The Van Dyke Vanishments

Photo: Richard Lakos By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.,
My son helps turn two dimensions into three Photo: Richard Lakos
By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.

Last weekend I went to Games Expo, East Kent, or GEEK as it’s more commonly known, in “London’s Famous Margate”. What drew me there was The Van Dyke Vanishments. Billed as an immersive experience through “art, theatre and gaming,” how could I not go? With limited availability we snapped up the last tickets for Saturday and drove across to Margate after lunch. At the Turner contemporary, we had just enough time to scout round the Self exhibition gathering clues for the password that we’d need on our adventure, have a cup of tea while we tried to solve the anagram (the answer was sunflower, but I liked slower fun), then head off to the storefront of Endless Horizons Ltd, the art tourism company.

To be honest, they were a bit unprepared. Their TranspARTation machine was still at an experimental stage, so my son and I, and another family, had to sign extensive waivers before we were allowed into the lab. Which was empty. So we waited, but didn’t have that long to admire the photos of the frequent employee of the month winner before something came lumbering up the stairs…

Helmeted, with a mirrored visor and breathing apparatus,  the humanoid creature moved strangely about the lab as it … made a cup of tea. “It” had to take the helmet off to drink the tea of course, and we saw it was a young woman who introduced herself as Smith and after reciting the terms and conditions, led us down into the basement, and the machine…

Which wasn’t working. Of course. So, we had to remind Smith of the password, witness the machine have an existential crisis and shut itself down, rewire it (using the handy artist/colour code we all learned at school – Klimt = yellow apparently), thump it  and literally deface two valuable self portraits (this one, and this one) before we got it working. Then the third painting took us (through quantum mechanics and a brightly painted tunnel) into the very mind of Anthony Van Dyke.

He was somewhat surprised to find us there.

Smith had the brilliant idea of getting the old master to restore the damaged portraits (which we’d had the presence of mind to bring with us). Of course he was disgusted by them – the scrawlings of children he said. So the answer was no. But Smith persisted, and suggested, that now the TranspARTation machine was working, she could open another quantum warp into the mind of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and we could all, Van Dyke included, explore the thinking behind his art. Tony (I don’t think he liked me calling him that) was intrigued enough to agree, and so we found ourselves in a cubist hell.

Van Dyke didn’t like it at all, but we found flat panels among the geometric shapes on the wall, and points to thread strings from, and together we built a 3D fish out of 2D shapes, giving Van D (and ourselves) a quick lesson in cubism. Then we were off through the Quantum Wormhole into the very white mind of Patrick Heron. There we constructed a deconstructed picture of St Ives, and in doing so, freed Van Dyke “from the tyranny of reality.”

Thus educated in the modern movement, he agreed to restore the paintings we’d defaced. All was well. Until we got Van Dyke’s own portrait back out of the TranspARTation machine, to find he’d become a Modernist a few hundred years too early…

Overall it was a great experience. My son enjoyed it, and the other family I was with got right into character as we helped Smith smooth over her mishaps. I felt I learned something too which, given I’ve already had four years of art history under my belt, suggests they managed not to dumb-down the learning while making it accessible. I could get picky about the details of Van Dykes clothes, and part of me of a bit disappointed in the “game” element of the experience – apart from solving a few puzzles, the ludic element ran “on rails” and was more of an immersive theatre experience.  But, there was a board-game version on offer, which sadly we didn’t get time to have a go with when we spent the next day at GEEK. There was a digital game version too, which I wasn’t even aware of that until after the event. I’ve found a beta version of it on-line, if you’d like to give it a go. It seems to use the same script, but of course the performances aren’t quite as good 🙂

I follow Van Dyke into a wormhole Photo: Richard Lakos By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.
I follow Van Dyke into a wormhole
Photo: Richard Lakos
By kind permission The Milo Wladek Co.


A couple of weeks back, I read about “the rise of emotional agents” in the Guardian. One of the games mentioned was Blood and Laurels, a work of interactive fiction (or if you like) a text-based adventure set in ancient Rome. Which seems appropriate as the Portus Project MOOC is running again. That’s said, I’m not convinced its a Rome historians will recognise, the Emperor is “Princeps” which is a pretty generic term, and his predecessor is a fellow called Corretius. Princeps is I think meant to be Nero, which would make Corretius, Claudius. I think I understand reason for the changes – this way, you won’t be tempted to think the the outcome of the interactive fiction is pre-determined by actual history.

