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Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Secret scripts: Reviewing the Wanderlust storytelling app

“Museums have finally turned into cultural tourism, an extension of home entertainment. Pedestrian life in cities continues to be increasingly dominated by cultural tourism as well – by what I call scripted spaces. (By scripted spaces I mean staged environments where viewers can navigate through a story where they are central characters. Thus, themed, scripted spaces can be on a city street, or inside a game or at a casino.)”
– Norman M Klein: “Spaces Between: Traveling Through Bleeds, Apertures & Wormholes Inside The Database Novel”

 Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well. She looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark tree trunks; she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out.
-- From 'The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe"

1. Being Lucy Pevensie
Do you remember that point in your childhood when you believed with your whole heart, that any minute the world would open up to you? That it was just a question of finding the telling detail that no adult could see or perfecting right sequence of moves on  your way to the cornershop and boom! you'd be thrust into a secret world and an adventure beyond your wildest dreams? Children are better protagonists than adults. They expect the world to move around their desires.

But although we might be too old and be-lipsticked for admittance to Narnia, adults are getting better at entering the physical world of stories. If you've  ever marched down the street like a Colossus,  music blaring in your headphones, and felt like the star of their own personal movie, you've experienced protagonist fever. What with gamification being the buzziest buzz word at South By South West, and the rise of people like Jane McGonigal within mainstream media, the idea of us all taking a leading role in curated story experiences whilst going about our lives is becoming genuinely more feasible.

2. The app
Wanderlust is an experimental web-based app for smart phones designed to faciliate location-based storytelling in the real world. Developed by Six To Start, a company with a track record of finding and exploiting compelling new cracks in digital storytelling, Wanderlust provides a selection of short stories that are only activated by the reader positioning themselves within the geographic location of the storyworld.  If a story's set in a car park, it won't start until I take myself to a car park and log in with my phone, via Foursquare.

So, this might not quite be the gamification that every pundit and his dog have been harping on about, but it represents a bold step forward in marrying the indexical nature of digital storytelling with its tendency towards the cartography of data and space with the sharp pleasure of being physically present within a narrative. When I began the experiment, Norwich suddenly  gave off the sense of possibility I felt when I loaded up Dragon Age II on the xBox. Both this experience and Dragon Age have narratives that respond to reader/player movement and decision-making. They may appear to be infinite sandboxes to explore but the whole experience is tightly curated by an author. I don't mind authorial control - in fact there's something irresistible about writers the calibre of Naomi Alderman leading me by the hand through the city where I've spent my adult life. I may not need to win 20 points or become The Mayor of Brushing My Teeth but the thought that embarking upon my daily errands might unlock a story about murderous bird-like creatures that destroyed Norwich...well. Then I'm curious child again, ecstatic to turn even the most familiar corner.

3. Testing Wanderlust: "Head to a bar to begin reading."
-- Oh god, who needs telling twice? Ever obedient to my iPhone, I head to Frank's, which is out of budget, but I'll be damned if I'm not going to art-direct my experience to the nth degree. If you believe the New York Times, Frank's is the premier late-night spot for students of an intellectual bent." Roughly translated this means that the hipster-cute/paper mache craft aesthetic pervades but is stomachable, Also that tea and one slice of toast costs £4.50.  My iPhone tells me that 'Tourism'  the 'dark fable' in six acts by Naomi Alderman takes place in "bars, a park, a bridge, an office and a parking garage." I find my seat, order the cheapest thing on the menu (spiced nuts, in a small ceramic dish,) and begin.

Unfortunately the frisson of possibility is the strongest emotion an adventurer can derive form the app at present. Fantasy, tech and geographical reality are not yet working hand in hand. I spent 15 minutes huffing from location to location, trying desperately to encounter a location that Foursquare acknowledged as existent. 

'Head to the nearest bridge' instructed my phone:

Reader, I did. I can prove it. Check out the desolate Norfolk sky, redolent of loss.
Know that I am the mayor of it.
St Georges Street bridge, 1.21pm, Norwich

I stomped and tramped like a founding member of the Billy Goats Gruff but Foursquare wouldn't acknowledge my location. Desperate, I accessed the separate 4Square app on my phone and spent five minutes registering the St George Street bridge. You'll be pleased to hear that 'm now the mayor of the structure pictured above. Then back I went to the Wanderlust screen and registered my location. Finally, I was privvy to the next part of the story, set on this bridge. I learnt that something terrible had happened here. Something that started with eggs. But now I had to go to a park to learn more.

