I have spent a lot of this year thinking about what would happen if I died. I haven’t been doing this in a cafe, staring pensively at my reflection as I drink tepid, tear-tinctured tea. I’ve been doing it at my desk, on company time. I have been doing it in front of white-boards, in brainstorms. I have written Basecamp notes on the conclusions I’ve reached.
Here’s why. In a few days, Carol Morley’s extraordinary documentary, Dreams Of A Life, is released in cinemas. You might have been lucky enough to catch its debut at the London Film Festival or seen the admiring reviews that followed. You may have found your way to Carol’s haunted and haunting piece on the event that it explores in the Guardian. It’s a film which tries to unfold the life that lay behind a single, terrible discovery: the skeletal remains of a 38-year old woman in a flat in Wood Green in 2006. She had been dead for nearly three years, but was found only when the bailiffs broke in to evict her. The television was still on.
You’ll notice that I didn’t link to the film – there are links to all of the above, at the bottom of this post, but I wanted to give you a chance to click on them out of choice, rather than reflex.
Film4, who co-produced and co-financed the film, commissioned us to deliver a digital experience to support it: the hope was that we could create something which sat meaningfully alongside the film, but that could be approached either before or after seeing it, and stand on its own. So – you may want to start with the film, or with Carol’s essay, or with the digital thing we made. It’s entirely up to you, although the release dates – 1st December for the interactive piece and 16th for the film – may sway you.
You’ll also notice I called it a ‘thing’. That isn’t an accident. Our assumption, what with us being a game studio and all, is that we’d make a game. We didn’t. We made a something else. I’ll post more about that later this week.
But before we realised we weren’t making a game, we spent a lot of time thinking about what a game drawn from Joyce’s story might be. Working for Hide&Seek – indeed attending any H&S events – you’re pretty intimately aware of games’ power to make you Do Things. At Sandpit and Weekenders, it’s usually silly things, but still things that are substantially outside your comfort zone. What things might we want this game to make people do?
This isn’t a question that other mediums encounter in quite the same way. Films and books and poems can be inspiring, but they have no way of knowing whether or not you’ve acted on that inspiration. But the very most fundamental element of interactive things is that there *is* a return path. The experience can ask you to do something and refuse to continue until you do it – or at least until you claim to have done it. That’s a powerful tool to wield.
And Joyce’s story feels primed with calls to action. I’m yet to meet anyone who isn’t shaken by her story, who doesn’t lapse almost immediately on hearing into some kind of internal inventory-taking. But it very quickly became apparent that we had no business pulling on the levers that Joyce’s story offers. We invented and then dismissed missions that asked you to pick up the phone and call a family member. What if you have extremely good reasons for being estranged from your family? We thought about clever things we could do by scraping social data from your Facebook account, and then dismissed those, too – Facebook is a very one-dimensional slice of you social life, for a start, and then what meaningful conclusions can we draw from any kind of analysis of that slice?
My hope of finding some kind of universally acceptable bedrock that we could aim for was finally scuppered by a conversation I was had with a working mother of two young children. I was maudlin, thinking about how long I might have lain dead for, especially during my itinerant freelancer years. ‘Three weeks.’ I said, lugubriously. ‘I think I might have lain there for three weeks before anyone missed me.’ And she looked at me with naked envy. ‘Three weeks? Lying down with no-one bothering you? Count me in.’
And so that very explicit benefit of interactive started to become a burden, not an opportunity. We became increasingly wary of designing missions which passed mechanistic judgement on who you were in touch with, or how often, or by what means. And we found that missions where we stripped out that specificity became so wishy-washy as to have no real hook.
And that was before we discovered that missions of any type were fundamentally inappropriate. Next post I’ll explain why, and talk about labyrinths and catechisms, which both turn out to have more to do with game design than you might think.
In the meantime, if you like, you can read Carol’s essay about Joyce, or a review of the film, or watch a trailer, or book for a screening, or play the thing we made. We’d love to hear what you think.