lit festival september 15

Wakefield Literature Festival: Uncovering Digital Fiction

We were really pleased to be part of this year’s Wakefield Literature Festival hosted by BEAM. The festival now in its fourth year, has grown significantly into a vibrant 10 day programme with a diverse range of literature based events, talks and masterclasses.

Our talk Uncovering Digital Fiction was a great opportunity to share our latest game like narrative project WALLPAPER with a mixed and very interested audience. WALLPAPER tells the story of a man whose elderly, widowed mother has recently died, and he returns to the remote and historic family home to sell the property. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the man has an additional agenda: to discover the secret history behind a room he was never allowed to enter as a child, and which has remained locked until now.

Postcard for Wakefield Literature Festival

It’s been 16 years since One to One Development Trust’s Dreaming Methods project started developing stories, often interactive, with a range of digital media, and always highly atmospheric. Many of our audience had never seen ‘literature’ presented like this and we told the story of our own evolution into this creative practice.

As well as the history of our own work including Inside, Joyride, Clearance and Nightingale’s Playground, and on-going collaborations like Pluto and Inanimate Alice, we talked about several projects that really show how this genre is progressing as an art form in its own right; our examples included PRY by Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman, and Sunset by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn.

It was exciting to share the creative process of WALLPAPER with our audience, from its inception as an idea, through to how we secured funding from the Arts Council and its significance as part of a research project, Reading Digital Fiction, with Sheffield Hallam University and Bangor University. Our talk included what inspired WALLPAPER and the story behind the story. The presentation was a vibrant mix of screen shots and video clips documenting the making of the project, giving an insight into the technology, development process, characters and storyline.


Teaser for WALLPAPER, shown at the event

As the creators/authors/producers of WALLPAPER it was a good opportunity to reflect on our own creative journey, the decision to create a digital narrative for a bespoke gallery installation and a digital interactive space, not just confining it to the usual multi-platform options.

The feedback from our audience was encouraging and exciting, many keen to see the project in its installation as well as on computers and devices.

WALLPAPER opens at Bank Street Arts Sheffield on November 12th.
Find out more here

Feedback:

“Very interesting and inspiring, would like to use this in school.”
“Wallpaper – what a fantastic premise for a story! Can’t wait for the launch at Bank Street.”
“A way of thinking about literature that I had never considered.”
“Brilliant explanation of digital fiction, I’m so excited. I want a go!”
“Wonderfully presented, something especially difficult for many creatives.”
“Mega-interesting.”
“Wallpaper has stretched my mind.”
“Very interesting concept. Like the use of the amorphous use of the written word. Scenes are very atmospheric.”
“So layered and exciting.”
“Really enjoyed the presentation. Can’t wait to see it in Sheffield, very interesting!”

Teaser Footage!

Here’s our very first draft teaser sequence for WALLPAPER showing in-project footage (still under development), best viewed in low light with volume up loud. :)

wallpaper

Visual Programming

WALLPAPER has been created using what’s known as visual programming. Actually, that’s a lie: we’ve had to write several lines of code to connect things up between the reader/player and the interactive parts of the game world. :) But that’s it. Hand-coding (typing in reams of commands) has been completely avoided.

We’re putting WALLPAPER together in Unity 5, a popular cross-platform game engine, the personal edition of which can be downloaded for free. Unity itself doesn’t come with visual programming built in – but there are many powerful tools available as extensions for Unity that enable this.

So what is visual programming (or visual scripting) anyway?

Basically, it’s coding through a visual interface instead of through text. Scratch is probably the most popular example. For WALLPAPER, we’re using Playmaker, which is so powerful and fast that even many seasoned programmers use it to make rapid prototypes and speed up their workflow. (If you’re a coder yourself of course you can build your own actions, or tinker around modifying existing ones – a great way to actually learn code).

Encouragingly, Playmaker has helped to power several accomplished narrative games, including Sunset by Tale of Tales (who posted a great insight into their use of Playmaker here) and a PC Unity port version of Dear Esther by the Chinese Room.

Visual programming isn’t the answer to everything of course. It has its rules and limitations and knowledge of programming methods and concepts is still utterly required if it’s going to make any proper sense, especially if you want to build something complex (like we do). But the way in which commands and logic can be woven together into visual ‘states’ – certainly for us – makes creating ambitious digital stories not only possible, but enjoyable and intuitive.

If you’re interested in finding out more, come along to Uncovering Digital Fiction on September 23rd, 6-7pm, as part of Wakefield Literature Festival, where we’ll be showing hands-on how WALLPAPER was put together.

We’re also doing an artists talk about WALLPAPER on Thursday 19th November, 5.30pm-7.30pm at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield.

teddy

The Reverse Script

WALLPAPER has been created, for the most part, without a script. We’ve used a shared Dropbox folder to build up snippets of text and resources (fiction, notes, ideas, letters, scans, photographs, video, audio, 3D objects, etc), but the final text being used in the work exists at the moment only inside the work itself. Which means at the end of the day when the project is complete, if we want to produce any kind of “text only” script, we’ll have to reverse-engineer the writing out of the project and paste it into a document.

