Tuesday, 7 May 2013


These Pages fall like ash – composed by Tom Abba with creative input from Neil Gaiman & Nick Harkaway

 
I hear your voice, but I cannot see your face. I can remember you, but we’ve never met. This is where we live. This is a city.

There are two books, one a beautiful wooden bound physical book and the second a digital book hidden on a number of hard drives scattered round the city of Bristol.

 

Two cities, each overlapping the other

Two people who can no longer remember each other's existence...

Two Books, Two Platforms, A Singular Reading Experience

 

This will be amazing, I thought, two writers I have lots of respect for, an innovative and interesting ARG-like structure & an interesting sounding story.

When I first picked up the physical book I was pretty excited, it’s a truly beautiful physical object and there was just enough in there to make me think the story was going to be amazing. There was an encyclopaedia of the future city terms such as :

 Clostering: n – The break up of large religious groups centred around places of worship into small community led groups

Or

Structard: n – a form of poetic writing that follows a mathematical formula for its construction. The most common style is based on word counts per line based on the recurrence relationship Fn = Fn-F1+Fn-2 (with seed values of Fn=0, Fn=1,) Creating sequences such as 0.,1,1,2,3,5,8,13

 

The future/alternative city had some Gaimenesque/Harkwayerian quality that was going to be fun exploring.

On Day 1 there were 5 locations (identified in the physical book, that took a little thought but were quite easy to work out), 4 days later a second set of 5 locations was released, 3 days later another 5 and 4 days later “everything changes” with the content being stored as either “Before” or “Epilogue”.

On day 1 we walked the first 5 locations and saw several others doing the same. Sadly there were some technical difficulties and 2 of the wifi points were not working. Oddly the locations where the wifi was had nothing to do with the event, one pub where it wasn’t working didn’t even know about the book, and when we reported this to the Watershed (the venue doing the ticketing) they didn’t, at first, seem to know how to contact the organisers to say there was a problem. A couple of nights later we were in town for an event so caught up but I’d hate to think what people who travelled especially to Bristol thought of it.

Events conspired so that we could only do the next 10 locations after “everything changed” and we walked the second and third sets on the same day in a mobile phone battery challenging day. Luckily the weather was lovely and it was quite a nice walk along the Avon New Cut. The walk was probably 2-3 miles long from the Hatchet pub (one of the pubs in Bristol claiming to be the oldest pub and the first of the second set of locations) and the Hen & Chicken pub (the last location, not all of the locations were pubs though!).

The story was fragmentary and, in the end, not narratively cohesive. We failed to find 1 location, quite possibly the wifi wasn’t working or we didn’t go to the right place but I don’t think this is the reason the story didn’t work. The setting had lots of potential and there was the possibility of interactiveness (at several points we had to upload photographs) but sadly it didn’t grip me. The photo thing didn’t work well (I kept getting error messages that the photo already existed, couldn’t work out how to rename the photos taken by my phone – if, in fact, that was the problem) and the photos weren’t linked to the story. At most locations the location wasn’t linked to the story and I feel that this meant we could have, as easily and with just as much effect, have downloaded a bunch of pdfs at home.

There were a lot of cute points, there were several structards, the format of some of the stories was such that some text became visible when other text became invisible, there were breadcrumb like text trails following links and the setting (story, not location) inspired imagination.

Many of the stories revolved around a child called Oska

In the book you're writing, the one with the city in it?

Yes bear?

That Oska, the one in the city, in your book.

_

Oska?

Will he grow up?

He's not you, love. He's in a book.

In a book isn't alive?

It's different. It's like all this things I know about you, all the things I love about you are in here, and when I wrote them here then they can stay, they can last forever.

Forever?

Forever and ever little bear. For as long as the world turns and the needle child stays in your dreams. That long.

And as long as the sea and the spiral descends mummy?

That long too. You can say the lament, bear? I didn't think you could remember all of the words.

Just funny ones mummy. The ones make me laugh.

Mummy, is daddy in your book too?

The stories were all flash fiction, generally a couple of hundred words or less and there was a lot of similarity. It seemed to be structured around the idea that people may not do all the locations, or do the locations out of order and so in the end felt like a collection of prose poems on a theme rather than a story with narrative structure.

There were a few grammatical errors (like above shouldn’t that be “The ones that make me laugh”?)  - which sounds a bit nitpicky but I spotted them so proofreading can’t have been too stringent?

It may sound like I hated this, I really didn’t, I had a good time exploring this. Mostly though I was disappointed that something that took this amount of effort wasn’t better. I think what the team needed was someone with a gaming background, maybe someone involved in ARGs, I don’t mean to gamify the experience though. What was needed was the story to be tied more to the locations and for a coherent, emergent, narrative to be the focus. The setting could have been explored more and more could have been done to make it truly interactive. For example there was this in the encyclopedia:

Voicering: n – a formal process for the exchange and transmission of songs, usually takes place at unofficial markets, can also spontaneously occur  which then goes on to explain how such a song trading would work which seemed to me to be an opportunity for the organisers to create a flash mob for the participants to attend.

Or:

Intersect: n – a temporal period during which two echoes cohere. It is based on one of the developments of coherence theory that theorises the possibility of isomorphic environements existing simultaneously in emotional but not physical space

This is explored in the stories where the narrators sometimes glimpse the other city, the other city’s inhabitants. Obviously this would have been difficult to do with any longevity but why not have some travellers from the other city being glimpsed in today’s Bristol?  Perhaps even using an empty building as one of the locations that occasionally there is something there, a projected film perhaps, music or noises from the other city?

Overall – An interesting idea, could have been executed better, a wasted opportunity

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