#artctrl Debrief, Part 1

MrB_ACCEPTABLE_Blue

This is the first of 5 posts about the #artctrl project. Part 1 serves as an introduction to the project and sets the scene for more detailed discussion in subsequent posts.

It’s been just over a month since #artctrl finished; the alternative reality game (ARG)/transmedia storytelling experiment that I ran as part of the You Are Here 2014 festival (YAH) in Canberra, Australia.

I’ve been putting off writing this post in order to give myself some critical distance after the year-long period in which #artctrl was produced. I hope my thoughts about the project will continue to evolve into new ideas and projects as time goes by, but here is something of where I am right now.

Let’s tackle the obvious question first (ok not so obvious if you have no idea about #artctrl – if so the FAQ is here): Was it a success? By the number of active players alone; no. The more accurate but frustratingly vague answer is it depends. We had 1 very happy winner at the end, a handful of other engaged players and a passive audience of possibly 250 (that number still seems to be growing via the Facebook group, interestingly).

Ok, so if the project wasn’t an outright success, does that make it a failure? In some ways yes, but only good ones :) For most of the project runtime I kept thinking about it wrongly. I kept seeing #artctrl as a single unified experimental project. Then David Finig reminded me it was more accurately a series of experiments. And it turns out that the experiments that flopped the most were also the most interesting and most rewarding.

I don’t think any of #artctrl completely failed, but the rough parts forced (is forcing) me to learn hard lessons – about compromise, simplification and finding your audience – that I might have learned earlier had I simply been able to produce more stuff before this. I am a part-time artist, creating in and around a new baby, a full-time job, and university study. Experiences such as this remind me I have a way to go to reach the level of insight of my own practice that many of my peers appear to possess. Certainly I still feel like I’m bouncing around between different kinds of projects, without a clear artistic direction. There are connections there between all of my projects, of course, but often I feel a little of what some people refer to as the multipotentiality experience: of jumping from one project in one area to a drastically different one in another.

Psychology aside, for your insight as much as mine, I present some key lessons learnt from #artctrl, abstracted to the best of my ability. I’ll explore each one in a bit further detail in the following posts.

1. Failure is good.
I’ve had the same wallpaper on my laptop for the last two years. It has a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I think I’m finally starting to get it.

2. Don’t have a baby just as the production design on your ARG is just starting to ramp up.
That said, the biggest things that I thought would make #artctrl impossible were the ones that made it most interesting and, oddly, in some cases more manageable. When you start a huge project like this and you pass whatever exit ramps you set for yourself you make a psychological commitment that is subconsciously working to get you through whatever problems arise. #artctrl was absolutely the hardest project I’ve embarked on so far, but I think once I passed the final commitment point every setback that arose either eventually improved the project or myself as an artist.

3. The key strength and weakness of this project was the same thing: eclecticism.
The ARG/transmedia format enabled me to constantly cross boundaries of medium and genre. That freedom was exhilarating, but it also posed some degree of barrier to entry to all but a very niche audience. There are management and design approaches to deal with this sort of problem, but even carefully employed they can hurt the project’s overall vision. Eclecticism also extends to your own skills and experience and that of everyone else who makes the project happen. Some of the parts of #artctrl I love the most came from the most strange and unexpected directions.

4. Using multiple platforms to tell a connected story will help to reach a wider audience, but the connection between the content on each platform needs to become clear early on in the game/story.
A “general” audience member will instinctively search for an external real world source that will bring disparate parts together into context; to explain it for them. Of course, audiences also fill this void for themselves in the forms of explanatory posts, wikis, fan communities, etc. For some this process of meaning finding is a source of great fun; for others great frustration. (See 3 again about niche audiences).

5. Decide your base “win” criteria way before you make any binding decisions.
We agreed an engaged audience of at least 5 people would be acceptable, but obviously aimed for above that. We basically achieved the base goal, with some caveats. Looking back I think the original estimation was pretty astute given the population of Canberra, and the numbers and the range of people who attended YAH 14 events. It is sad but the truth is it is hard to find an audience who enjoys the unexpected. Most audiences crave fresh and interesting storytelling, but when this requires investment on their part – particularly of an uncertain nature and duration – that creates a significant barrier that even the best design and content may be unable to remove.

