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China Heart – mobile locative storytelling: interview with Tara Morelos, Annette Shun-Wah & Jennifer Wilson

On January 30 the Powerhouse Museum becomes the start point for a locative mobile story/game called China Heart. This exciting free project runs all through Chinese New Year celebrations until February 13.

China Heart is being produced by dLux Media Arts, developed by The Project Factory, and the narrative has been written by Annette Shun-Wah who Australian readers will know from her diverse media work, especially TV.

Four Powerhouse objects star in the game and form key elements in the storyline. Min-Jung Kim, our Asian Decorative Arts & Design curator worked with Annette to explore opportunities with the Museum’s collection.

Many staff in the Digital teams at the Powerhouse have tried the two predecessors to China Heart from dLux (Ghost Gardens 2008 & Razorhurst 2009) and we’ve been really fortunate to be involved this time around. There are some interesting differences in this third title in terms of BYO technology, a reasonably platform agnostic approach, and a more scaffolded start point (by using the Museum). I’m very interested in how general visitors to the Museum as well as those coming especially for China Heart will respond. Everyone involved will be intrigued to see how many players/readers complete the full China Heart journey and get engaged by the story and presentation.

I asked Tara Morelos (Director of dLux Media Arts), Annette Shun-Wah (author), and Jennifer Wilson (Director of The Project Factory) a series of questions about the project and how it has unfolded.

Tell us about the predecessors to China Heart and the role dLux has been playing in creating opportunities for artists to work with location-based games and storytelling.

TARA MORELOS (TM): From as early as 2004 we began working to incorporate mobile technologies into contemporary art practice. We commissioned works by leading Australian artists and filmmakers for mobile phones and delivered a blended program of exhibitions, forums and workshops to build a framework for the ongoing development of a creative mobile screen culture.

With the proliferation of handheld media devices such as smart phones and GPS systems an entirely new spectrum of creative opportunities has opened up for artists.

In 2008 we worked with artists Anita Fontaine and Mike Pelletier to present Ghost Garden for Sydney Festival 2008, a romantic animated fantasy delivered by location in short video episodes throughout the Botanical Gardens. This was wildly successful from a visitor point of view and most definitely a first step that delivered great learning.

In 2009 we were approached by Richard Fox after his experiences with Ghost Garden. He had produced a prototype for a GPS based game called Razorhurst.

Players were taken on a mission to collect and deliver sly grog while dodging location based attacks by notorious 1920s & 30s Razorgangs. We assisted Richard in developing the game/story elements with the addition of video re enactments and narrative voice overs during lulls in gameplay to create a more deliberate blend of fact and fiction enhancing the immersive experience while educating.

We ran Razorhurst for a month long intensive season and another week as part of the History Council‘s official NSW History Week 2009.

Both Ghost Garden and Razorhurst were delivered on pre-loaded HP TravelMates lent to players for the duration of the game.

What differences does China Heart have to the two previous dLux productions?

TM: From our previous experiences we had learnt that while the game element is a key, it’s the combination of a compelling fictional story situated in historical fact which really captured the audiences. Ghost Garden was simply a story and we found participants also wanted to know real information about history of the gardens and plants.

We learnt that multiple entry points were desirable allowing participants to enjoy the experience according to their level of interest. Serious gamers are after specific game elements such as hidden clues, blind alleys, true discoveries, limitations and challenges (eg time based). Gentle explorers want the discovery and excitement of following the game route, without necessarily the competitive or challenging elements. Razorhurst was closer to a serious game and a large part of its appeal, however we definitely encountered players who wanted an interactive walking tour with gangsters!

China Heart attempts to incorporated this knowledge with the right blend of fact and fiction.

With Razorhurst in particular we were being let down by old devices and their limited GPS capabilities within a built up area. Increasingly as smartphones have come on the market supplied with better GPS capability, location services have become popular and easier to deliver. The mobile network itself adds to the accuracy of GPS in built up areas through ‘triangulating’ the handset location based on signal strength from cell towers (A-GPS).

We have taken the next logical step and partnered with The Project Factory, an award winning cross platform production company to build the China Heart mobile app, website and mobile site.

Quite significantly, in developing the content dlux has begun from scratch assembling the creative team: writer, director, designer, cast and crew and commissioned Annette Shun Wah to write the story which underpins the content development.

Working with the Project Factory we have begun development on a platform which will allow organisations to tell a story set around a location navigable by walking with the mobile phone – in other words, mobile locative stories. China Heart is essentially a prototype to demonstrate how these stories work and what they can offer.

Where do you think this sort of location-based storytelling has the most potential?

TM: Most definitely within the cultural sector.

Mobile locative stories can create new audiences for institutions and make available their digitally-archived collections to the wider public. This platform allows the public access a diverse range of material from objects within a museum or gallery collection to social history within the urban or natural environment. Combining GPS navigation with a historic map interface, archival photos and web links, video reenactments, ambient sound and voiceovers triggered by player’s location creates an extraordinary mobile learning environment for all ages.

