Guest contribution by Tom deMajo
A special thanks to co-founder Tom deMajo of the game studio Quartic Llama. Tom is an artist and sound designer who currently resides in Dundee.
Earlier this year, Quartic Llama was approached by the National Theatre of Scotland to make a game as part of a city-wide trans-media project called other, supporting the theatrical debut of “Let The Right One In”- a contemporary vampire story. They were keen to see if it was possible to make a game which could incorporate the work of local writers, musicians and artists, and for it to take place in the city. They were interested in finding ways that theatre and digital art/games could work together, and were very proactive, supportive and open to new ideas. We agreed that this would be an amazing opportunity for an experimental, location- based horror sound game, and in a unique partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland, we developed other.
other is quite difficult to define, but we ended up calling it an “alternate reality sound game”. This highlights the relationship the game has with traditional ARG’s which take place in the real world, and is a good description of the experience; other uses sound, interaction and your location to distort the world around you, and blurs the distinction between reality and fiction, and between game and theatre.
Our original concept was a kind of location based album. The player’s position in the city would activate area-specific sounds and music to create a seamless but evolving soundtrack as they moved from one location to another- the city would be like a mixing desk. We began to take a closer look, and listen, to the City.
Quartic Llama is based in Dundee City where we developed other. There are a lot of seagulls here. They are really noisy, day and night, but its not the same sound you might hear at the beach- not the lazy endless open air sound that dissipates into the horizon; its more of a blanketing of the sky and the sound bounces tightly through the city streets. Outside where I write this, there are short roads forcing rapid accelerations and decelerations of gas-powered buses. At night, drunken shouts are funneled through the wide channels of the city’s streets, and as with all cities, there are areas of reflection, of social interaction and of business all with their associated sound which change and respond to time, location, function. The accumulation of all this local sound data combines to create a unique bio-architectural acoustic “signature” of the City of Dundee- a sonic identifier which provides me with clues to where and when I am. This acoustic signature is paralleled and interconnected with cultural, architectural, historical, social and technological information structures- interrelationships manifesting as a city.
In psycho-geographical terms, Dundee’s historic Catholic/Protestant divide and post-industrial heritage is a constant reminder of the past and continues to shape the present both culturally, architecturally, and inherently, also acoustically. All of this occurs while the artistic and digital subcultures flow between the gaps, challenging the status quo, and exploring possible futures.
These dualities, conflicts- and sometimes resolutions- resonate everywhere through the city, creating areas of cultural, social and architectural harmony and/or dissonance. From narrative and sound design perspectives, there is a wealth of associated and potential story and sound wrapped up in these information structures.
There are other signals being transmitted through Dundee City and shaped by it. Mobile phone networks, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other communication and location frequencies along with the areas where they are stronger or weaker, or non-existent, create a collective sub, or infra-acoustic signature of the city as well.
In this sense, the model of frequencies which make up the overall “acoustic” signature of Dundee start to seem varied and interconnected. By broadening our perception of the relationships between the spaces and the imbedded information flowing through them, we are able to map and tap into these acoustic spaces and recombine them to create new narratives.
We are used to the idea of reprogramming our sonic environment, but it is only recently and through audio technology that those sounds have been freed from their position in space and time (their acoustic context). Most recorded music and sound today is positioned in simulated acoustic spaces which might not even exist in the real world, and as sound designers, we can change the meaning of a sound by altering its acoustic context. We can change the story of a thing by placing it in a different space, and we can tell a story through the space itself. So if the place is the story, and the place is in the real world, can we change our perception of the real world through manipulation of the acoustic signature?
We made the game to be a continuous and immersive experience played against this backdrop, to tap into, reveal and reflect this collected acoustic infrastructure for the player, and by tuning the information, create a new perception of Dundee and the players relationship to it. We wanted to make the experience feel like it was part of the fabric of the city, not just laid on top.
Making sound the focus allowed us to create a connective thread and location specific sonic narrative, allowing the player to observe and participate in their environment; not only are players able to see the world around them, they are invited to actively take part in it without ever breaking the experience.
We wanted the game to guide the player through some of the diverse architectural spaces that Dundee has to offer, to provide a striking visual, physical and cultural backdrop to the sound. These spaces heavily inspired and informed the sounds and the overall story.
In order to make the game an enjoyable experience beyond a simple walk, we needed an overarching narrative to engage the player and motivate them through the city and the game. The walk through the city itself became the compositional basis for both the narrative and the sound of the game- the ebb and flow of the experience, and the spatial, musical and narrative dynamics for the player. We located focal points along the walk-invariably interesting architectural structures (a church steeple, a shopping mall, a graveyard) and these became the beats in the story- locations where significant events take place. Because we were connected at all times to the player, we could use the journey between these points to strengthen the narrative and the atmosphere of the game.
