JOHN MARTIN’S UNDERWORLD - From an overlooked Victorian artist - to an innovative digital project?Underworld: was an experiment in online interactive storytelling - a small Alternate Reality Game-esque experience which unfolded via Twitter, where the audience could influence the outcome if they asked the right (or enough) questions.
But before I go into exactly what we did and why, the protagonist of the tale, Elena Batham has been brought back to life for this presentation, and she’s brought her writer, Hannah Flynn - @hanchan with her, so feel free to tweet them both, and use the hashtag #shesaliveatMCN. They’ll both be around until 12 so talk to them. Hannah was the assistant in our team, who has sadly now left us – she’s not dead obviously.
So how did this all come about - what led to us making the thing?
Well, we had the John Martin show at Tate Britain, which we put down as our central piece established content - the show was complete when we started thinking about the story, but we had buy-in from the curator who was very open to ideas.
The plan was to make John Martin to appealing to young people, and the show was part of The Great British Art Debate, or GBAD. GBAD is a four year four-gallery partnership project with three regional galleries all working together to use historic British Art collections to explore questions about nationhood and identity today, and it’s specifically aimed at a young audience - people aged 16-25.Next came a super intense and different trailer for the show from the film team. Which honestly got people talking about the show internally - galvanised people around it, making us all think twice about what we could achieve with John Martin.
So we looked again at John Martin himself, whose life was full of craziness - rich stuff that we could weave in. Have a look at his wikipedia page - his artworks are full of narrative qualities - and are inspired by the Bible, Greek myth. His paintings are huge and bombastic. Odd things also happened to his works after he died - one piece was cut into three bits to be used as a screen in someone's house, which was later restored. He was also really interested in improving London and in 1834 came up with a detailed plan for a sewage system, predating the plans for the systems we have now by 25 years. More recently he’s been influential on rock music, album art - especially Iron Maiden. Also, also, Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion legend behind Jason and The Argonauts and Clash of Titans publicly acknowledges Martin’s influence in his work.
This is the poet, Ted Hughes house, which is now a residential writing centre. Hannah and I had just been up there on the first writing for video games course to help support the work we were doing on Tate Kids. We talked loads about branching narratives, interaction points, and whether a game can be flexible. And, how exciting it is to play through a narrative if you know you can affect it.
Also - a group of science fiction fans had self-published an ebook of stories based on JM’s works, so we decided to print a hundred beautiful copies and had a bit of a launch party for it at Tate Britain.
We felt that younger people we really starting to connect with us more on Twitter, and wanted to engage with them over there, rather than attempting to create an experience.
Hannah is a confident writer, knows game design inside out, self-defines as “a massive nerd” who loves Twitter. She also sat on the Tate Social Media group, and had “two spare weeks”. She said.
But all these planets aligned to form Underworld. We took the narrative established in the trailer and weaved a story of a heroine drawn into the paintings of John Martin, and had to progress through about five of his works, in the order they appear in the show in order to return home.So what did it look like?
Here’s a small selection of the tweets Elena made - she made a total of 428 over the two week period. So check out the Twitter feed if you get a chance to see how the narrative unfolded.
We used the Tate blog and Tate twitter account to announce the game, to provide Frequently Asked Questions and to give a weekly roundup of the activity to keep players old and new up to date. This is not strictly best practise for a game of this kind - as you are supposed to chance upon the game - but we felt this was too risky this time around - as the take up would likely to be ZERO.
Taking Hannah’s time out of the equation, the total project cost £136 - which was the cost of the drinks at the launch event I previously mentioned. There was two weeks where Hannah devoted most of her time to writing and playtesting the content, and the game played out over four weeks.We ended up with around 200 followers, with 25-30 of whom collaborated, questioned and led the story forward by interacting with Elena. We were happy with this figure, as we didn’t define what success meant for this project.
There are a few.This was a training wheels experience for us.* We found that people couldn’t follow her unless we posted regular round ups - the majority of people didn’t have the time or inclination to keep up with the story without them.* Lots and lots of easter eggs were built into the story that were never discovered, and it was hard to not be precious about that, but you couldn’t sway the story, it would be inauthentic. * We couldn’t track if people had come to see the show off the back of the game - but they did interact with is, with some people getting waay more involved than we’d even hoped. Elena made friends.* The staff - Hannah went off and - rather selfishly - got married in the middle of the project so we had other members of the social media team pick it up in her absence. Because the project was her baby, it was quite difficult to pick it up, but once they did they were fine. But seriously - this project is quite intense, but finite so not something you can run half-assed.* Scheduling tweets made this process much easier - but of course someone had to be around to respond to the conversations. There may not be a next time for this kind of content for us. It was about the artist, the team and the opportunity - and moving quickly to react to the opportunity. Now ask me anything you like about this project!
