed those that saw the posts for the activity they would potentially be participating in – noticing details in their surroundings that might not be immediately obvious, and engaging with Canterbury’s historic past. 
Cathedral Quarter Secret Facts #1 on Facebook

Cathedral Quarter Secret Facts #2 on Facebook

Cathedral Quarter Secret Facts #3 on Twitter

Alongside the coverage in print and on social media, we produced hundreds of flyers and posters featuring my brother Sam’s superb graphic design for the project, which were displayed in local businesses, public amenities, and handed out at local schools. My sister Wendy was very adept at thinking of places that might accept them, and within a few days of the event there was barely a noticeboard or leaflet display in Canterbury that didn’t have our promotional materials for The Timekeeper’s Return.

A poster for The Timekeeper's Return on a Canterbury Festival bollard

The flyer reached noticeboards and leaflet displays all over Canterbury and beyond

This was further demonstrated when talking to members of the public on the day itself, who said that they’d seen the astrolabe iconography everywhere and had wondered what it was all about.

Thankfully, as one of the images above shows, we managed to find space on all of the Canterbury Festival bollards too. These are the four-sided stands plastered with event posters that appear in Canterbury’s busiest areas around the time of the festival, and are the one of the main ways that visitors to the city find out about what's going on.

Our hard work in marketing The Timekeeper’s Return certainly helped me feel hopeful in the days leading up to the event, but I couldn’t have predicted the turnout and reaction that we received on the day itself.

The next post in the Making the Timekeeper’s Return series recounts what happened on the day of the event.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: Testing


One year ago this autumn, I reached the culmination of an overwhelming three months of creative work and collaboration when I designed, wrote and directed The Timekeeper’s Return, a story-based immersive treasure hunt set in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter.

In this series of blog posts, I want to delve into the detail of how The Timekeeper’s Return was made, including an overview of how the event turned out on the day and the project’s legacy – for the participants, the Cathedral Quarter, and my own future as I continue to work in the area of location-based treasure-hunting games for my practice-based PhD.



The lead-up to the event was hectic and exciting.

In the month beforehand, I’d officially started the first year of my PhD at Royal Holloway, and had moved up to Egham where the main university campus is. So alongside finishing off the writing for the QR codes and promoting the event, I had to juggle induction events, first PhD supervisions, and settling into the place I’d be living for the rest of the academic year.

Inevitably, this meant that the writing took longer than it should’ve done, which reduced the time I had available to test the game itself.

Indeed, as it happened, I didn’t travel down from Royal Holloway to run a public testing session until Saturday 13th October – one week before the day of the actual event!

It obviously wasn’t my plan to leave testing so late. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from talking and working with game designers of any kind, it’s that it’s never too early to start testing, and the more testing you do, the more potential problems you’ll be able to find and address before your game launches for real.

But in this case, not only did the whole event have to be devised from scratch and iterated on in a short space of time (less than 3 months), but my other commitments pushed my deadlines back further than I would have ideally liked.  

Thankfully, my testers gave some very helpful feedback that pinpointed aspects of my writing and design that I could fine-tune in time for the big day.

One outcome of the testing that I didn’t anticipate was how much it would boost my confidence in what I’d made. It was the first time the story I’d written had ever been aired publicly, and I was worried that the testers would find some fundamental flaws in the plot.

As it happened, the testers said that they found my writing style engaging, and when I asked the testers to summarise the story in their own words, their responses showed good comprehension of what I’d written. They freely mentioned parts that they particularly liked, and were often keen to share interesting details about Canterbury’s history that they’d learnt during the course of the test.

Another unexpected discovery from the testing was learning how difficult certain QR code stickers would have been to find.

In one example, my testers particularly struggled with a QR code I’d stuck low down on a bollard by one of the points of interest featured in the story. I was originally worried that its position might be too obvious – after all, the landmark in question was well-known to me. But what I failed to take into account was that the details testers had to notice were located far from eye level, and also faced the opposite way to the direction they approached the site from.

Of course, there was a balance to be struck too, because the event was a treasure hunt. If every sticker was easy to find, it would defeat the object of encouraging players to pay close attention to their surroundings.

So in the small number of cases where changes were required, in the end these only needed to be slight movements in where the stickers were placed. For the bollard example, this simply meant raising the height of the QR code so that when people spotted the relevant details in their surroundings, they almost immediately then found the sticker.

