Wednesday 12 April 2023

Upcoming Public Appearances in Bristol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 3 April 2023

Interment: making a prize-winning game in 48 hours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will take most people about 30 minutes to complete.

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