This is the Alice in Wonderland inspired project - Wondermind that I (along with many many others internal and external to Tate) developed and launched in November 2011.
Go check it out – it’s in Flash, so won’t work on your iDevices, sorry!
Wondermind has the aim of reaching audiences not normally engaged with biomedical science by delivering a highly interactive website for children aged 8-12 and their parents, carers and teachers. It introduces them to key neuroscience concepts in child development, inspired by works from the Tate collection and an exploration of the world presented by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.Wondermind has three content areas: A set of four mini-games, which use Alice in Wonderland themes to introduce our areas of scientific focus in a friendly and engaging way. A series of interactive videos that link to the games, but delve deeper into the science with interviews with leading scientists and researchers. The website itself. The interactive content sits within a WordPress powered blog which allows the kids to find out even more about the science, see art related to the concepts and share their thoughts in the comments. So let me show you what this looks like:
So you might be thinking, well that’s all well and good, but why? Why Tate?Well – it was like a few planets aligned: Tate and I were really keen to work on a multidisciplinary project – that would tie art and science together to hopefully inform understanding and appreciation of both worlds. The Wellcome Trust, big funders of science outreach projects in the UK had put out a call for ideas centered around Grey Matters – relating to the brain. We were having an Alice in Wonderland show at Tate Liverpool and had begun to think about some ideas for games and interactivities around the exhibition. Personally – I wanted a fresh challenge and the opportunity to work on something quite ambitious.
This was a huge team effort. The games were designed by Preloaded, a London-based games studio. The interactive video content by filmmaker Martin Percy and the Science content was led by Dr. Michelle de Haan. We applied for the funding as a unit. Internally, at Tate, there were many teams involved, Learning, Digital, Information Services, Marketing, Press, Curatorial, Audio Visual – as we not only kept the game online, you could play them at Tate Liverpool for the duration of the show.
So back to the project itself. I’m a keen advocate of learning by doing and we were keen that the kids would play through the science, rather than it be explained with text.The games would be a hook into the content, and then the will be pulled into the interactive videos. We hoped the users would fall down the rabbit hole with us into learning more about science and art. So what game-design principles did we employ?
The ambition was to create moreish, compelling gameplay.
A core game mechanic or verb that is simple to understand and fun to use.
A clearly defined objective or target to give the players focus.
Creating the tension between success and failure. The metronome of the experience.
A measure of achievement that makes you want to come back and play it again. The carrot of the experience.
There were additional project-specific requirements – had to be related to Alice in Wonderland. Had to be informed by the scientific concept and because it was coming from Tate, had to be of a high aesthetic standard.
So now let me show you our four games in closer detail.
Was the first concept we tackled
In a nutshell, the small parts that make up the brain, neurons, are more connected in children’s brains, than adults brains. These connections change depending upon how much they are used.
Was the game we devised for this concept.
The aim is to direct ‘Alice’ around the ever-changing forest as she chases after the ‘White Rabbit’.She is given a limited amount of time to catch up with him each time he appears. If she reaches him before the clock runs out then any unused time is added to the next mission - allowing for ‘infinite play’. The aim here is to play the game for as long as possible.
Alice can only move along the forest pathways if they are kept clear.Paths can only be kept clear by regular use (or by the use of an ‘Eat me’ item – which makes Alice larger and she stomps down the path, clearing it quickly.).If a path is not used for a set amount of time then it will become overgrown preventing Alice from using it.
The winning strategy is to try and vary the paths Alice uses rather than simply taking the most direct route every time. This way the paths can be kept open and she will always be able to catch up to the rabbit.The rabbit appears and random locations throughout the game so the player has a different experience every time. At the end of the game we provide a little summary to show the players they were playing through a concept. In this case this was. “The forest had lots of pathways which changed depending on which ones you used the most. Did you know that’s what your brain does everyday?
Our second game
Even young children learn to make a mental map of their position in the world. It takes longer for a person to learn to imagine what the world would look like from a different point of view.
Our approach to the concept was On Reflection
The player is presented with a screen displaying a moonlit garden maze, at the bottom of the screen stands Alice holding a bulls-eye lantern. Deep within the maze we see the eyes and teeth of the Cheshire Cat twinkling clearly in the moonlight. The aim of the game is to help Alice shine a light on the elusive Cheshire Cat who is hiding deep inside the maze. The player does this by taking a number of right-angled mirrors, placing them in strategic positions around the garden.
Once the mirrors are in position and the player willclick on Alice and she will shine her lantern into the maze.
If the mirrors are set up correctly then the light will be reflected around the maze and beam upon the Cheshire Cat. The quicker it is done the more you will score. The winning strategy here is to quickly and decisively place the mirrors before the time runs out. Each challenge features a slightly different maze to keep the player interested. The end of game summary text here is:This game was all about moving around spaces. Understanding spaces – and how to move around them - is a big part of what your brain learns to do as you grow up.
