WALLPAPER: Uncovering Digital Fiction

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WALLPAPER is an atmospheric and interactive work of short fiction written and created by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston. It premiered as an installation at Bank Street Arts gallery in Sheffield – the first time a work of digital fiction has been developed specifically for a gallery space.

We spoke with Andy and Judi about the inspiration behind the project, the development and writing process and how WALLPAPER is shaping the future for digital narratives…

Can you tell us a little more about WALLPAPER?

WALLPAPER 0In WALLPAPER, the reader assumes the role of the main character, a man called PJ Sanders. PJ is a USA-based computer engineer and innovator who returns to his remote family home in the UK following the death of his elderly mother. His agenda is to close the house down and sell it. First though, he wants to trial an experimental device he’s been working on to help him uncover the history behind one particular room in the house – a room that has remained locked since his childhood.

WALLPAPER is funded by the Arts Council England with support from Sheffield Hallam University as part of a research project “Reading Digital Fiction”, headed up by Dr Alice Bell (SHU) and Professor Astrid Ensslin from Bangor University. The project aims to introduce more readers to digital fiction and study their responses.

WALLPAPER was launched in a purpose built installation in November 2015 at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield. In 2016 WALLPAPER will be exhibited at the newly opened Performing Arts and Innovation Pontio Centre in Bangor.

WALLPAPER incorporates a soundtrack by musician Barry Snaith and is available to buy as a standalone narrative game.

What was the inspiration behind the project?

The seed idea for the story emerged about 10 years ago from two coincidental events that affected both the writers; a surreal conversation with Andy’s late grandmother around “walls having eyes and ears” and us stripping back wallpaper in Judi’s mother’s family home, shortly after her death, discovering various scribbled texts beneath, left by previous inhabitants.

WALLPAPER started out as a quirky humorous piece – with PJ’s science fictional device being a ramshackle hoover-like robot and the whole thing being a rather light-skit on innovation and technology. We’ve maintained some of that humour in the final work – for instance, PJ, even as the technician behind his device, has to agree to “terms and conditions” of his corporate employers and “sign in to his account” before he can use his own kit, and there are moments where he’s bombarded by a series of on-screen targeted advertisements – e.g. “Phil, we’re sorry to hear of your loss” and “find soul mates in your area!” – but, as the work evolved, it became much more multi-layered and disturbing than we originally predicted.

WALLPAPER is a real coming together of our work around the themes of storytelling, heritage, loss and untold secrets, all brought to life through a real fusion of media -including text, video, audio and imagery.

Can you tell us about the writing and development process of WALLPAPER and how the two became intricately linked?

The writing and development began with creating ‘profiles’ of the house, the key characters, and PJs employers Poppitech. We created a family tree, researching dates and events in history that would have been influencing PJ’s family. Pieces of writing would trigger ideas for artwork, sound and moving image. Equally, we could develop a movement through a piece of code, or find a 3D asset that would trigger us to write and bring words into the story.

WALLPAPER was though created, for the most part, in an evolving and organic way, without a script. We used a shared Dropbox folder to build up snippets of text and resources (fiction, notes, ideas, letters, scans, photographs, video, audio, 3D objects, etc), but the final text used in the work exists only inside the work itself. This wasn’t particularly intentional, but seemed like the best way to do it: much of the narrative was written spontaneously, directly into the Unity editor, and often during “live” gameplay sessions, where any changes we made as we went along were saved and preserved. This allowed us to really get into PJ’s character and get a sense of his personality “in situation”.

WALLPAPER postcardScripted pieces were written and recorded as voice-overs of two key characters: Mary, PJ’s mother and PJ’s boss at his company Poppitech. We encouraged our ‘voice over actors’ to make the text ‘their own’ developing the voice of the character as they saw fit under our written project guidance and under the supervision of our collaborator Barry Snaith.

Other artefacts that appear in WALLPAPER such as letters and postcards were written outside the ‘live game’ environment. In a more traditional methodology these pieces of text went through various amends and edits in keeping with the progression and development of the project.

Editing WALLPAPER for final release was done ‘live’ in the game environment – we projected the piece large scale on a living room wall so we could carefully read the text, talk through any changes and make amends as we went through the story.

How did you use digital media to develop your installation?

We wanted to ensure that WALLPAPER was a highly engaging, absorbing and memorable experience as an installation piece, so we developed everything at pin-sharp high resolution, and really pushed the boat out with the audio and visual effects to make the work feel very cinematic. We used voice overs, cutting edge graphics rendering and a realistic “first person perspective” control mechanism to help convince readers/players to really believe in the story world.

That said, much of WALLPAPER takes place in relative silence as you – PJ Sanders – returning to an empty home – root through the house under torchlight, with only the sound of the evening wind and the gentle creaking of the historic building as your backdrop. Creating the immersive atmosphere found in WALLPAPER took a huge amount of time, effort and experimentation, but is one of the elements of the work to which the audience responded most strongly. As one reader/player puts it: “it’s hard for digital art to create an impression of dust, damp and age, but right off the bat WALLPAPER does a remarkable job of this. The house feels claustrophobic, lonely. Sanders reads old letters and notes he finds strewn about the house, and often thinks aloud… punctuated dramatically by the silences in-between – there’s a tangible atmosphere of loss, of regret.”