As noted I’ll go into detail on these points in the subsequent posts but up front I’d like to put out another big thanks to the team that made this project possible:

Quick links

Four Crystals of Trazere box shot

Since I’m not doing anything else with this space  at the moment, here are some things I’m interested in…

  • The Stone – I’ve blogged about this before. Insanely difficult puzzles (plus a few easier ones, thankfully) on obscure and mysterious things and events.
  • AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS – I backed this via Pozible. It’s an iPad audio adventure with elements of Dirk Gently and Sophie’s World. It’s a wonderful thing.
  • AeroPress coffee – I couldn’t find anywhere to buy one, then someone pointed me to OptimOZ. Best coffee you can make at home without a $1000 machine.
  • Magazines from the Past Wiki - Back before the Internet came to the Fleetwood household, computer magazines like PC Format and PC Gamer were my connection to the games world. This site doesn’t have issues online, but it does have a lot of their contents lists and cover shots, which is filling me with oh so much nostalgia. Now if I could just get a copy of the mag that had the elusive cheat codes for Four Crystals of Trazere (one of the things I can’t actually find the internet yet…)

Still here

Little while since the last post. Mall Stories and You Are Here was great fun and you can still take the tours.

I’m working on a couple of projects – one is interactive fiction based on Coleridge’s experience of writing Kubla Khan. I had minor breakthrough with that last week – I was all hung up on the serious atmosphere and trying to get it completely authentic. Then I found it had become so dry and depressing and I twigged that this can be a fun(ny) project too. I was already doing this to a degree but now I’ve turned the Day of the Tentacle/Peppers/twisted history dial up to 11 and it’s turned into a joyful project once more.

And Bioshock Infinite is quite nice looking. Took freaking ages to get it to work, but pretty none the less. Still deciding about the gameplay…

A Zine about Canberra

Firstly, the Mall Stories 2 callout has been extended to 4 January.

Secondly, something to kickstart your mall story-ing: back in 2008 I made a zine about Canberra. Recently CJ pointed out that in that zine I had promised a second volume sometime in “late 2012″. Well, sad to say the second volume is still a long way off, but to mark the date I’ve uploaded A Zine About Canberra (PDF).

Unfortunately, in order to get the file down to a reasonable size the tour and mix tape scan are way too hard to read. Since I lack the requisite software and time to get this sorted, I’ve uploaded my Canberra ‘Walking’ Tour and mix tape as a separate PDF. Enjoy the excessive use of ‘brilliant’, ‘lovely’ and ‘awesome’ (but really, Canberra is a brilliant, lovely and awesome place. You should visit. Particularly during You Are Here).

Please note that some of this zine including the walking tour are well out of date, as are my contact details at the end.

Mall Stories 2

Well, now Corinbank is over for another year (and ten or so runs of my Live Action Canberra Choose Your Own Zombie Adventure) I can get back on with planning for my next festival event. Namely: Mall Stories 2 @ You Are Here 2013 (check back here and here for a reminder on the Mall Stories project).

Submissions have already opened for creative material to be used for another collection of audio walking tours in the Canberra CBD. Content is welcome from artists in any country, not just Canberra or Australia. Check the full callout and get your non-fiction, poetry and music to youareherecanberra AT gmail DOT com by COB 24 December 2012.

And big congratulations to CJ Bowerbird: 2013 Australian Poetry Slam winner.

Game

It’s been pretty quiet round here. Following the last Folk Festival I took a break from poetry activities and visited the US for the first time. After 6 or so years of running the poetry slams I have rolled back my involvement to focus on other creative projects. The renamed Canberra Slam is in good hands I think, and am enjoying a new style of event developing at The Front. I intend to progressively update the About page on this site to reflect this change in my creative output.

Currently on my plate are two projects: firstly a short zine about my trip to the US, with special focus on my mini Lovecraft tour of New England, and a similar exploration of New Orleans inspired by Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (oh so nerdy).

