This is the second of five posts about the #artctrl project. If you’ve just landed here I recommend you read Part 1 first.
This post is essentially a retrospective development diary for the 11-12 months leading up to #arctrl. Most of the points I have discussed in the first post are reflected in this development period, although the “what doesn’t kill me…” point is especially relevant here; however I would finish that aphorism: “… makes me or the project stronger.”
The You Are Here (YAH) festival had just finished, as had the second round of producing Mall Stories; an audio story tour of Canberra’s CBD. This time I’d added more opportunities for interaction and I was thinking of ways to involve game events in my practice more generally; as well a series of other crazy projects that included a live interactive theatre tribute to Boomerang Software.
I attended CYTC’s 35° 17 South show. I marveled at the inventiveness of this production, and that it was happening right here in Caberra. I had been blown away by their earlier show based around Kubla Khan – but this was on a much grander scale; particularly the involvement of AIE enabled some very ambitious use of technology. Director Karla Conway kindly sat down with me for an hour to discuss the show and from this I got the idea of a digital book that enabled you to encounter mysteries and strange stories – particularly with philosophical overtones – around Canberra. #artctrl went in a different direction, but this idea is still kicking around in my head.
At some point a great connection happened: I’d been brainstorming ways I could explore new territory with YAH, and I realised this could be via an interactive narrative experience, and maybe it could involve time as well as geography. I met with Nick Delatovic and Vanessa Wright and pitched the idea. They had already been thinking of doing a scavenger hunt-like event and were very encouraging about the project. This meeting spawned a lot of the things that ended up framing the project; particularly the core themes that mirrored the evolvement of YAH: of something purposefully designed with rules that both bounded but enabled the creative chaos swirling about it. And the obvious next step: to approach Boho Interactive.
I met with Jack and Michael on my birthday. I’d like to say it was a dark and stormy night but it was day and I have clips in my head from the screening of The Neverending Story I went to afterwards (I only mention this because that story has got to have influenced this one – at least more than the soundtrack that kept showing up in my playlists). The guys were very excited about the proposal and they came up with various crafty ideas on the spot for subtly inserting iconography into events prior to the festival. I actually held on to this plan to conceal the connection between the project and YAH for as long as I could before it stopped making sense. I think it would have been obviously great to do this gradual ramp up – had we had the kind of scope, timeline and budget as something like Zed.To.
I worked simultaneously on the project outline, script, ArtsACT grant outline and a UX subject for uni (turns out this was actually pretty relevant and useful to this project). The grant application quickly eclipsed the rest and nearly ruined a family trip to Brisbane. Nevertheless, by the end of the month I had a very good application and budget, the start of the game bible and the design team: Jack and Michael, Joel Barcham, Alison McGregor, Rik Lagarto, Adam Thomas and Chris Brain. Most of the actors were also onboard: Nick Byrne (Mr B), Alison (Mac), Joel (The Scribe) and Cameron Thomas (T-Bone). I’d also got agreement for The ACT Writers Centre to auspice the grant.
Once the grant was in I returned to the script and the design team met to plan some preliminary puzzles and interactions. At this point, with a large team of very busy people and no real physical meeting space, I was discovering the value of online collaborative tools such as Google Hangout and Google Docs.
November brought the disappointing news that artsACT had not funded our grant, and there was little feedback that could be provided beyond “we ran out of money”. We still had financial support from YAH, but based on the pitched budget we had a massive black hole, with very little time to find alternative sources of funding. In the subsequent months I tried every avenue, but time was really against us. The only option was to drastically simplify the project, and to rely on the team’s goodwill.
From the very start I had made it clear to the team that it was possible we would not be funded, and I was heartened that everyone was still happy to proceed. We did however have a change of some team members for unrelated reasons: Chris moved to Perth for study (but left us with excellent visual ideas about the characters and setting) and a couple of actors to other shows. We did however gain the wonderful Emma Gibson. Emma originally came on board as an actor, but ended up instead contributing some fantastic writing. Tamina Koehne-Drube stepped in at the eleventh hour to fill the final role.