Aside from these positioning concerns, the testers observed that some of the QR code texts were quite lengthy and could do with being more concise; that there were a few typos; and that the wording in some of these texts needed to be a little more precise to prevent disorientation, particularly when referring to buildings or objects from the past that are no longer visible today.

Thankfully, these were all things I could remedy satisfactorily before the actual event on the 20th.                                      

One persistent issue, however, was the appalling network coverage in the city centre – something Canterbury residents and businesses are acutely aware of and frustrated by on a daily basis. Of course, this definitely wasn’t something I could change in the space of a week before the actual event.

So instead, I worked my hardest to secure next best thing, which was to make free WiFi as available as possible.

I designed some basic posters using the event logo that offered free WiFi to ‘Mia Augustina’s research assistants’, and visited all of the businesses in the Cathedral Quarter that had accessible WiFi to tell them what would be happening (if they didn’t already know). I explained that it was in aid of the Cathedral Quarter, and how they could play a big part in ensuring the smooth running of The Timekeeper’s Return.

Free WiFi poster for Cathedral Quarter businesses

Thankfully, nearly all of the businesses I entered kindly agreed to display the posters, and to allow participants to access WiFi and WiFi passwords on the event day, free of charge.

It was another example of how the Cathedral Quarter community came together during my time working with them, and helped to address one of my biggest concerns in the lead-up to the event.

From this point, all that remained for us to do was to get the word out about The Timekeeper’s Return to as many members of the public as possible.

The next post in the Making the Timekeeper’s Return series examines our marketing of the event, and the coverage it received.

Monday 11 November 2019

Making The Timekeeper's Return: Research and Writing


One year ago this autumn, I reached the culmination of an overwhelming three months of creative work and collaboration when I designed, wrote and directed The Timekeeper’s Return, a story-based immersive treasure hunt set in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter.

In this series of blog posts, I want to delve into the detail of how The Timekeeper’s Return was made, including an overview of how the event turned out on the day and the project’s legacy – for the participants, the Cathedral Quarter, and my own future as I continue to work in the area of location-based treasure-hunting games for my practice-based PhD.


Research and Writing

In my September 2018 blog post, I described how I arrived at the overarching concept for The Timekeeper’s Return – a time-travelling historical researcher called Dr. Mia Augustina, whose time machine, the astrolabe, malfunctions and traps her in the past. I briefly talked about how this concept then informed the graphic design and organisation of the treasure hunt.

However, I’ve yet to describe my experiences of creating the story upon which the event was based, which involved undertaking research to uncover the most evocative details from the Cathedral Quarter’s history, and then writing about them in an engaging way.

I can split up the sources for my research roughly into three categories: online sources, the local history section of the public library, and individuals/businesses.

For my online research, aside from looking up odds and ends relating to the histories I’d already been working on, there were certain individual websites that I regularly turned to for historic information upon which I could base my writing.

One of the most useful websites was Machadoink, which is essentially an index of historic Canterbury.

One particular section of this site, called ‘Canterbury Streets’, allowed me to delve into the records of each building on every street contained within the Cathedral Quarter, including those that are no longer there. The pages for each street are populated with old news items, photographs, public records, and other curiosities that provided a wealth of information I could use to build a picture of interesting historic events or characters.

Another source of online inspiration was the excellent public Facebook page ‘Canterbury: Remembering it as it was’, where old photographs, stories and other historical records are regularly shared and discussed by local residents.

I was keen to ensure that my representations of the histories I’d studied were as accurate as possible, and this is typically where I turned to my old friend, the National Library of Scotland website, for its extensive collection of historic Ordnance Survey maps. These helped me to pinpoint the locations of particular buildings, landmarks and roads over 100 years ago, whose layout has changed considerably in the time since.

Ordnance Survey map published in 1907 showing part of central Canterbury, including the Cathedral Quarter

As for how I found resources at the local library, this involved simply browsing every book on the shelves in the Local History section and picking out those I thought would have the most information relevant to the Cathedral Quarter.

These mostly turned out to be accounts of the WW2 Baedeker raids, which devastated one half of the area, as well as reports from archaeological excavations in the areas around Burgate.