And, you can combine a forest’s worth of printed material into the palm of many hands for unlimited use. This is definitely a mode of information delivery that will represent significant cost savings for the sector longer term and fits in well with the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision.

We began China Heart in partnership with The Powerhouse Museum to explore this potential for ’excavating the archive’.

What is the premise of China Heart?

ANNETTE SHUN-WAH (AS-W): China Heart is a fictional love story and a mystery that reveals some of factual stories of Chinese Australia – particularly in relation to marriage and family. In the story, a young Chinese-Australian woman named Lian receives a mysterious gift at her engagement party. The gift unsettles her, and ignites tension between her and her mother, over a troubled relationship that Lian had with her late father. In trying to understand the significance of the objects in her gift, Lian travels around Chinatown, and discovers other people’s stories about marriage and family. These help her understand and resolve her own difficulties with being an “astronaut’s daughter”. What is an “astronaut’s daughter”? In this case – probably not what you think.

How did the research and writing of China Heart differ from your work in other mediums?

AS-W: The appeal of this project is that I had previously completed quite a bit of research into Chinese-Australian history for my various published books and short stories. This gave me a very good foundation for developing the China Heart project.

The writing, however, required some very different approaches. The project includes drama, information modules, oral histories and game playing. So it required writing in many different forms. The common thread, however, is that I wanted to keep the visitor interested, involved, and entertained long enough to discover some of the many secrets and little-told stories of Sydney’s Chinatown.

How did you find incorporating museum objects into the story? was this a natural fit or was it trickier than expected?

AS-W: The objects from the Powerhouse Museum inspired the story. I could have chosen to tell a murder mystery, and underworld tale, or a ghost story, for example, but these are commonly used forms for digital storytelling and game playing.

The objects from the Powerhouse inspired a very different narrative path – one that allowed me to tell more personal, emotional stories.

Much documented Chinese-Australian history focuses on the experiences of men, because many of the early Chinese arrivals were men. But I think it’s time women’s experiences shared some of the limelight – the stories of wives, daughters and debutantes! They expose a very different side of the migration story, and provide insights into family and culture.

Did you consider interactivity into the storyline as you were writing it?

AS-W: Game playing and interactivity are very new approaches for me. I’m used to telling the story – revealing it, as in a drama script or a documentary narration – rather than sharing it, or encouraging the audience to engage actively. So this has been quite a learning experience for me.

Certainly I imagined the visitor to come along on the physical journey with our characters, and to discover site-specific information. I wanted the audience to experience Chinatown in a different and memorable way, even though they may already be familiar with the area.

I wanted to replicate an experience I had many years ago in Perth, in a live installation piece called The Angel Project, that used sites all around the CBD to suggest the presence of angels. I will never see Perth the same way again! [Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project debuted at the Perth Festival in 2000 and has subsequently been performed in cities all over the world. Here is coverage of its run in New York in 2003 from The Gothamist.]

China Heart is designed so that the visitor will have this strange but very enjoyable feeling as he or she undertakes the journey. The visitor feels like they’re on a secret mission, to help solve a mystery, and will engage differently with a city they may indeed know very well. Adding some real world installation and performance gives another dimension to the experience.

And for those who like game playing or problem solving, we threw in some cryptic clues for fun. These reveal additional information, as well as enabling free entry to the final location, where the story reaches its emotional climax.

How did you address the location-centric story elements in the narrative? Did you have to visit each location and consider how the reader/player might ‘feel’ and ‘see’ in each location? How did you deal with the story ‘pacing’ between locations? How important are the locations and the journeys between them to the story itself?

AS-W: I spent quite a bit of time wandering aimlessly around, backtracking, trying different routes, and photographing minute details that may, or may not, at some stage be useful to the story. Anyone watching me would have thought me slightly mad! The difficulty I had is that some of the important historical landmarks – such as the Belmore Markets and the Trocadero Dance Palace – no longer exist. But then with the assistance of video and archival photos, we could summon up the ghosts of those venues in or near the right locations. These specific locations – the factual elements of the journey – are very important indeed.

Other sections of the story don’t relate to a specific location. For example – I wanted to recall the era when many “astronauts’ wives” – women whose husbands commuted to Asia to work – gathered regularly at yum cha. So any number of Chinese restaurants would have been suitable as the GPS hotspot. We chose one that was along the route – in line with the narrative sequence. We also discovered a fun photo booth arcade along the way, and added this as a counterpoint to the historical locations. The story, after all, is very much set in the present day.