Like many other works of digital fiction, WALLPAPER doesn’t always show exactly the same text on screen per reading/game play session. How this manifests in terms of text depends on various factors: how far into the story are we? Is the reader/player very active or being purposely annoying or lazy? What elements of the narrative have been uncovered so far? 

Because a large proportion of the work is free to “roam around” computer game-style through PJ’s first person perspective, the narrative is as sprawling and fragmented as the graphics and sound effects, and subject to occasional hints of randomisation. An extracted, “text only” script might be very difficult to follow.

WALLPAPER looks rather different in the Unity editor window

WALLPAPER looks rather different in the Unity editor window

Due to working within the philosophy of experimenting with narrative as something that is created ‘live’ within a project – responding to and influencing the media that works alongside it – the textual element of WALLPAPER will not be properly finalised until the project is published as a whole. Although we’ve explored this methodology before in previous Dreaming Methods works, particularly Joyride (2004), The Flat (2006), Dim O’Gauble (2007) and Clearance (2007), we’ve never quite pushed it to this degree.

lighting

The Digital Canvas

So far July has seen some fantastic progress on WALLPAPER. We’ve been working incredibly hard on graphics, atmosphere and lighting, and we’ve had our first sneak preview of the fabulous audioscape/soundtrack being created for the work by Barry Snaith. Exciting stuff.

Over the many years we’ve been making digital fiction, we’ve generally found ourselves constructing what we call ‘digital canvases’ onto (and into) which we write; WALLPAPER is no exception. Although we’ve been creating many short bursts of narrative texts and jottings (not particularly linearly) on both paper and screen, as well as sourcing images, textures, sounds and 3D objects, WALLPAPER’s story and the way it’s being told is evolving and transforming along with its gameworld.

Working in this way is both fascinating and freeing; a move away from the constraints of a script. In that sense, the writing and development process feels more like a “live performance” than a studious endeavor, with new possibilities discovered through discussion, spontaneous editing and on-screen experimentation (an approach we’ve explored before in our previous work, Inside, ClearanceJoyride and Nightingale’s Playground). It’s not without its problems – the work itself becomes the definitive draft or version, and the more complex it gets, the harder it is to keep it all structurally in balance. There is however something exciting about “uncovering” the narrative environment and infusing that intrigue and surprise impulsively into the story’s characters.

Watch this space for a video trailer/walk-through, plus some insights into how we’re handling the narrative programming and interactivity. Coming shortly. :)

lighting-2

The use of text in WALLPAPER’s gameworld

In our last collaborative work, Nightingale’s Playground, which is comprised of four very different parts, we experimented with text in a three dimensional environment, allowing paragraphs from the story to ‘hang in the air’ and sentences to curl and weave like cobwebs around a claustrophobic house interior. We’ve always been keen to return to this idea – but to push it much further; WALLPAPER will allow us do exactly that, although the story behind WALLPAPER is very different to that of Nightingale’s.

WALLPAPER sees the main character PJ Sanders return to his family home following the death of his elderly mother. The reader/player takes the role of PJ as he arrives at the remote property, unfastens the boot of his hire car, pulls out a mysterious red briefcase, and heads into the house. His agenda is to close the place down and sell it – but he also has another task to do, involving the investigation of a locked room that he was never allowed to enter as a child.

Like wallpaper itself, this is a multi-layered work in terms of both media and narrative. PJ’s childhood memories and family history return to him in a medley of thoughts as he explores the house, examining furniture and objects draped in evocative personal recollection. Although parts of the story are told through very clear, almost subtitle-like paragraphs of two dimensional text, a large amount of it is as truly three-dimensional as any of the other elements of the WALLPAPER world.

As PJ moves through the house, we’re looking at developing ways in which the text can fade into existence, often with accompanying spoken word audio (whispers, echoes) before fading away again. Some of this text is presented as hand-written, circular, rotating and/or increasing in size with gentle motion. The results so far are fascinating and rather dream-like. The narrative is, in places, difficult or impossible to read in its entirety, but rather offers ‘glimpses’ of PJ’s thoughts and recollections.

As Edward Picot notes in his review of Nightingale’s Playground on Furtherfield’s website, Dreaming Methods has ‘always been at pains not to place text in front of images, or beneath them or to one side, like labels on tanks at the zoo or explanatory plaques next to pictures in a gallery… we have to explore to read. This avoids the danger of us regarding the texts as more important than the images. It pulls us in, and it makes [the] work inherently immersive and interactive.” 

wallpaper_title

A new work of digital fiction

WALLPAPER is a new work by Dreaming Methods at One to One Development Trust funded by the Arts Council England and Sheffield Hallam University‘s Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), with support from Bank Street Arts and Bangor University. It has been written and developed by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston, whose previous digital fiction collaborations have included Inside – A Journal of Dreams (2000), Joyride (2003), Clearance (2007) and Nightingale’s Playground (2010). For WALLPAPER Campbell and Alston also collaborated with music producer/sound artist Barry Snaith.

This blog has documented ‘snapshots’ of the writing and artistic development process. WALLPAPER is currently being exhibited at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, UK until 5th December.

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