Map showing bomb sites in Canterbury from the 1942 Baedecker raids

Some of the most tantalising leads came from the individuals and businesses I consulted during the research stage, which I could follow up on and develop in my writing.

The Cathedral Quarter team and I sent around emails asking the local businesses to send me any information they knew or could find about the history of their premises, or anywhere else in the Cathedral Quarter area.

The responses ranged from quite detailed records to anecdotal rumours that had passed down between owners, which I could then explore further using other sources.

For example, one of the businesses had heard that their building featured as the home of one of the characters in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.

Given the significance of Charles Dickens in the literary history of Kent and the UK, I decided to investigate the rumour further online, and discovered even more connections between the author and sites in the Cathedral Quarter. As a result, this slice of Canterbury history became a recurring theme in the treasure hunt’s story.

From my research into Charles Dickens' connections with the Cathedral Quarter

Additionally, for the first time, I went on one of the official guided tours of Canterbury’s historic centre. This started at the Buttermarket and weaved its way through the Cathedral precincts, and then onto other parts of the city centre.

As well as containing some useful tidbits of information I could draw on in my own stories, I was struck by how effective the demonstrative qualities of the tour were. The guides are very adept at directing visitors’ attention to parts of their surroundings that illustrate the very history they’re describing, and I soon realised that my treasure hunt needed to do the same – to curate people’s journey through, and perspectives of, the built environment in such a way that brings the history of the area to life.

The clearest way this manifested in The Timekeeper’s Return was a QR code text in Butchery Lane that directed people’s gaze from one side of the street to the other, to demonstrate the impact that World War 2 had on this part of Canterbury. Despite looking very similar, one half of the street is lined with buildings that are centuries old, while the other half was all rebuilt after devastating bombing.

Once I’d gathered enough historic detail from my research to use in the treasure hunt, the next task was to incorporate this material within a series of short QR code texts that would be compelling to read and encourage the reader to explore further.

While it was not long before I had some initial rough drafts and outlines for some of the QR codes, the first text that I wrote in full – and the one that shaped my approach to the rest of the writing – was one that took an interesting piece of local history and made it relatable and moving on a personal level.

The information in question concerned the construction of the cathedral’s Bell Harry Tower – not only a key symbol of the Cathedral Quarter, but the iconic sight that has greeted pilgrims to Canterbury since 1498.

I’d managed to uncover some fantastic trivia about the intricate pulley system by which the building materials were raised, and how the structure is surprisingly mostly composed of bricks.

But in considering what emotional resonance the construction of the tower might have for my participants, I started to wonder what kind of toll this labour took on those involved at the time.          

I managed to find some academic texts that considered the life and livelihood of medieval masons, learning how they led a largely nomadic existence, spending very long spans of time away from their families, only to return for a short time before taking on their next round of employment.

Indeed, the master mason in charge of Bell Harry, John Westall, was not from Canterbury at all. Being renowned in his profession, demand for his services took him to Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex before Canterbury.

I found it quite moving to think of someone dedicating years of their life to a building that would define the future of Canterbury, and enduring all the hardships this work involved, despite not even being from the city.                                                             
Of course, there’s a limit to the amount of ‘life story’ you can convey in a few hundred words. But what I could do in the QR code text was light a little spark of awareness, from which participants might sympathise with the kinds of sacrifices that made the Cathedral Quarter what it is today.

From this first complete story onwards, the main objective of my writing was finding ways to transmit the emotional currents of the historic events I was recounting, within the narrative frame of a time-travelling researcher. The story wasn’t supposed to be a history lesson, but an invitation to connect with the timelines of the Cathedral Quarter on a personal level.

Now, let’s talk about the actual act of writing.

My relationship with writing is very much love-hate.

The times when I can look back on my work and be happy with how it reads are wonderfully satisfying.

But equally I tend to find the process torturous. My pet hate is not being able to conjure up the right words to precisely express what I want to say.

Instead of doing what is always recommended to writers – just getting what you want to say on paper and then editing it later – I tend to leave huge gaps in the middle of sentences and paragraphs where I haven’t yet found the appropriate terms to use. This means that writing for me tends to be a gradual process of ‘filling in the gaps’.

If you have lots of rough but finished drafts of a piece, a least you have something ‘complete’, even if it needs adjustments.

The problem with my method is that nothing is ever complete until it’s basically as good as it’s going to get.

