Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Making The Gates to Dreamland: (Dis-)locating a Story

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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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With most location-based media, we are used to experiencing content that directly relates to the place we’re in. This is one of the unique qualities of these media – that you can draw on the characteristics of a precise location to tell stories, provoke play, educate, inform and entertain people in an intimate, ‘immersive’ way.

But we can think about these affordances in a different way. Creating an engaging piece of location-based media isn’t just about referring to things you can sense in your surroundings, but the content being enhanced by them in some way.

I asked myself: how can the telling of Galileo’s story be brought to life through the environments of 21st-century Margate?

In answering this question, the key example I turned to for inspiration was a video game called Dear Esther.

In Dear Esther, you navigate the bleak, rugged landscape of a Hebridean island, listening to a man reading letters to his deceased wife, Esther. While some of what you hear seems connected to details found on the island, many of the events described by the unreliable narrator evidently happened elsewhere. Locations such as Wolverhampton, Damascus and the M5 between Exeter and Bristol are named, as well as a host of characters and incidents detached from what you can see and hear in your environment.

Example of dis-locative narration in Dear Esther

It becomes apparent that the island’s landscapes may be as imaginary as they are real; taking on figurative – symbolic and metaphorical – roles in the player’s journey through a story of grief, loss and redemption.

Symbolic landscapes in Dear Esther

With this form of storytelling, it matters less whether you find all the possible connections between your surroundings and the overarching story. What’s most important is that when you do make a connection, your relationship with the storyworld becomes that much more intimate because you’ve made the connection yourself.

The role of a narrator isn’t to guide you but to offer narrative prompts that invite you to uncover this emotional resonance in your surroundings.

I wondered whether Dear Esther’s figurative approach might be similarly effective in a location-based narrative – as a way of connecting distant places and times through symbolism and metaphor, while ensuring that the experience was still embedded in the player’s navigation of their physical surroundings.

It struck me that this approach would be a thematic fit for Dreamland, as a place which pulls on the imagination in both name and practice, despite currently being inaccessible.

But what connection could I draw between Dreamland and the actual events of Galileo’s life?

The answer, appropriately, came in thinking about Galileo’s deteriorating sight. I started to conceptualise his growing blindness as a transition from seeing things literally to only being able to picture them in the mind – a journey towards entering his own ‘Dreamland’.

Coupled with his struggle to overcome the significant personal challenges that writing Two New Sciences presented, this period of Galileo’s life appeared to connect with the notion of ‘dreams’ in more ways than one.

The next challenge would be to determine the specific locations around Dreamland that would feature in my work.

The webapp we used to host and map the projects in A Different LENS, CGeoMap, gave some basic location specifications to work with. I knew that each point had to be at least 40 metres apart. I also knew that I could make certain points invisible on the map until the user reaches the relevant location.

To be sure I’d finish making the audiowalk in time for the project launch, I also knew I wanted to keep the number of points to a maximum of 5 or 6; focusing on making these entries as evocative as possible. Given that my story would be reflecting a series of events in Galileo’s life, it made sense for the points to be linear in their organisation.

The Gates to Dreamland points on the A Different LENS map

After that, the decision on locations was purely a creative one, aside from the usual caveats of the sites being publicly accessible and the walk not being too long.

In thinking about the inaccessibility of Dreamland at the time and the circumstances surrounding Galileo’s house arrest, I was particularly drawn to gates as symbolising some kind of passage or journey, while denying that passage at the same time. They are physical obstacles, yet provoke you to imagine what is beyond them; liminal spaces between here and there, inside and outside, near and far.

Dreamland has two main entrances for visitors: from the car park and from Hall by the Sea Road.

However, a quick search on Google Streetview revealed a few smaller gates dotted around the perimeter of the park. Including the two main entrances, these entrances are labelled as Gates A to E. Conveniently, they are also quite evenly spaced and all separated by gaps of more than 40 metres.

Dreamland's Gate A on Google Streetview

Running with the idea of these five gates being the points for my audiowalk, I then attempted to decipher connections between what could be found at these sites and the events in Galileo’s life during the writing of Two New Sciences.

I created a design document that charted the arc of Galileo’s story, from returning to Florence under house arrest, to the publishing of Two New Sciences. This was divided into five key story beats, which later became six.

In the same document, I then listed all the physical features I could identify at each of Dreamland’s gates and along the routes between them. Due to the pandemic restrictions, I was unable to visit the sites in person, so I relied on close observation of Google Streetview images.

Finally, I attempted to find connections between the beats of Galileo’s story and the physical characteristics I’d noted for each of the sites.

The key to this task was to identify the emotional resonance of the events in Galileo’s life that I’d pinpointed. Once I’d done that, I could think about which details at each site might chime with this ambiance in ways that were compelling and reflective of the wider themes I wanted to explore.

I go into this process in more detail in this series’ next blog post, where I’ll be discussing the process of creating the script for The Gates to Dreamland.

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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.


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