A zine about travel in the USA


In  light of the release of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition, I decided to upload the zine I wrote about my trip to the US in 2012, which contains a section on GK1 location spotting in New Orleans:

Please note I’m releasing this under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 AU license. Also it is was fonted in the beautiful Sorts Mill Goudy font, by Barry Schwartz.

And (deep breath) here’s the full title of the zine:

This zine may be of interest to people who are interested in Boston (the city), Cake (the band), cities in general, The Colonel’s Bequest, cultural pilgrimages, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, ghost stories, graveyards, hipsters, interactive fiction, live music, H.P. Lovecraft, New England, New Orleans, New York, poetry slams, Salem, solo travel, travel in the United States of America, vampires, vegetarianism, walking tours, Williamsburg and witches.

Manifesto(ish) v0.1

Update 2014-11-16:

My family’s motto is is Quod tibi, hoc alteri. Which translates to “Do unto others what you would want done to yourself” (or, as one website translates it: “That is for thee, not the other” – which sounds hilariously posh). It’s a good motto. But since doing the thinking about a manifesto below, I’ve also been considering a new motto, something along the lines of:

“Balance the grey”.

The “grey” is the grey touched on briefly in this post: the cold, the boring, the cruel and the dull; in short the antithesis of the kind of creative playfulness I’m aiming for in my work. But there’s also an acceptance there in the word “balance” that life can’t aways be fun and sunshine all the time; that this is something that always need to be checked.

Following the #artctrl project I have been reflecting a lot of late on the ‘why’ of my art work, and also how it relates to the ‘why’ of my daily work and study. I’ve not yet come to any conclusions and what follows is more like a collection of bobbing icebergs.

Two strong catalysts for this reflection were:

  • the discovery of the UK company, Coney, through David Finig, and their lovely principles – (loveliness, is in fact one of these). So much of what I have been thinking about and looking for is already right there
  • lovely discussion with Christy Dena, that helped me to A. begin to distil the points below, and B. commit to a wider project of engaging with the points in my own practice and exploring how they play out in the lives of others.

ethical – I am trying to contribute to the world in the best ways that I can. There are many ways that this can happen (including via the other named points), however I most oft seem to return to promoting creativity for happiness.

happiness – this obviously relates to the aspiration to create entertaining content and experiences. But more and more I find myself focusing particularly on encouraging joyful interactivity and creative engagement through technology.

interactivity – the works that I enjoy creating and engaging with all prioritise interactivity. It is not that I cannot appreciate a classic painting, poem or story. I’m just not fully engaged with that work unless I am in direct playful engagement (preferably via technology) or in uncovering connections from it to the world and other works, through synthesis.

playful – this is the kind of interaction that I seem to keep coming back to, and obviously games are a big part. Play incorporates the aspiration for promoting happiness and social engagement, and all varieties of activities that use creativity and imagination.

synthesis – the aspects of creativity that interest me most are those that involve bringing together diverse things in innovative ways, in particular through technology.

social engagement – I have struggled with anxiety and depression for nearly 10 years, which has a strong root in the bullying I experienced through early school. It was creativity, imagination and a small number of dear friends that got me through many unpleasant years. I would not wish that experience on anyone, but it did serve to reinforce the ethical goal of bringing happiness to the lives of others: to help people to find joy through imaginative and creative engagement with the world.

imagination – I was always a day dreamer as a kid. The bullying I experienced at school forced me to imagination, via playful narrative, as my main escape from everyday misery. My work aims to promote imagination less as a direct escape and more as a way to experience living with joy and happiness in the world.

games – my interest in play and creativity means I am drawn to games in any form, particularly those where interactivity, narrativetechnology and social engagement are primary.

creativity – paired with imagination, this is what has helped me through the most difficult times. The more I speak and read, I find that creativity is less about the works that are created and more about an ethical attitude and everyday approach to the world.

technology – that which enabled the most influential games I played and made as a kid; was utilised in the most exciting art projects I engaged with as I grew up; and is at the beating heart of my daily work. Technology powers more innovative and diverse interactivity, play and social engagement.

narrative – like technology, story forms the arteries of the projects I pursue. It is the framework that helps to  crack open the grey days and to usher in imagination, creativity and playful engagement.

#artctrl Debrief, Part 5

The prize, created by Maria Klingner,
photographed by Adam Thomas.

This is last of five posts about the #artctrl project. If you’ve just landed here I recommend you read Part 1 first.

