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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.

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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.

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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. :)

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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.” 

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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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