Esther, completed

So much easier when you know where the save function is! I completed Dear Esther, and managed to do some comparative different routes to the final scene too. Notice the singular there, you can’t change the ending of this story, or at least I’ve not discovered an alternative ending. And now I can read the other online comments about the ending, it doesn’t appear anyone else has either.

I won’t spoil it for you, other than to say the final scene is a satisfactory ending to an atmospheric, poetic, allegorical to what was going on I’ve not much to add to the suppositions in my previous post, other than to wonder, at the last moment whether Esther and Donnelly were one and the same all along. Oh, and Paul might not be a drunk driver, rather a battered and unreliable car…

The Save function did allow me to explore the narrative structure in more detail, and what I observed in my previous post was confirmed, though there might be diversions from the main narrative path, they are but small distractions that will loop back to put you somewhere close to where you left the main story. You might hear a different narrative segment depending on the paths you take, but it won’t change your constructive interpretation that much, and you are also likely to hear the same segment on different routes through the story.

The strengths of Dear Esther are its atmosphere and sense of place. Which isn’t surprising, as that was the aim of its creator(s).Dan Pinchbeck, the game’s original author was researching presence (see below)  when he wrote it. I didn’t comment before on the exquisite soundtrack, both effects and music. When there’s no music playing the sound of the wind, the water and the echo of your own footsteps, maybe even snatches of a (your?) voice, all contribute to a suitably spooky atmosphere for a game wherein you are on a deserted island where somebody has been lighting and AWFUL lot of candles. But when the fabulous music kicks in your engagement in the scene suddenly kicks up a gear.

I don’t know much about presence yet, but it comes from research into telepresence. The ISPR introduce presence as “as a sense of ‘being there’ in a virtual environment and more broadly defined as an illusion of nonmediation in which users of any technology overlook or misconstrue the technology’s role in their experience.” I think I felt one jolt of that while playing Dear Esther (which isn’t a critiscism, I hope, as I was almost always aware of keeping my finger on the “w” key to walk around the island). I don’t want to say too much about when I felt it, for fear of spoiling the moment for anyone else who reads this and wants to try the experience themselves. Suffice to say it involves an unexpected visit to the M5, a real place in very unreal circumstances. In fact the unreality of the situation amplifies the emotional engagement with the scene, much as the musical score does in other scenes. For a moment I stopped breathing, forgot where or who i was, and let my emotional surprise take over. For a moment only, less than a second I’m sure, before I remembered to locate the “w” key and press forward to investigate the scene…

Its funny isn’t it, that apparently ADDING to the mediation – music, magical takes on reality – seems to have to opposite effect to what one might presume, it can distract you from the medium, and immerse you in that narrative. Well, I say its funny but I expect better minds than mine have already unpack and explained that effect. I’ve got a a lot a reading to do, starting with Pinchbeck’s academic work, now that I’ve played his game.

Dear Esther

I’ve been trying to find my way around Dear Esther today. It’s a narrative experience that first appeared as a mod for Half-Life (a First Person-Shooter), and which was then released as a stand-alone “game.” I’m told it takes two or three hours of play to complete, but I’ve been stymied today by the thing that gets me in FPS games – motion sickness. (Which is weird because I never suffer from it in the real world.)

So the game is taking me longer than two hours. That said, I’ve already begun to pick at the story structure, and I’m finding it more linear than I expected.

You start the game on the shore of a deserted (Scottish?) island, by an abandoned lighthouse. As you start, you hear (and read) a voice over (you?) with subtitles, introducing you to the Island and the mysterious Esther (maybe you are Esther?). I’ve restarted the game enough times to discover that there a number of different statements that you hear as you start. The atmosphere as you explore the island is very spooky, without (so far at least) any antagonists out to get you. If fact, it seems that you don’t interact in way way with the island except by walking around it, Occasionally when you reach certain points, you hear another voice over, so far I’ve heard about Ester’s birth, a car crash, Donnally – wrote a book that the narrator has stolen from the library and brought with him to the Island, and Paul, who may be the drunk driver that caused the crash. But I’ve noticed already that the environment isn’t quite the sandbox I’d hoped for – frustrating dead ends and impassible rocks or fences, guide you down a single path, being fed bits of narrative as you go.

What I’ve not yet worked out is are the narrative voice overs pinned to particular places? Or is there some algorithm that factors in time spent playing and what you’ve heard so far when it chooses what voiceover to feed you next?

3D Developers Meet-up

Yesterday I attended the inaugural meet-up for developers around the Southampton area. The focus for the group is currently on those that use, or are thinking of using, the Unity 3d engine.

This is all new to me, but reading about it on the web I was surprised by how many games I’d played or heard of were built with the Unity engine: Temple Run 2 and Bad Piggies are just two examples (and the last is interesting, as its essentially a 2d game – but as somebody explained last night, you just make the objects flat and fix the “camera” to look at them dead on, then you can take advantage of all the maths and effects available in Unity).

The evening was put together by Alister Lam of Frugal Spark, who apart from being a genial host, demonstrated how easy it was to get started building a 3D environment in Unity. Finishing with a couple of demo Augmented Reality apps, where the iOS device recognised a picture and built a 3d scene around it (so for example, a picture of a dinosaur came to life, stomped over a landscape and gobbled up some smaller prey). This obviously has possibilities for cultural heritage, and made me think what a device might show when pointed at (say) some of the nationally important but domestically displayed pictures at Polesden Lacey.

Then he handed over to John White, Managing Director of 4T2, who gave a presentation on “how Lego and Unity changed our lives.” It turns out the 42T were behind most of my kids’ favourite online and iOS games, including CBBC’s Beakeriser, and loads of Lego brand games.