This undoubtedly lengthened the time it took for me to finish all of the QR code texts, and for them to be uploaded to the Cathedral Quarter website. I was very grateful for the patience of the Cathedral Quarter team and the website designers as I toiled tirelessly on getting the writing to the best standard I could before the event.               

Perfectionism isn’t my only writing foible. Anyone who knows me well will know that I really struggle to write concisely.

The problem isn’t that I ‘pad out’ my writing with pointless information. Anyone who proofreads my work finds it difficult to recommend which bits of my writing to cut.

Rather, the problem is that everything I include seems relevant and useful, which makes the process of culling even harder.                      

For a project like this, though, there was no room for leeway. The aim wasn’t to have people standing around for ages reading text on their phones, but instead to get them looking around and noticing things in their surroundings; discovering people and places that they didn’t know about before.

Ultimately, this meant that I had to limit my ambitions for the narrative. There simply wasn’t space to include several interweaving subplots and intricate details, which might work well in something like a novel, where the reader is expecting to take their time delving into the text, but not for this kind of outdoor, interactive narrative experience.

I suppose what I realised was that the depth of intrigue and immersion that I wanted to inspire during the event had to come predominantly from the player’s physical surroundings, rather than just my words.

One technique I did use to make my writing more digestible is to make sure that my paragraphs were always only one or two sentences long. This is something I’ve learnt from blogging, where I’ve found that readers are more willing to keep scrolling when the text is broken into smaller chunks. It also tends to mean that individual sentences can have more impact and convey dramatic tension more readily.

I also borrowed an interesting method from scriptwriting for TV series. That summer of 2018, I re-watched the entire first series of the modern Doctor Who (my absolute favourite), and started looking into the process through which Russell T Davies and his writing team managed to make each episode so affecting, while having a clear purpose in the wider arc of the series.

I learnt that for each episode they assigned a word that encompassed the ‘tone’ they wanted the episode to have, which was always reflected clearest in its denouement – the part of the story that determines the emotional residue the audience is left with.

By keeping a clear emotional signature in focus as I wrote each QR code text, and reinforcing this in its denouement when Mia expressed her thoughts as she departed to the next point in time, I was able to carefully direct the emotional undercurrents of the story, despite the shortage of words available for me to use.

In the end, though, I would say that I just about reached the upper limit on what was acceptable in terms of length. Even though this required some very difficult decisions in terms of sentences and paragraphs that needed to be culled, any longer and some participants might have found it all too much to get their heads around.

As it turned out, the length of the final texts turned out to be enough to include a significant amount of historic and narrative detail without compromising their engagement in the activity.                                         

The last thing I want to talk about here is the music that so effectively kept me inspired and focused throughout the writing process.

Nowadays I often find that my work flows best when I listen to orchestral or neo-classical music, from artists such as Olafur Arnalds, Zoe Keating and Message to Bears.

While writing the story for The Timekeeper’s Return, I’d been watching a wonderful anime called Violet Evergarden. It’s a stunning series that beautifully explores what it means to feel emotions and communicate them after traumatic pasts or during challenging circumstances, and part of what makes it so special is its orchestral score.

I found a YouTube video with the full soundtrack and listened to it pretty much on repeat for the duration of September and October 2018. By the end of September I was so infatuated with it that I actually ordered the CD of the soundtrack directly from Japan, so those involved in creating it would receive as much of my money as possible.

I think that the reason this music resonated so deeply with my practice was the result of my aim to capture the emotional half-life of the historic events I was describing. When I was listening to the soundtrack, there would be these uncanny moments of attunement between the nuances of the music and the feelings I was attempting to evoke in the QR code texts.

So as well as helping me to zone-in on the task (when I didn’t just sit there and appreciate it), I’m convinced that this music subconsciously shaped my writing style.                

You can listen to the full soundtrack here. All of it is genuinely wonderful and I would love to highlight so many of the tracks; but if you could only listen to one, I’d say it would have to be ‘Across the Violet Sky’. It’s simply awe-inspiring.

So, after several challenging weeks of writing and 7388 words later, the QR code texts were complete and ready to be uploaded.

But the real test of the story I had devised, and the treasure hunt as a whole, would be in the playing.

The next post in the Making the Timekeeper’s Return series reflects on the process of testing the treasure hunt.