With the support, skills and energy of the National Theatre of Scotland, we were able to make physical changes to some locations of the the city to fit into the game narrative, further blurring the boundaries of the real and game worlds driven by the sound.
Walking while listening to music is a way of constructing personal sonic environments, and we used the familiarity of this behavior as game mechanic and an introduction to our gaming experience. The journey begins in very public and well known parts of dundee. The accompanying sound reinforces things the player is familiar with, if not particularly comfortable with. A cheap, old sounding computerized voice accompanied by strangely 1970‘s Muzak welcomes the player and introduces them to a tour of Dundee, pointing out seemingly irrelevant data points in the surroundings, and guiding the player through the streets. The voice seems out of place, like it comes from an older time, an older attitude, but very much from the city. This construction binds the player to the game through sound; by listening to the voice and doing what it tells you, you build trust with the machine. You know it is aware of your- and its own- location, because it has just pointed something out to you that you can see.
But it also highlights the reality that you are being tracked by something inhuman, connected to an information structure which you cannot sense, but that surrounds you at all times. The player and game begin a relationship based on trust- the player sees and moves, but relies on the game to guide them and contextualize the world around them through sound.
This is a powerful collision of sensory information.
Once the trust relationship is established, and the player accepts that the machine is interfacing with the real world, and that the information from the machine is true, we can begin the delicate operation of playing with this relationship by altering the sonic context of everything.
In most games, the entire game world is created on the player’s behalf, and all the audiovisual (and interactive) experiences are set within a stylistic and technological framework. The players suspension of disbelief correlates to the creative choices made by the developers of the game, and through the understanding and acceptance of the framework. This affords a certain degree of flexibility in any stylistic abstraction from reality. In other, the game world is the real world, and the player’s expectations are linked to their experiences in it.
People know what a city sounds like. We hear our surroundings mixed in with (mostly unconscious) cultural and visual cues, with accumulated years of personal history backing up our preconceptions. So, in making a sound game based in the real world, we risk a kind of acoustic equivalent to uncanny valley happening. If the sound we create is too similar to what we already know, it is not only redundant information, it’s not going to be as good as the real thing; if it is too different, it removes the trust built up between the player, space and game, and once that trust is broken, it’s very difficult to get back. We have to play a very delicate balancing act of keeping people occupied with the narrative and interactive elements of the game, being conscious of their environment, and slowly shifting their perception of it. There is space for this. It lies between the preconception of what a thing is, and the realization that you actually have no idea. By taking into account and combining enough different acoustic properties inherent in the architectural, cultural, historical, information structures surrounding the player, we can establish a believable connection to the physical world, and then begin to challenge any preconceptions of it.
In my mind, the acoustics of a thing are not the thing itself, but the relationship it has with everything else around it which provides the thing’s quantitive information and qualitative value to the observer. Acoustics is the context- everything but the object. I suppose it is atmosphere, which the game heavily relies on.
In this case, the acoustic model of the game in Dundee is all the invisible, hidden or ignored information brought to light. Our project, other, applies an alternative cultural, historical, sonic context to a big, physical, tangible, seeable world, through interactive mobile technologies connected to invisible networks which can see you.
The story of the game is exactly this- find the hidden stories of the “others”, ghosts of the City, invisible to you except through technology that is able to communicate with the acoustic structures of Dundee. Find the other Dundee, the hidden, invisible, just beneath the surface world where everything between the objects exists.
There is a symmetry about the game- played in the city, with stories, songs and music from people of the city, made by people from the city, about the city; a true feedback loop existing between the game and real world structures which concludes with the player adding something back to the city; a new piece of data is added by the player to the information structures which make up the ever evolving acoustic signature of Dundee.
The entire game was built with audio at its foundation. Everything, thematically, conceptually, functionally was created with sound at the core.
I believe that sound is the perfect way, maybe the only way, to create this kind of spatial experience. It flows around corners and fills space in a way which perfectly compliments architectural spaces and real world visual experiences. The characteristics of sound lend themselves to exploring and reflecting the ideas we had in making the game in this specific city, and for this specific city.
Perhaps our tendency to use sight as our primary sense function, and the one we rely on most to configure our perception of reality through the identification of objects, leaves the back door open for sound to give us acoustic, contextual information which can change the meaning of the world we play in, and that is the the door that other opens in the city of Dundee.
To view the trailer for other on youtube. Click Here