I also spoke with Steve Longhurst of local coders Finblade, and Nick Thorne of Winchester Innovation. Nick showed me a tidal prediction app his company have been working on.

The meet-up was at The Point, an arts centre in Eastleigh, and Alister mentioned that he was working with the council on the idea of creating a digital creativity hub there. That excited me because of the work I’ve already seen coming out of Watershed, in Bristol. That Cultural cinema and digital creativity centre is home to companies like Splash and Ripple, and a key player in the REACT hub that funded projects like Ghost in the Gardens.

A costumed interpreter writes

I’ve been reading Counter Tourism The Handbook, and while I want to celebrate it, there are already some points which I disagree with. Its not surprising, Phil Smith is out to subvert “the Heritage Industry” and that is an industry that pays my salary so, you might think, I’m exactly the sort of person that should be offended. But I’m not offended, I’m disappointed.

Lets start with a positive. Take this from page 15:

“No matter how ‘counter’ you are being, you’re still some kind of tourist. For a long time the prevailing attitude was that ‘tourists’ were bad things. Passive dupes of a giant industry tramping over cultures they didn’t understand. “We are travellers, they are tourists.” But there is another opinion – that toursists are people who pick and choose what and how they experience, whop mix and match things and their feelings about them, making up their own leisure and heritage as they go along. That for all the packaging (and the extreme and green alternatives), tourists are pilgrims, up for transforming themselves.”

This came at just the right moment when I was beginning to think, “this is fun but he he saying that most visitors are dupes, and only people like him really know how to visit places?” It reassured me that the handbook is exactly what it purports to be, a guide to getting more out your visit, for everyone.

But then there’s more than one place where the facts are wrong. For example, on page 85 he defines ‘interpretation’ as “the professional term for those who dress up and perform ‘historical persons.'” This simple statement is wrong in so many ways. Interpretation is a word coined by the profession long ago. Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting our Heritage was first published in the 50’s, and therein he says the interpretation is “an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by first hand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” No mention there of ‘dressing up’ and ‘historical persons.’

Now I’m being a little disingenuous, and I know very well what Smith means, as I had a small role to play in the creation one of, if not the, very first professional companies of people “who dress up and perform ‘historical persons.'” We fought hard to prove that we were not (and thus worth more than) actors performing scripted theatre in museums. We grabbed hold of the term interpretation and called ourselves “live interpreters” to differentiate ourselves from the “illustrative media” that Tilden mentioned, or “costumed interpreters” to point that that guides might wear modern clothes or dress in historical fashion. Because not every interpreter who dresses up is “performing ‘historical persons.'” third-person interpreters talk about the past from a modern point of view, only first-person interpreters assume an historical persona.  And only first-person interpreters would struggle to react to some of the challenging questions Smith encourages the counter-tourist to ask of guides, because they have to try and stay in character. All the other live interpreters would welcome those challenges, because would be coming from a truly engaged visitor.

And therein lies the roots of my disappointment. I’m not quibbling over definitions. Rather I worry that Smith hasn’t read Tilden, because despite a very different political view of US National Parks, I think Smith would agree with Tilden’s principles of interpretation. I think, in their own very different ways, Smith and Tilden are talking about exactly the same thing.


A possible project

At Uppark there is a rare example, intact with original dolls and furniture, of an early Eighteenth century Dolls House. Though smaller than Queen Mary’s famous Dolls House at Windsor, it may be just as significant because of its age and completeness. The National Trust don’t currently think they do justice to this important part of the collection, and are starting a project to understand it more completely, and display and interpret it better.

We met a few days ago and discussed what research needed doing, how it might be better dsiplayed and, in general terms, how it might be interpreted. It struck me that the assembled curators, conservators and other specialists were talking about all sorts of things that might be done digitally, so afterwards I spoke with the manager at Uppark to discuss whether the project might include a digital element from Southampton University. She was very open to the idea.

We think this was less a child’s toy than a training tool for young ladies who needed to learn how to manage households. This sparked an interesting though from my wife when I was talking to her about it. She pointed out that the modern equivalent is the Resource Management Simulation games, that were once seen only as text based training tools for education and industry, but later became popular in commercial games like Sim City, Civilisation, Railroad Tycoon, The Sims or even the Simpsons Tapped Out touch game. We wondered whether there was a digital way of interacting with the Dolls House and moving the fragile Dolls (the Gentry have wax heads the servants are wooden – in one room a wet nurse tends two babies in a crib, one waxen, the other wood) from room to room and task to task, to simulate the micro economy of the sort of household that the Dolls House is meant to represent.

The footmen wait in the Dining Room of Uppark's Dolls House
The footmen wait in the Dining Room of Uppark’s Dolls House


A Guide to Walking Sideways

The Cold from Hell laid me low these last few weeks and so I’m grabbing a few moments before work to pass on a link a colleague shared a few days ago. Phil Smith (AKA Crab Man) wants to wrest control of historic sites away from cultural institutions and back into the hands of the visitor. His work at Plymouth University,  as a freelancer with the National Trust and others, and as a “Counter Tourist” is about empowering visitors to choose their own routes around sites and bring their own interpretations.

From my day-job point of view, working for the National Trust, I’d argue that a number of our sites are wanting to empower visitors in just such a way, but the feedback they get from the majority of their visitors is “we want a route/a story/ a guide.”

That’s said, I can’t argue with Crab Man’s ambitions, and the Counter-Tourism website is fun, and rewards people who break the rules (hint). So I ordered a couple of books which have just arrived and looking through them, they look like they’ll be fun to read.