I started the project with partial inspiration from the novel Sophie’s World, in which increasingly strange things occur around Sophie in parallel to her discovery of the world of philosophy; and Kit Williams’s Masquerade book, which was a fantasy story encoded with puzzles pointing to the location of a physical prize. I wanted to create aspects of both in that audience members would progressively encounter more and more evidence of the conflict between Mr B and T-Bone, and the mythology of the Artifact in familiar local spaces – Civic CBD; You Are Here (YAH) festival events; their Twitter and Facebook feeds – which would draw them into assuming a role in the drama.

Some of the early responses during the first week of the story (especially on Facebook in reaction to the Benevolent Ministry of Art Quiz) were the complete opposite of what I had hoped: suspicion and frustration. The former response, I think, arose from a concern that the project was part of some sort of guerilla marketing campaign and that interacting/participating would equate to publically supporting an unknown commercial product. The common ARG is an intriguing product of entwined commercialisation and creativity, and most of the early big genre-defining ones were indeed  advertisements for products like the Halo games or the AI film. Even though #artctrl was designed as an interactive artistic experience, in order to have the full experience possible the player would have had to attend multiple YAH events and thus, it could be seen crudely as an elaborate advertisement for the festival. This final post will explore a couple of specific examples of the varied audience interaction with the project.

The Benevolent Ministry of Art Quiz was one of the unexpected successes of the project. The interaction was designed to engage the audience with the game world and thus encourage them to take the final step of emailing the Ms X character. This was intended to provided us early on with a direct line of contact to players to enable delivery of personalised in-game content. The “puzzle” was to complete the quiz with a full 30 points. This was virtually impossible on the first attempt and we added the incongruous combo of a message at the end that “This test May Not be Retaken” (in keeping with the authoritarian character of the Ministry) with a link directly beneath it to retake the test. Clicking the link would restart the quiz and, once commenced, would indicate which questions had been answered “incorrectly”. Once the player got the full 30 points they were given Ms X’s email address and advised to send their score to her for further instructions.

Unfortunately, as far as we know very few people tried to retake the test; certainly there were very few who emailed Ms X. There’s a number of reasons why this may have happened. The especially annoying explanation is that people are so used to poor/inconsistent web design that seeing an instruction to not do something, directly followed by a mechanic that enables them to do this very thing could have been considered entirely normal (and in their defence the next screen is identical to the initial intro to quiz screen). We could have countered this with some design elements – perhaps big flashing red arrows – but instead I opted to drop progressively bigger hints to potential players via the social media platforms, which in most cases were ignored.

Nevertheless the quiz was popular in that it was frequently interacted with in the way this genre of web content is usually intended to be: people publicly reposting their scores and discussing the “personality rating” they had received. Responses occurred across a wide spectrum of disinterest through to amusement and confusion through to aggression. This is the gist of one of the annoymus comments left on the BMOA.net.au website (which I “sanitised” in the guise of Ms X):

Bahahahaahahaha this can’t be real, right? Security cleared? Screening? It’s a small town city’s art scene, not XXXing ASIO.

While not really engaging with the game’s world as originally intended, it was rewarding to receive such a colourful response!

Eventually it was the vocalisation of audience frustration that pushed me to provide full disclosure (what Nickamc called “ripping off the mask”) via an FAQ on the YAH blog. This arose from one of the most interesting dilemmas I was faced with: between giving a more general audience an easier way in to what was going on vs. continuing the mystery for a select audience. The select audience approach was much closer than my initial intentions for the project, but then I risked the opportunity of not reaching new audience members that might have fallen into the select audience category had they just been aware of the game (indeed, I think the winner does fall into this category) so I opted to give people the facts. This seemed to satisfy everyone and, despite my worries, it is possible this was worked out as the best way overall: we had several weeks of mystery that built a buzz and then a simple entry point any new player could access through to the end of the game.

I love this Facebook comment from John Lombard (on 26 February 2014), which was pretty damn close to what I was hoping for:

I think you basically need to just have fun and play pretend to enjoy it. Hey, we pretend all the time on stage, let’s make a leap of imagination (picture me making the Spongebob “imagination” gesture while you read that) and play with the idea that artists are fighting an epic battle for the soul of all existence right here in Canberra. Because it’s more interesting to pretend it’s real than to think it’s not.

It’s a pity more people didn’t get to interact with the project in the same spirit, but other people seem to have taken other, different – but still good – stuff away from the the project.