Different parts of the brain remember different kinds of information for different amounts of time.
Was our game here
A matching pairs game: The aim of the game is to help the Queen find her ‘volunteers’ from within the card deck. She will shout out the name of the card she requires and you must pick them out from the deck. She is impatient so speed is of the essence - if the clock runs out then your game is over.You can however add time to the clock by picking out other pairs of cards - each additional pair adds a couple seconds to the countdown clock and the ‘Queens pair’ adds a larger amount of time and signifies the beginning of a new round.
The player can turn over as many of the cards as they can manage to look at within the time limit. There are no lives, and no penalty for clicking on lots of cards. The player is using their explicit memory in order to search out the specific card selected by the Queen, and their implicit or working memory to spot other card pairs in the deck as they search.
The winning strategy is to quickly identify the pairsEach round is against the clock so speed and strategic thinking are of the essence. In terms of replay ability players can always try to beat their previous time and therefore their previous best score. Each game sees the cards shuffled so the player will always face a new challenge. The science bit at the end here is: To play this game, you used your memory – but did you know you have not one, but at least TWO different kinds of memory – both of which you use every day?
Our final game:
Over time your brains becomes quicker and better at telling apart sounds and words of the language you grew up with
So this is Talking Tea.
The aim of the game is to help the Mad Hatter deliver a specific type of Tea into the cups of the guests at the tea party.
The player does this by adjusting a number of connecting pipes that sit in between the Hatters tea pot and the cups. Each ‘tea service’ has a set time limit in which the tea must be served. The faster guests receive the tea they want, the more points the player will score.
The winning strategy is to quickly and decisively rearrange the tea pipes. Again each service is against the clock so speed and strategic thinking are imperative. In terms of replay ability, each tea service will feature a different tea being served to a varying amount of party guests. Often there will be more than one way to get the tea to the guest or the possibility of serving more than one guest at a time. At the end of the game you get the following text:In this game, you served the right tea to party guests by turning off the pipes you didn't need. This is just like focusing on learning one particular language.Did you know that’s what your brain did when you were baby?
Those were our four games, and we got them out into the world by not onlyhaving them with the full experience on enterwondermind.com with the interactive videos and blog, we also had standalone version of the games, designed specifically to be syndicated to games portals and third party sites with view of driving the traffic back to enterwondermind.com.
Wondermind has been live for just over a year and it’s gone down really quite well, and we’ve had some successes – however you define it. It’s had around 300k plays, 250k unique players which is pretty good. We’ve been left some great comments especially this one on Kongregate:Amazing game! I don't think you understand how much I LOVE Alice in Wonderland, and this takes it to a whole new level. I went to the website as well, and I'm learning a bunch of interesting things about how the brain works. Interesting information with an ingenious hook. 5/5 I honestly thought someone had planted that comment from the project team because it summed up exactly how we wanted the project to work and be received. We’ve had some good coverage in the gaming press and on gaming blogs including, Develop, Gama Sutra, Jay is Games, taking Tate and our work to new audiences. We’ve been nominated for a few awards including a few Webbies (we were awarded official honorees in the games and interactive video catergories this year along with and a nomination for best youth. We won a couple of Lovies, which are the European Webbies, there was also a SXSW nomination and an honorable mention at Museums and The Web.
Well not so much lessons learned, but things to think about if you are planning on working on a multidisciplinary project with funders in this way. Assemble a team of experts in all content areas – don’t bullshit your way through the content because you’ll end up doing a disservice to everyone.Keep your core working team to a minimum but brief wider groups at your institution as early as possible and keep them in the loop, you will need their help and it’s rude to spring a massive project on them late in the day.Show your funders the work as you progress – don’t let them wait until launch to see it enabling them to request expensive changes once it’s live.Also with funders – don’t set yourself a crazy (although reasonable using the evidence we had, it that’s not an oxymoronic thing to say)If you’re having an offline physical component, it sounds obvious, but go to the site. A lot. Check on your tech.Be prepared to compromise.No matter the amount of funding you get, it’s never enough, so think big, but be prepared to scale back.Ask yourself whether a game is the best way to answer your question and convey your information. For Wondermind it certainly was – but is it for you? Might an open-ended digital toy experience be better?Put some money aside for marketing – don’t think you’re brand is strong enough to wing it.
John Martin and Wondermind presentation at MCN 2012
John Martin‟sUNDERWORLDFrom overlooked artist toinnovative digital project
“The brain is overconnected with manymore points of communication betweencells than in the adult brain. So there aremany possibilities, the brain is still „open‟and changeable.Over time, the connections that are usedthe most are kept and those used less arelost.”
“Babies learn the pattern of sounds in theirnative language. Their brains tune intothese differences in order to get better athearing them whilst tuning out andignoring sounds that are not used in theirnative tongue”