A Stone Book – Part Three

The third of three critical responses to If You Go Away by Hannah Nicklin.

I play If You Go Away for the second time starting outside the V&A in South Kensington. The experience is different; the streets busy, I take more wrong turns this time, and at a key moment, walk in a direction that leaves too many events untriggered, that leaves me wandering around the ghost of a landscape, greyed out, the final third of the story, untold. I am however, met with a piece of writing, on the floor, just inside the ruins of Albert Hall “meet me here when the sun sets”. As I wander around, I return to this writing. I stand. Aware not just of myself, but of the footsteps of others like me, who have also made decisions in this game.

If You Go Away is, as Pratt explains, “two works”. As well as the guided narrative experience, there is an exploratory or ‘sandbox’ mode, through which the players across cities can interact. A text for players to write themselves is harder to analyse critically, however it is possible to consider the intention in building that space.

The more emergent version of the world is a rendering of the general city the player is in, using the same low poly aesthetic. Key buildings are picked out: trees, benches, billboards and monuments stand proud of the background. The weather shifts depending on the weather in your location. Your microphone picks up nearby sounds and replays them as part of the background audio.1 The same themes of the narrative experience are present in the ambient world – it is a strange, empty place, compared to the real world you navigate from, one where you can make odd but electric connections, but this time, with other players.

In this multiplayer or ‘ambient’ version of the work (every hour except the hour of dusk) all of the cities that the game is available to play in become overlaid.2 Over time players augment the environment – write messages on the walls, billboards, pavement: a player can walk up to any text in the emergent city, and change it. In this way messages can be read across cities: populated durationally, the cities layer over one another, like a book where the text is continually overwritten. And at dusk, the messages make their way into the narrative-world’s playable cities.

There is in the ambient version of the game world a feeling of unfinished business: that the company wanted to do more with it, and might yet add to it. They express a frustration at the logistical realities of a 3-person studio building a complex 2 level game over 8 months, including having to develop brand new skills in game development tools Blender and Unity. Eaton says:

We wanted more […] but that goes back to the sheer impossibility of making games, it just gets very difficult, I wanted to build 50 objects from around the world which people could annotate, but Vic has to build 5 different cities […] there was just a lot, and at some point we had to make a call.

The company are earnest about the difficulties they have encountered in creating the work; from re-organising and re-skilling the company over 8 months, to the tension of the technological limitations,3 and the 360º lack of limitations of the real world. In a solely computer-based point and click game the means by which you attempt to explore and complete tasks are wholly delineated by the boundaries defined by the designer, in this kind of pervasive live-digital work the doing of the tasks becomes much more ungovernable, and through that, foregrounded, part of the work much more so than in traditional computer games. The company explain that:

[T]he ‘doing’  becomes an intrinsic part of the experience – the environment and people’s ability to negotiate it either physically (tired, cold, rainy, lost) or politically (feelings of safety or access to the physical world) as well as the phone as a fundamentally limited method of delivery all become completely unforeseen textual parts of it.

Likewise the embodiment of the work – the fact it asks the player to use their body in public space to play, changes the stakes of the engagement, and of what it means to ‘do it wrong’.4 The work is fragile. But it is exactly this quality which interests the company, Pratt says “it should feel different to a polished app experience”. It is fragile because the technology can’t do a lot of what they imagined, because of the capacity of the 3 person arts-world-funded company to maintain a level of operability and functionality required by operating systems and app stores, because it happens in real space, because the player plays with their real, tired, cold body. They explain that they

[…] don’t think we resolve [all of those challenges] with this game, but I think we begin to scratch at [them].

The company make a strong case for a medium that can be fragile, that doesn’t trade in the same glossy values of what we expect ‘software’ or ‘games’ or ‘apps’ to do. In the 20th century many theorists talked about theatre as a tension between make believe and reality – a fragile thing held together by audiences and actors. In the 21st century, there’s a possibility we are in danger of thinking that art in the digital or mobile realm must all share the same aesthetic and rhetoric of usability.

The work is breakable, and for that there are moments of astonishing synchronicity that could never be achieved without that danger of breaking that comes with the real world, and real bodies. In those moments, and at the site of the screen that everyday augments how we hear, map, discover our ‘real’ city, we are invited to re-see our city, as Pratt says, “imagine a potential”.

If You Go Away draws a shaky, uncomfortable, uncanny picture of being. Being here, being now, and the people we might be, inscribed via our steps, deeds and writing.

The city is a stone book…

Every time we do something extraordinary the buildings remember

Footnotes

1. As it does in the narrative-led version of the work, but here, somehow, those textures are more noticeable.

2. Including Leeds, South Kensington, Middlesbrough, Southampton, Warwick University Campus in Coventry, Lagos, and with plans to expand to other cities.

3. Their capacity, and the low fidelity of GPS at the level required for the intricacy of pedestrian location-based triggering.

4. ‘Doing it wrong’ is part of the material of play – for agency to exist, you must be able to make meaningful choices.

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