Even though we departed from a straight ARG format (if there is such a thing!) there was enough, I think, to provide a clear rabbit hole for players familiar with the ARG world and transmedia to play the game. Unfortunately I think there’s just not a sufficient awareness of this kind of work – particularly with Canberra’s small population – that the general public might have organically picked up on what was going on. We did attempt to promote to ARG-aware audiences via sources such as ARGNet and local online gamer communities, however timing may have been against us, in addition to the absence of other familiar ARG traits (and the common big budget!). I thought I had sufficiently planned for this problem via overlapping narrative sources (live performances and video, Twitter, Facebook and the Scribe’s blog) but my gut feeling is it sadly comes down to the amount of time that an individual is willing to gamble on an uncertain return.

One of the lessons learned is that future projects in my corner of the world would likely be more successful, at least in terms of participant numbers, if run as short one-off programmed events. That way the audience knows ahead of time the frames for experience – the existence of any commercial involvement, the time involved and upfront cost – before choosing to participate. The guerilla gig approach also hurt the production-side as the stage management became infinitely more difficult than the usual advertised gig. This said, a more clearly programmed approach would have eliminated some of the most interesting outcomes of this project. These occurred as a result of #artctrl existing in the margins of the YAH festival[1], which challenged the audience to make connections between seemingly disparate “genuine” programmed events and to think critically about whole-of-festival themes.

This concludes my initial reflections on the #artctrl project, but I look forward to future discussions. I’d love to receive any comments here, on Facebook or Twitter.

[1] The YAH program itself is a nice metaphor for this: we were included as an “introduction” and back page “advertisement” written by Mr B and The Scribe, respectively, but not mentioned in any of the programmed events.

#artctrl Debrief, Part 4

This is the fourth of five posts about the #artctrl project. If you’ve just landed here I recommend you read Part 1 first.

This post is an quick exploration of the use of multiple story delivery platforms during #artctrl. I hope to delve further into this topic in future writing.

We knew from the start we would need to plot multiple ways to experience #artctrl. Even if we’d gone for something less ambitious, a number of the basic concepts demanded a catch-up service at the very least. This became the Scribe’s blog, which also served to provide a way of developing his character. In traditional ARGs it is common for fan communities to evolve organically around the game, with players creating their own FAQs and introductions to the game for new players. We knew the timeline and context of the game would mean this would be unlikely to occur organically, so we planned for the Scribe to provide this service from the beginning of the story.

The primary platforms for the story’s delivery were Twitter and live performances (several with interactive portions) but, as the Scribe was also live tweeting at all events, the two provided an interesting overlapping of narrative perspectives – even if an audience member would be unlikely to consume both simultaneously.

Predictably video was an important promotional tool, but it also became a significant third narrative platform that went beyond repeating the plot points to also present some material only hinted at in the other two (notably, the Ms X reward videos at the end of the Twine CYOA games). I knew quick episodic video coverage would be important in this project (in addition to being a nod to last year’s Heartbroken Assassin) but in emphasising the catch-up role I undervalued the storytelling potential of the medium in of itself. However, given that I was not yet aware of how great the results would turn out, a light touch was I think a valid risk management approach.

My own contribution via Facebook updates in the #artctrl group provided a second catch-up service that had not been initially planned (some of the reasons behind this change will be discussed in the final post). I had initially decided to move away from Facebook as, unlike with Twitter and Google, it was too difficult to implement fake character profiles. Unfortunately I fear there was a lot lost in being unable to use Facebook as a primary storytelling platform -Twitter was simply not utilised as much by the core audience.

The experience of commentating my own project, initially as if I was an unbiased observer and then more directly, was an interesting challenge. My group posts seemed to attract more interest than the Scribe’s posts, which is probably partly due to the convenience of Facebook to the YAH audience, but I also wonder if the Scribe’s posts received less attention due to being provided in character; thus providing an additional, if small, barrier for engagement with the game (not the detached, simple explanation desired by some audience members).

We had plans that the YAH Facebook and Twitter accounts could also provide an additional sporadic catch-up service. It did in a number of cases – as well as spontaneously generating some new in-game content (thanks Sarah and Andrew!). However this could have been been done better had we had the time to devote to planning this more carefully.

The actors became players too, particularly in the social media space. Those actors who already used Twitter took the opportunity to go off script and play with their character’s interaction – potentially with less fear than they would on stage due to the physical separation with the audience and the easy ability to delete and re-tweet.

I had hoped all actors would do their own character’s tweets. This turned out to be impossible due to time commitments and unfamiliarity with Twitter. As a result we opted to assign ‘Tweeting duty’ to a different person each day – for this multi-account tools such as TweetDeck and TweetBot were very valuable. As some of the actors still wanted to do their own tweets on off days, it was frequently difficult to guarantee a smooth arc of tension throughout a day. In reflection it would have probably been better to use one or the other approach rather than a combination, and potentially schedule each day’s tweets to kick off at the same time each day, to further support player engagement. We could have also experimented with scheduled tweets but the complexity of the stage management across the two weeks seemed like this would be asking for trouble.