I’ve played it through a couple of times now. The first time, as I would any adventure, putting myself into the role and turning out to be a slightly cowardly poet, who just wants everyone to be his friend and not to kill him. Turns out I’m not the only one. I’ve just finished a second playthrough, wherein I tried to be more brash, braver, and a bit of flirt. I should stick to what I know, because this time the story ended prematurely with my character scared in bed. Not quite the satisfying ending of the previous attempt, in which I became Emperor. I’ll try again, and this time, try to make enemies and see how long I survive.

It’s something more than a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA). For a start it isn’t as location based as many such stories. The interaction is less based on where you choose to go than on how you choose to interact with other characters.  It’s based on the Versu engine, which is an engine to model social interactions, in interactive fiction. It defines not just what characters (agents) can do, but what they should do, in particular social situations. (Versu’s designer Richard Evans, who worked on The Sims, describes being inspired partly by a situation in The Sims when a Sim invited his boss to dinner, but after letting the boss in, went off to have a bath.)

There’s a lot to read on the Versu site, including this paper, which is the clearest description of how the whole thing works. I’m wondering whether this or possibly Inform 7, from another member of the Versu team, might have an application in cultural heritage sites.


The talk I gave for York Heritage Research Seminars #YOHRS

I had a great time in York on Tuesday evenings. It was a lovely audience with plenty of comments and questions afterwards. And it was international with people watching from the States (and maybe elsewhere) via Google Hangouts. And then afterwards on to the pub, where the conversation continued with the likes of Nigel Walter, Don Henson (member of the National Trust’s learning panel) and gamingarcheo herself Tara Copplestone, over delicious pints of Thwaits Nutty Black. (The bit in the pub wasn’t livestreamed.)

The advantage of being on Google Hangouts is that all my stumbles, stutters leafing through notes, umms and errs and slideshow reversals are recorded for ever on YouTube’s massive server farms. If you missed it, you can enjoy it now:

The sound is out for the first minute but fear not, it’s not delivered entirely in the medium of mime. This is (approximately) what I said between Sara’s introduction and when the sound kicks in:

I’m going to keep this story simple, and tell it in three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end. In the beginning I’m going to explain why heritage professionals should be interested in digital computer games.In the second part, I’m going to explain why they shouldn’t. And finally I’m going to explore the state of madness to which this dichotomy has driven me.

Versailles 1685

I ran a session for a group of Masters’ students yesterday, part of the 3D Recording, Modelling and Interpretation module. It was a great afternoon, with a really responsive group of students, who ended up planning  a game around the Mayan city state of Tulum.

I talked for about an hour, beforehand. Riffing off Red Dead Redemption (of course) to discuss Tynan Sylvester’s Engines of Emotion, and look in more detail at Game Narratives, finishing of with the idea of Kernels and Satellites.

On the way, I mentioned Versailles 1685, which I suddenly recalled while pulling my notes together. Twenty years ago, at University, one of my final year projects was a proposal for House of Delight, a game exploring the social and sexual mores of late seventeenth century England. It didn’t get anywhere – well, it got me an interview with a video games company, but not a job. So I was very jealous when this game came out, but never got a chance to play it. That said, the company that didn’t give me a job did go bust a short while afterwards, and the interview led (in a round about way) to meeting my wife, so maybe its all good.

Versailles 1685, also known as A Game of Intrigue, was one of the first games commissioned by a museum authority, in this case Reunion des Musees Nationaux, for the purpose of heritage interpretation. Created in 1996, it sold itself with:

  • 25 hours of gameplay, set in history’s most beautiful palace
  • Featuring OMNI 3D that lets you look and move around freely in an entirely 3D environment
  • Over 30 characters modelled in 3D from period portraits, that bring back to life actual historical figures.
  • A stunning recreation of Versaille in 3D just as it was in 1685
  • Over 200 paintings that you can study close up
  • A soundtrack of 40 minutes of Baroque music, true to the period.

Taking the role of Leland, a junior servant of the King, the player
discovers and eventually foils a plot to burn down the Palace. The
narrative gives the player an opportunity to explore a 3D model of what the palace(possibly) looked like in 1685, and an accompanying encyclopedia detailing Louis VIX’s court and collection.

It was pretty well received, and spawned a sequel, and its almost twenty years old. So looking back, I wonder why we’re not inundated with games from heritage organisations, with specific interpretive objectives.