The second project is a computer game of my own, based on the poem Kubla Khan and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s experience of writing it. As the previous paragraph and earlier posts indicate I’ve had a long love of computer gaming: I’ve programmed my own simple games since I was a child, from text adventures to BASIC arcade clones and HyperCard interactive story stacks. I feel the time is right to come back to this medium and the game’s theme is a logical progression from my previous work. I hope to share the process of producing this game through this and subsequent posts as a way to keep myself on track and also to crystallise my thinking.

I already have a good amount of notes that I am compiling into a design document and am in the process of brainstorming with some creative people. The starting point for this game was is an essay I wrote at uni on the subject of Coleridge and Kubla Khan and the tension between creativity and chaos, which I might share later on down the track. At the moment I’m trying to go from this first spark of inspiration to making some very basic decisions about the game’s form. The first (and, unfortunately, some of the most significant) decisions to make is the kind of gameplay and the visual style. The working title of the game – Super Kubla Khan RPG – came very early on, but I’m not completely keen on doing a retro RPG. I still have such fondness for point and click adventure games, and I can think of some interesting in-game problems for this setting. As for the visuals: Top down? 2d scrolling? Or perhaps I should return to my interactive fiction roots. Perhaps there’s a way I can combine all of this?

National Folk Festival gigs

Just added my gigs at the National Folk Festival to the events page

Zombie Choose Your Own Adventure @ The National Folk Festival (2 shows)
Part of Lost In The Harbour – Poetry Showcase
4-4.50pm Friday 6 April 2012
Part of I’ll Shoot The Moon — Poetry Showcase
8.30-9.20pm Saturday 7 April 2012
Majestic Stage
Exhibition Park, Canberra

Performance Poetry Workshop @ The National Folk Festival
With Andrew Galan and Adam Hadley
12.00-1.00pm Sunday 8 April 2012
Majestic Stage
Exhibition Park, Canberra

Hey why so quiet? What’s been happening?

Quite a lot actually, thanks for asking.

You Are Here 2012 was a wonderful splendorous thing.

Mall Stories went off rather well, and promises to be available to download (hopefully) long into the foreseeable future… If you want to find out a bit more before you dive in, you can read this article, or this one, or even watch this nifty video:

My Live Action Canberra Zombie Choose Your Own Adventure* (With Giant Inflatable Dice) was properly debuted. And it will rear it’s ugly decaying head again as part of the National Folk Festival. Hey, it’s already on this kid’s must see list!

*Props go to The Lovely Brothers for their Zombies in Brighton! zine that inspired this.

First Traverse Poetry Slam for 2012! This Friday at The Front!

Mall Stories – You Are Here 2012 festival

I’m very excited that next year I’m going to be running a project as part of Canberra’s You Are Here festival. I can’t say too much about it yet, but it will allow me to explore some ideas I’ve been itching to try out over the last two years.

The best bit about this is you can be involved! We need your writing about experiences inside shopping malls/centres. We’re looking for non-fiction but we’re not too picky about how it comes out… poetry, creative non-fiction, anecdotes, compilations of Facebook conversations, whatever… just make sure you email it to youareherecanberra AT gmail DOT com by 15 February 2012.

Here’s the full callout. Get writing!

Mall Stories

Food court food fights, drunk Christmas elves, guerilla hula-hoop performances… what’s the strangest thing you’ve seen in a mall? 

You Are Here wants YOUR non-fiction tales, poetry, anecdotes, urban myths and shaggy dog stories about malls and shopping centres. Funny, sad and weird – let us know!

Selected stories will be featured as a part of a project during You Are Here 2012, from March 8 – 18.

You Are Here is an annual multi-platform arts festival taking place in the Canberra CBD, showcasing the city’s alternative arts and underground culture. You Are Here aims to highlight the energy, innovation and talent of Canberra’s artists past and present, presenting and promoting their work in non-traditional venues, revitalising city spaces and attracting new audiences.

Email your writing (2 pages max) – to youareherecanberra AT gmail DOT com by COB 15 February 2012.

yr honourable servant