A number of the interactions were built around diverse platforms or genres of interaction that we hoped might appeal to different sub-communities we knew existed in the YAH audience. The simple card game, The Game, was designed to appeal to people who would enjoy quick card games like UNO (in fact we often referred to The Game as “UNO You Are Here”). The Ms X games were hosted on philome.la – a common hosting site for Twine games. The physicial puzzles, particularly The Hunt on the first Saturday of the festival, were designed to appeal to fans of cryptic crosswords and code-breaking, and the very successful BMOA Acceptable Art Questionnaire was a fun distraction that parodied the personality quizes you find in magazines and in social media.

Based on the spread of responses and website hits the bmoa.net.au content generated a lot more interest than any of the other online material, a large part of which I ascribe to the professional domain name – reinforced by some excellent posters form George Rose – and the (somewhat) convincing site design (yes such things are possible with a simple Blogger site!)

#artctrl Debrief, Part 3

Photo by Adam Thomas.

This is the third of five posts about the #artctrl project. If you’ve just landed here I recommend you read Part 1 first.

This post is grouped loosely around the theme of eclecticism. I won’t elaborate too much further here on the comment made in my first post – eclecticism as key strength and weaknesses – as there are some other points that I think touch this theme in more interesting ways. It’s probably appropriate then that the points themselves are brief and scattershot. I apologise for this; this is kind of the “loose ends” post, and the final two will be more focused.

This project would have been impossible without Nick Delatovic and Vanessa Wright’s support from the very beginning. That was not just from the practical necessity that I would need to work around the huge range of events programmed for You Are Here (YAH) 14; their support and guidance flowed on to the rest of the team, enabling #artctrl to grow organically through the whole festival, rather than as one isolated event. Attending the production planning weekend in early February was of great value as it enabled me to “sell” (for want of a better word) this complex project to nearly all of the team and to immediately address any of their red flags. Along the line of naming champions; the involvement of the ACT Writers Centre was extremely valuable in increasing the confidence of other stakeholders, a number of which had not previously engaged with each other prior to the project.

Several of the personal motivations for the project also related to a desire to engage more widely. One of the goals that wasn’t realised as much as I would have liked, was an ensemble production. The case is not that any member of the team was unengaged, but had the funding situation been different, or had I established his project as a partnership, this would have provided a less insular creative development process, including from before any of the major story decisions were made.

In truth a fully ensemble project was probably impossible with the number of people involved. From early on in the production certain actors were more interested in the game’s design than others, and after some initial meetings it reached the stage where one person needed to make decisions and then to split the design work into dedicated tasks. This modular approach actually worked out to be the best approach in this context, as it supported quick reactions to changes in timing and unexpected audience interactions (for example, CityNews using a different name for a character let to a meme that rewarded early players). Still, the times when puzzle and interaction design was true team effort were the most enjoyable experience of the game’s development.

The smaller team and budget demanded that I perform a wider range of tasks than I was originally planning. This project confirmed my expectation that diverse experience and skills are essential to ARG/transmedia projects. In this case I drew on past experience in theatrical production and stage management; graphic design and sound editing; web development and computer game design. At the same time I was forced to learn new skills quickly, such as costume design, physical prop design and papier mache Skywhale construction. It was a wonderful challenge to be able to bring all of this together in one production.

Something that surfaced towards the end was a realisation that I  was doing the project in part as “community service”. I don’t say this to make the project sound noble and, in some ways, this attitude might have done more harm than good. I think any sort of arts project that engages audience without financial gain will have some degree of community service to it. My hope was to go beyond sheer entertainment to inspire more imaginative engagement with the real world. One of the problems that arose from this grand goal was focusing too much on the cohesion of the overall experience when I should have been thinking more critically about small self-enclosed entertaining experiences that could serve this overall goal independently.

Eclecticism also extended to the demands made on the audience: in order for the most complete #artctrl experience possible, an audience member would have needed to be comfortable with basic social media usage and a little improvisation; keen on physical and computer games and puzzles; and open minded/enthusiastic enough to attend a number of disparate events to see live scenes play out. Although only baseline investment in each of these activities were required, as a whole this was probably too much for a general audience member. We hoped parallel storytelling platforms would help with this and I’ll discuss this in the next post.

One last point: a major inspiration was music. Not only did concrete visual ideas emerge from diverse musical sources, but choices of genres and individual songs became a great way to develop characters. I’m currently compiling a Spotify mix of the tracks that influenced the story development and were suggested when working with the actors on their characters.