I had kept in touch with Nick D and Vanessa throughout the year as they built the festival program, and the constraints introduced by these events actually assisted in providing direction to simplify the project. I began with the low-hanging fruit of a supporting character and his subplot (R2: another of Mr B’s evil experiments, a clone of Mac’s brother) and moving the timeline closer to the start of the festival by a couple of weeks. The only other cuts that could be easily made were to whole puzzles and this was one of the main changes that increased the game’s focus on live scenes during the festival over more online puzzles.
Another hard timeline was rapidly approaching: the birth of our first baby, due in early January. As noted earlier, one key lesson to take away from this whole experience is don’t have a baby mid-way through designing an elaborate online and live interactive game experience. Jack, very wisely, decided he would leave the project in January before his second child was due. His major involvement in the project was leading the development of our fantastic “Official” You Are Here card game, which we simply called “The Game”.
My wife and I had discussed early on the practicality of doing the project when our lives were going to be so drastically altered, and agreed that we should proceed. I’m still not sure whether it would have been better to have delayed the project by a year, or run something in separation from YAH. At the most difficult moments of the project between January to March I would have said yes straight away, but it possibly made this project more successful; in that Arthur and Bonnie were my first priority and in what little time remained I had to be extremely focused and decisive with #artctrl. Ultimately it was probably a blessing that I was forced to scale down the project as a result of the cut in budget. I’m pretty sure now that, short of quitting my job, I would not have been able to deliver the project as originally designed.
Arthur arrived a week earlier than expected and on the day I was due to return to work. Soon afterwards we experienced a week of 40+ C days, which led to us temporarily relocating to Bonnie’s parents’ home. I had four weeks paternity leave, which was absolutely fantastic. In between learning how to care for this brand new little human being I produced much more than I possibly thought I could. The first draft of the script was finished a week or so before I returned to work, which had a much more manageable planned duration of a one and half months.
Rehearsals began in February in the midst of a few events that were initially project killers but all magically resolved themselves just in time:
- without the grant (and thus auspice fee) ACT Writers Centre generously continued to support the project via insurance and press.
- Impro ACT managed to hold on to the PASH space where Nick B was generously letting us rehearse for free.
- Maria Klinger agreed to produce the beautiful prize that also became an incredibly valuable marketing tool.
- Vanessa, Nick D, Neil Stork-Brett and I managed to get application forms submitted just in time for permission to use Garema Place for the big battle sequence.
- New Best Friend agreed to design the card game rule sheet and I managed to source 1000 dirt cheap playing cards which I then proceeded to hand punch and number with sharpie in the wee small hours when Bonnie and Arthur were asleep.
- Agreement was reached from David Caffery to run a key scene as part of Art, Not Apart; and with Chris Endrey and Meg O’Connell to run another as part of In Canberra Tonight (this actually became an interview segment between T-Bone and Chris which is way more than I could have wished to happen. Magic.)
One significant problem I had not managed to solve was finding a replacement for Chris Brain as visual designer, particularly to do costume design. Eventually it came down to a collaboration with the cast. It was one of the most challenging individual pieces of work associated with this project, but I am extremely proud of the results.
Also during February the last member of our design team – Ryan Schipper – joined us to collaborate on the Twine choose your own adventure games. These also turned out to be far more challenging that I had expected, but just as rewarding. I knew the format was completely different from the scripted live sequences and in-game web content, but I didn’t expect just how much writing for this format would change the tone of that part of the story. As a result I completely changed the approach halfway through, and it was due in a large part to some great advice I got from Nick D – to lean further into genre when you get stuck – that helped us get these done.
Shane Parsons also started collaborating with us in February. In a single night he recorded the two Dream of Ms X video sequences (that play at the end of the Twine games) and the spectacular Cam and Mac promo video. I can’t speak more highly of Shane’s work and his influence on this project.
There is way too much to document to provide a full run-down of early March and the festival itself, but one of the key points was early in the month I finally committed to make the connection between #artctrl and YAH public from the start of the game. This in part led to a later decision to make a full disclosure of the event with an FAQ and, lastly, to publicise the actual prize. I’ll talk about this in a later post.
During the run there were some strange coincidences between the game world and reality, both local and national: George Brandis’s comments about the Sydney Biennale’s decision to walk away from its sponsorship agreement with Transfield Holdings; and the conversation triggered by Anthony Hayes’s flyer, also touching on funding of the arts, which continued online and across the festival. These interactions are something that I’d like to explore further but is beyond the scope of this series of posts.