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.
My last blog post on The Timekeeper’s Return was back in September last year, when I discussed how the project came about, the creative ideas and themes that shaped the event, and what people who were taking part could expect.
In this longer 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.
First of all, it’s important to recognise that The Timekeeper’s Return was not just a personal creative endeavour. The whole project was conceived in aid of Canterbury Cathedral Quarter, a newly-established re-branding of Burgate and the streets that branch off it – Sun St., Mercery Lane, Butchery Lane and Canterbury Lane – led by the independent businesses operating in the area.
As well as commissioning me to devise and produce the project, they played an important part in the creative process. The idea of running a treasure hunt in the area had already been discussed before I was officially on board; and throughout the three months of developing the event, I shared numerous meetings with members of the Cathedral Quarter to discuss my ideas and to delegate different tasks to those who had volunteered to help.
As you might expect, working with this group of businesses brought both opportunities as well as challenges. Looking back, though, I’ve come to realise that effectively all the factors I thought were limitations actually turned out to be very productive for the project.
Indeed, one of the most cogent lessons I’ve learnt from my time spent with game designers, particularly indie developers, is that constraints often provide the springboard you need to be creative. And when you can fulfil your aims in spite of these constraints, it makes the project even more rewarding.
The most relevant example that comes to mind is the request by the Cathedral Quarter businesses to see participants actually enter their businesses as part of the event, rather than just engaging with the area on a surface level.
My original conception of the treasure hunt was that the gameplay would progress simply by players finding QR codes hidden outside on the interesting and historic material surfaces of the area, with the text of each scanned QR code containing the clues they needed to find the next one.
But when I met with the business owners to discuss my ideas, it was apparent that they were particularly keen to actually get people through their doors to discover why what they offer is different and special, and therefore worth knowing about.
Clearly this was an understandable request, as part of the remit for hosting this event included there being some tangible and material benefit for the Cathedral Quarter businesses. But for a fair bit of time I struggled to imagine how I could accommodate this in my design.
In the end, I managed to turn this situation to my advantage by using the action of entering local businesses to make the overarching story more immersive.
As well as studying the Cathedral Quarter in her historical research, I decided that my main character, Dr. Mia Augustina, would now become a Canterbury local who regularly visited the businesses involved in the event, and only shared the knowledge of places she was travelling to with her trustworthy friends in the Cathedral Quarter.
In practice, this revolved around the clues that led participants to the next QR code. In her research diary entries - the texts brought up when scanning the QR codes - Mia directed readers cryptically towards the relevant businesses. But only by entering the businesses and speaking to their staff could participants get the information they needed to progress, and help Mia return to the present.
As well as forging positive relationships between the staff and the participants, this fictional premise drew very effectively on the notion of participants being co-conspirators in a web of secrets that regular passersby weren’t aware of. In any kind of treasure hunting game, creating the impression that participants are part of a ‘secret society’ is always an effective method of turning the activity from a box-ticking, objective-completion exercise into one that is empowering and exciting. In this case, the society they were becoming part of, perhaps without realising at the time, was the Cathedral Quarter community.
By engaging both with the historic fabric of stories intertwined within the present landscape, and the living inhabitants of the Cathedral Quarter today, what resulted was a story that weaved together past and present in a much more powerful way than if the event were just a history lesson told through the medium of a treasure hunt.
It’s a particular point of pride for me that I managed to overcome this challenge in a way that benefitted the final outcome. I was worried that people expecting a standard treasure hunt format might be put off by having to actually talk to people!
Yet the feedback from both the testers and final players clearly indicated that talking to independent businesspeople, who were so passionate about what they do, was one of their favourite parts of the experience.
"Was great and the shops that took part were amazing!! Even though they were busy, they took the time out to take part!!"
"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!"
"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!!"
"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."
Though the success of this aspect of the event surpassed my expectations, perhaps I should’ve known this would be the case. After all, talking to people and making them feel welcome is an essential part of being a successful small retailer.
So there's a lesson here about the importance of being aware and making the most of the strengths of those you collaborate with. But even so, all the staff did a fantastic job in being so accommodating, despite often being extremely busy during peak trading hours on a Saturday.
I’m also very grateful for the extra labour and effort taken on by particularly hard-working members of the Cathedral Quarter team, without which the event would not have been so successful. This work included the hosting of the QR code texts on the Cathedral Quarter website (and their patience as I slaved over making the writing as compelling as I could), their huge efforts in marketing the event (including covering the costs of things like adverts and printing), and their continued dialogue with me during the production of the event and afterwards.
Overall, it was a wonderful partnership that brought out the best in both parties, and stood us in good stead for our respective future ambitions – the Cathedral Quarter as a thriving local community of independent businesses, and mine as a location-based game designer.
The next post in the Making the Timekeeper's Return series focuses on the processes of research and writing.