Reader, I did. 
I had a go on the swings.
 I was ready for killer winged things, terrible reptiles, the lot. 27 year old women sitting alone in a children's playpark fear nothing.

Foursquare refused to acknowledge this park. Even when I went through the rigamarole of registering it. Thus, Naomi Alderman's story ended, cut down by its delivery system.

4. The Nut Problem
Quite apart from the tech fail that stalled the story, there is still a sense that the structure of these narrative needs to be examined more closely. At the moment there seems to be less of an emphasis of the realitites of moving around in a geo-specific environment. Let's go back to Frank's and the first installment of the story for a moment....

I sit down at my table. I order nuts. I breathe in the shabby-chic artisan aesthetic and I hit 'Let's Go' on my phone. I am presented with around 300 words, first person, dripping with atmosphere, a seedy narrator drawing me into a dystopian Norwich. However, that takes all of a minute to read. The final words? "Go to a bridge to continue the story." Great, but. Um. My nuts? The socio-economics of entering this lovely bar, which is not only a social space but a place of business, mean that I can't just pop in and not order something. Cafes don't let you use the toilet without laying down coin, and the waitress doesn't care if it's a story fragment, a puzzle piece or a piss. You sit down. I was delayed by 15 minutes at least and no matter how evocative 300 words doesn't sustain that kind of time commitment.

And commitment it is - this particular story had five separate locations and I had to plan my route so that all the storyparts would reveal themselves to me. This wasn't a secret narrative to accompany an errand - this was a fully planned adventure: I had a hat, I had dressed for the weather. Furthermore, I was glad to be in Norwich. Aren't we all? Multi-locational narratives that demand you have a bridge, an office, a park &etc. pretty much privilege a city-based adventurer. A small town may have all these locations, but it's odd-on that it's a fair schlep between them. And the probability they're on 4Square? Hm. Not astonishingly high. This is the curse of the early adopter and 300 words per location is not enough of a prize.

5. Eternal Life & Mid 80s kitsch
Another story contained within Wander - 'Tech' by Tom Chatfield - works really well precisely because it avoids the problem of too much traversal overpowering the storyworld. It's a self-contained narrative set in a restaurant. I chose 'Wholesome Foods' on Swan Lane. Wholesome Foods has glorious chow but really needs to reign in its kitsch. I ordered coffee and a pain au chocolat. It arrived so saturated with irony I could barely taste the butter.

As a record of a full orchestra playing 'Hey Jude' mumbled away in the background (don't talk to me about 'Third Space' consumer experiences, I may start crying), I was able to disappear into my own sci- fi one-act. 'Tech' works well because it is in part about the corrosive and seductive need to disappear into hardware, to cheat time. Within this analogy, even a novel can be hardware. I have no qualms about disappearing into my phone for a moment, especially when it recontextualises my environment in such an exciting way.  The plot of 'Tech' is fairly simple: a father attempts to connect with his teenage daughter in a restaurant whilst grappling with his secret fears about the time travel device that allows the bulk of humanity to live forever. I think. It's hard to revisit and re-read when the story only exists within a delineated geographical space. It's also delightful to sip coffee and slip into a liminal space. A world of wardrobes. Why shouldn't your hometown become a sandbox for narrative - can you imagine a large-scale story with the fragmented scope of something like Red Dead Redemption written across the psychogeography of your route to work? What kind of hat would you wear for that? Six To Start have begun a bold experiment. It's now up to writers to  to take us beyond the coffee shop. I'm ready to go wherever they want to take me. Just give me time to eat my nuts.



Becky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernardo Bueno said...

The idea is great and we haven't seen all of it yet. But don't get me started on sandbox narratives (Red Dead Redemption, GTA etc.). Choosing the order of missions is not sandbox narrative, and although it is a brilliant concept, I don't think technology can deliver it today (the closest thing we get to sandbox narratives are old-school RPG game sessions, maybe).

I might be wrong, though.