New forms of immersive storytelling are becoming more and more popular, featuring transmedia components and merging narrative modules with gaming elements, as video games’ technology has been particularly influential in the development of these new narrative forms. Specifically, storytelling is getting more immersive and participative, in the sense that audience is engaged in a more interactive way and the environment is evolving into a more complex transmedia scenario.
Perfect examples of this new immersive narrative form are the most recent works of Andy Campbell. One of them, Pluto, created by Andy Campbell together with Australian digital artist Mez Breeze, has just been awarded with The Space Open Call and Tumblr International Price 2015.
Pluto is a transmedia work featuring immersive video game elements and digital storytelling; as per the artists’ words, it is a: “storyworld where perceptions are stretched beyond the ‘real’ as you [think you] know it”. Like many of Campbell’s previous works, Pluto explore oneiric states through multi-layered narrative and multimedia modules. The result is an immersive digital fiction, exploring the boundaries between gaming and electronic literature, while questioning the meaning of identity, objects’ reality and memories. Gaming features are significantly present in a sophisticate digital landscape combining also narrative components and multimedia elements (like graphics, gaming, animations etc). The visual style alternates dream inspired atmospheres and elaborated graphic effects, contributing to an extraordinary aesthetic outcome, entwining gameplay and novelistic patterns.
Andy Campbell is a digital writer and web artist, who has been working in the digital/literature world since 1993 and has developed multimedia interfaces and web applications for a wide range of clients in different sectors of the arts, including in literature. Close to that, Campbell is Director of Digital Media for the UK based One to One Development Trust, an arts organization focusing on producing innovative multimedia and digital projects and lead developer of the Inanimate Alice series, in collaboration The Bradfield Company.
Dreaming Methods is his website online since 1999, houses over 20 collaborative projects of digital fiction and experimental narrative games, including new episodes of Inanimate Alice, The Dead Tower, #PRISOM and, of course, Pluto.
Silvia Bertolotti: Could you tell us something about your collaboration with Mez Breeze, which started in 2012, if I’m not wrong, and is still a very fruitful professional partnership?
Andy Campbell: In June 2012 I shared around 100mb of digital resources (source code, images, audio, video clips, for free use in any project) with the electronic literature community via Dropbox. Anyone who wanted to access the files just had to send me a request. Mez was among the people interested, and we got talking on Twitter. At the time, I was in the early stages of developing an experimental piece called The Dead Tower. I asked Mez if she’d be interested in collaborating with me on it. I’d been glintingly aware of Mez’s work for a long time. The Dead Tower revealed a spark of unusually strong and genuine creative synergy for us both, and our collaborative partnership has grown and matured enormously since the release of that project.
Silvia Bertolotti: Gaming is an important element in your work. What is in your opinion its relationship/effect on digital born literature? In both of them, I notice that aesthetics represents a crucial aspect.
Andy Campbell: I was a games designer in the 1990s, having released a number of successful shareware titles for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, so I’ve always been interested in including a gaming element to my work. Initially, I started writing fictional backstories for my games, which were bundled with the games themselves as optional extras, as well as creating a series of electronic novellas and short story anthologies with graphical accompaniments. In 1999 with the release of The Virtual Disappearance of Miriam with Martyn Bedford, and Fractured, this evolved into digital fiction, but it wasn’t until the release of Nightingale’s Playground with Judi Alston in 2010 – a work that literally incorporates video games into its narrative – that I returned to the potential of using game engine technology, and decided to see how far I could push it.
For me, digital fiction has always been about creating portholes into highly atmospheric, darkly captivating and fantastical worlds – living paintings, perhaps – where text itself forms an integrated part of the graphical and narrative fabric. Game mechanics, such as first-person free roam, or point-and-click/touch navigation, allow a reader/player to feel a more immediate sense of immersion; of freedom to explore/uncover/discover, and for media elements to blend beautifully into something bigger than the sum of their parts.
Silvia Bertolotti: In the gaming world – and in your works in general – the visual is essential. What is the role then of written words, which actually represent a totally different component?
Andy Campbell: I consider the written words to be part of the visuals. I’ve written extensively on the subject before, but I don’t believe that words, physically, within a work of digital fiction necessarily have to be entirely readable/understandable at all times for them to have an impact on a reader/player, or to validly contribute to – and further – the overall narrative. Words are not sacred for me, they don’t always have to be separate or narratively super-imposed, like subtitles. Media melds in the digital fiction sphere, each becomes part of the other – as do authorship roles. This aspect is one of the things I really appreciate about the form. It’s also a factor that sometimes makes it more difficult for critical audiences to grasp.
Silvia Bertolotti: You recently released the episode 5 of Inanimate Alice, which will is mobile and tablet-device friendly as also will be Pluto. What was the reason of your interest in mobile applications compatibility? You mentioned in the past that the mobile version would have been a challenge for your fiction works.