Development 1Creating the work was a challenging task that involved constructing a detailed North Yorkshire house in 3D that could be freely explored. We used genuine period wallpaper textures sourced from Wakefield Museum and digitally mapped them onto the walls; we incorporated watercolour paintings by Judi’s mum and oil paintings done by Andy’s grandmother, as well as photographing carefully crafted ornaments and original prayer cards for the deceased. We sourced, amended and created detailed postcards and paperwork which would tell the story of the long, erratic and emotionally suppressive correspondence between PJ and his mother.

Some items we downloaded/purchased from stock 3D asset stores, but then altered them, changing the textures, design and size.

We incorporated and edited video footage from the One to One Development Trust Film Archive and from Yorkshire Film Archive to bring PJ Sanders’ science fictional device – a device that can “extract the memories out of walls” – to vivid life.

How did audiences respond to the installation?

Extremely well. Most of the feedback from the launch night and subsequent month of the exhibition has been very positive. The story of PJs quest to understand his past seems to have resonated with some of our readers around inspiring them to find out more about their own personal family stories, or explore their own hidden family secrets – this was something we didn’t expect!

Andy Campbell, Barry Snaith, Judi Alston WALLPAPER Launch Nov 15

Andy Campbell, Barry Snaith & Judi Alston at the WALLPAPER Launch, Nov 15

A lot of interest has been sparked in finding out more about digital fiction in general. WALLPAPER rewards readers/players by revealing how much of the narrative they’ve managed to uncover during their “session” – a real hook that made many visitors to the exhibition want to try again and get a better “score”.

The installation gave the audience/readers a very different experience to exploring the project on a computer or tablet device. The world of Dalton Manor became more immersive, the sound and visuals had an increased depth which brought the project to life in a large scale 3D space.

The best compliment was that quite a few readers came back once or twice to explore WALLPAPER further on their own. They wanted to reach 100% of the story and were prepared to give it the time to experience WALLPAPER in its entirety.

How does WALLPAPER expand on your work already undertaken in this field?

We’ve been developing digital fiction for 16 years– Dreaming Methods houses over 30 works, many of them collaborative. Throughout that time period we’ve seen – and worked our way through – a huge amount of technological change and explored many different approaches to digital storytelling.

Funding from the Arts Council England made it possible for us to dedicate time to creating this work. This in itself was a wonderful opportunity and we are incredibly appreciative of this being the first fully funded digital fiction project we have created.

Working closely with Alice Bell at Sheffield Hallam University and Astrid Ensslin at Bangor University has been very rewarding. It has opened up the potential and opportunity for seeing how we as artists and creatives can work with academics to explore and inform opportunities for readers in this sector.

WALLPAPER has been an ambitious and rewarding achievement for us, both in terms of digital fiction-writing and the way in which we’ve realised it through “game engine” technology. It’s also been wonderful seeing an idea that goes back so far for us finally come to full fruition – and get such a fantastic audience response.

We understand the Pontio Centre at Bangor University where you will by showcasing the installation next is a very different space to the exhibition space at Bank Street Arts. How will you be adapting the work to suit this?

The “White Box” as it’s called at the Pontio Centre in Bangor, where we’ll be showcasing WALLPAPER next, is a huge and bright space, especially when compared to the intense and claustrophobic confines of the original installation at Bank Street. We’ll be modifying the work to suit the space by using multiple projections and expanding the narrative into a series of graphical video sequences that can run alongside the main interactive experience.

And finally, what’s next for you? Are there any exciting developments you can share with us?

WALLPAPER doesn’t end here. We are seeking opportunities to tour WALLPAPER in different galleries and settings across the UK. We would also like to submit it into festivals – both literature and narrative-game based events coming up over the next year. We are actively seeking collaboration with other research projects in this field as we believe WALLPAPER has given us a valuable insight and experience in creating work for research.

In other digital fiction projects, we’ve just released the beta version of Inanimate Alice Episode 6 with Chris Joseph and Kate Pullinger which sees Alice aged 19 and working in what might just be the last gas station on the planet. It’s the most ambitious and immersive episode of the transmedia series so far. And we’re currently working with Australian digital artist/writer Mez Breeze on Pluto a beautiful and complex narrative game which won The Space Open Call and Tumblr International Prize for Digital Art last year.

Beyond that, Judi and Andy are exploring the potential of creating a new work following on from WALLPAPER based around the true story of a shipwreck that uses cutting edge water simulation graphics and embraces virtual reality. Early days yet, but very exciting potential.

Watch the WALLPAPER teaser here:

WALLPAPER Teaser from One to One Development Trust on Vimeo.

Judi Alston is an artist and film-maker who founded and is currently CEO of One to One Development Trust. She has a track record as a camera person, editor, director and producer in commissions for charities, television, festivals and with arts organisations. Alston has an extensive portfolio as a project manager and producer of arts and research projects, often working as an advisor and consultant to NGOs both in the UK and overseas. Andy Campbell is Director of Digital Media for One to One Development Trust whose digital fiction project Dreaming Methods has been online since 1999. Dreaming Methods currently houses over 30 works of collaborative electronic literature and experimental narrative games. Alston and Campbell have co-authored several works of digital fiction prior to WALLPAPER including Inside: A Journal of Dreams, Clearance, Joyride and Nightingale's Playground, all of which are available to experience at Dreaming Methods.

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