Andy Campbell: Dreaming Methods has always mixed media very heavily; early mobile and tablet devices weren’t capable of handling the number of graphical and textual layers that Dreaming Methods was used to incorporating relatively effortlessly on most laptops and computers, even within the boundaries of a web browser – or at least, I didn’t know how to achieve such results at that point, without the steep learning curve of developing native apps from the ground up. In 2010 I embarked on a few open source experiments aimed at being mobile-friendly, such as Changed with Lynda Williams, a HTML5 version of Floppy (originally created in 2004), and a mobile adaptation of Flight Paths part one, with Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, but it was tedious work: mostly trial-and-error hand-coding, constrained by tight technical limitations and riddled with browser inconsistencies.
Dreaming Methods’ sense of immersion and complexity was hard to replicate, and in some cases took a big step backwards. The mobile landscape is of course very different now, with reasonably capable processing power, high resolution screens and much more consistency in web standards. There are unique attributes to mobile and tablet devices that suit particular types of digital fiction, and some fabulous work continuously being produced for the medium. It’s an important platform, certainly, that can bring digital fiction to a very intimate level with a reader/player, and I’m excited to be developing Inanimate Alice and Pluto for Android and iOS. But I would never want to exclusively create digital fiction for mobile.
Silvia Bertolotti: Let’s talk about Pluto now. Where the inspiration for the story came from? Is there any relation with the NASA New Horizon mission?
Andy Campbell: As with much of my work, the seed idea for Pluto stems originally from a story told to me by my grandmother, who was a wonderful person and an extraordinary artist. Pluto has gone through a number of incarnations and interpretations, including some written fiction and playable environments (most notably The Valley, footage from which I showed at the MIX Digital conference in 2013; more details on the Pluto development blog), but only really came fully into being 2014 when I was getting considerably better at working in Unity. An intense series of email exchanges with Mez followed by a moonlit gameworld demo solidified a new collaboration, and the project swiftly and magically evolved. Pluto, it seems, after many years of swirling around, was waiting to find Mezangelle. I had no conscious knowledge of the NASA New Horizons mission when devising Pluto. The title of the work is inspired from astrology rather than astronomy, where Pluto is the God of the Underworld, and represents, among other things, transformation, creation and destruction.
Silvia Bertolotti: In Pluto the gaming element is crucial and we noticed an atmosphere quite similar to the one of Dreaming Methods. What are however the main innovation points in Pluto, also from the creative point of view?
Andy Campbell: I sometimes describe Dreaming Methods as a lens, or series of lenses, that allow various perspectives into the same, or similar world(s), or underworld(s); lenses that gain stronger focus and clarity as technology advances and I become, hopefully – along with my collaborators – more accomplished at what I do. Pluto brings a number of recurring themes that have arisen in other Dreaming Methods projects into extremely sharp focus – the fragmentation and deterioration of memory; the exploration of multiple identities; the relationship between individuals and families from different generations; the concept of a delicate dual universe/reality that lies somewhere enigmatically beneath the surface of our own – and weaves them into an extremely rich and multi-layered digital fiction that represents the wider vision of Dreaming Methods probably more than any other work so far.
It also pushes Mezangelle into beautiful new places: tattooed across the surface of physically affected 3D objects, woven into enormous spline tapestries in motion, and directly into the heart of a sprawling but unusually coherent narrative world where it acts as what Mez and I describe as a “quantum language”. From a technology point of view, through winning funding from The Space, elements of the Pluto world will be available for tablet devices and virtual reality – two platforms that we certainly had in mind for the work before we had any guaranteed funding, but were unsure we’d manage to actually reach. We’re particularly excited about the virtual reality aspect for the gameworld, which is already considerably immersive as a PC standalone.
Silvia Bertolotti: Pluto has also an interesting development blog. What’s the reason of it? A conceptual one or particular relationship you wanted to have with your audience?
Andy Campbell: Working on Pluto is exciting. I really enjoy documenting and sharing the creative process of making digital fiction. It’s also helpful to me personally to keep a record of the various phases a work has gone through. I tend to work slowly and organically, without rigid blueprints or scripts, so having somewhere to write notes, post work in progress visuals, teaser trailers, etc, is nice to have. The Pluto blog also acts as a communal space for Mez and I collaboratively to think and reflect on our work. Creating digital fiction, certainly at the level of Pluto, is far from simple. Based on feedback, I think other practitioners, students, readers, can find development documentation and insights around such complex projects very interesting indeed; even inspiring.
Silvia Bertolotti: What is in your opinion the future challenge for digital born fiction, in particular for experimental works as the ones of Dreaming Methods, far away from the digital publishing mainstream and what are the main projects you will be working on in the near future?
Andy Campbell: The biggest future challenge for Dreaming Methods, being highly experimental, is probably monetization, rather than reliance on project funding. Although it attracts a reasonable amount of interest and site visitors, Dreaming Methods doesn’t sell any of its projects; it’s lucky enough to be able to create them through awards and commissions and then release them for free. As well as imminent releases such as WALLPAPER, Pluto and Inanimate Alice Episode 6, future titles from Dreaming Methods will include Broken House, with Zuzana Husarova, an evocative work of audio poetry and painterly landscape that has been in tentative progress for several years; Inanimate Alice – Episode 7, which will take the form of an enormous open city game world to which Alice fans can contribute; and _Ash.Land_ and Square Ebony with Mez Breeze, which are far too secretive to reveal anything about at the moment.