Of course a locative game will always suffer the constraints of geography. Some additional elements of story and history were eliminated because they would have been too far to walk to. Some useful locations were in a cluster, others were quite a distance away. To smooth this out would have required the addition of locations and associated stories that may have detracted from the narrative, and I made the decision to allow the story to rule. The cluster of locations happens quite early in the journey, so my hope is that by then, the visitor will be hooked on the experience and won’t mind walking a little further between the next locations. And the journey gets more interesting further along with the addition of installations and performance so it’s worth it!

Personally I think that this sort of storytelling is going to be a big part of what e-books become, rather than being the way that ‘games’ head. How aligned do you feel China Heart is to traditionally storytelling versus, say, ‘mobile gaming’?

AS-W: The beauty of China Heart is that it is so multi-layered, it will appeal to those simply looking for a good story as well as those looking for clues to solve. And if you like both, then it will be a doubly rich experience.

I think if you set out to make a terrific mobile game, then the story would follow the requirements of the game. It’s absolutely possible with a fictional narrative, but I think it would be a less satisfying experience.

Traditional storytelling is certainly the basis for China Heart, using a fictional narrative based on factual experiences. This gives the whole exercise some authentic emotion and context. I attempted to reveal some truths about family, relationships and the migrant experience. The gaming element adds a little fun and is challenging, and makes it more social if the journey is being undertaken by more than one person.

You’ve worked a lot with TV and film. How do you think these older mediums will gain from cross-media integration with location-based storytelling?

AS-W: Look, I don’t profess to be any kind of expert in this field – I simply had a story that I wanted to tell, and by telling it in this way, a whole range of possibilities opened up. I haven’t even begun to exploit many of them, so I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface. But I do think that China Heart delivers an experience that is tactile, revelatory, intimate and affecting, through the use of a personal mobile device and by physically requiring the visitor to make the journey. Being interactive – requiring the visitor to make the effort and to truly engage with everything around them – makes the experience more memorable.

Good TV and film will work no matter where or how you watch it. But let’s face it, much of what is produced is hardly compelling. Integrating these forms with other media on a mobile platform will certainly inject a new lease of life. I believe the important principle is that the content must suit the form, and vice versa. Simply shoehorning an old-form idea into a new platform will not do it justice. The best location based projects will be the ones that could not be executed any other way.

What challenges are there from a development perspective in creating these sorts of location-based games?

JENNIFER WILSON (JW): The challenges are a mixture between allowing the story to play out in a linear way if the user travels on the proposed path, but also allowing people to experience it in a non-linear way. Location based games need to allow for both these paths. Additionally, not all participants will have the App or be at the location, so we need allow for an experience that can take place at a different location altogether; at their desk and on different devices. All of this adds to the complexity.

China Heart is being billed as a cross-platform application with mobile web and also an AppStore version. What was the reasoning behind this choice?

JW: We needed to allow for non-iPhone users to access the app locally – meaning we needed to provide a mobile web option for non-iPhone users. We also felt that there was such rich content, that we needed to allow this to be explored on a larger screen. That meant a web site. And in these situations where there is no ability to use location data, we needed to develop a different way of people exploring the locations via a map.

Tara has talked about the Project Factory developing a ‘platform’ for these sorts of location-based games to be more easily made. How do you see this evolving? Is this akin to what HP’s mScape was trying to do?

JW: we really like the idea of a ‘platform’ that would allow locative stories to be created by people simply, easily and quickly. This would allow someone to select an area of a map (the boundaries), select the target locations for the story elements (locations), then add in the content they want for each location (the content). If we can also allow them to create some design wrappers and a name, as well as maybe even allow this to be compiled as an application – then we really do have a platform. We haven’t been able to completely build that for this, but we’ve used China Heart to show how locative games might work like this in the near future.

[Seb – I’ve really enjoyed Hidden Park with my children which takes the same story and interactive sequences but allows you to customise the locations of these events within your own park]

What has The Project Factory learned from other projects about introducing new users and audiences to these sorts of new forms of entertainment and storytelling? I’m interested in how these emergent forms become more mainstream and normalised.

JW: The mobile has become the prime device for connection and increasingly for consuming content. One of the things that mobile offers is that magic ability to have location add a new layer to the information and linking narrative to location is one of the things that it is perfect for. We know that allowing users to discover stories in new ways is important. We also know that community is one of the strongest ways of discovering content and that using community is key to expanding awareness of these services.

For new projects such as China Heart, we also need to make sure that the application captures the attention of the user quickly, and explains the outline of the plot. We do this through having videos start to provide the backstory. The second thing is, we need to make the navigation and use of the app straightforward and not requiring any form of explicit instructions. If there is any obstruction to play, such as confusing rules, difficult to understand user interfaces or long explanations needed to know what to do – then this interrupts the game play and service. We need to make the services simple, easy but also enjoyable.

China Heart is available for free for the public to play, with the location-based story beginning in the Powerhouse Museum foyer, from January 30 to February 13.

And if you’d like to help and volunteer to be a mobile concierge during the run of China Heart then dLux has a call out for volunteers.

If you happen to be overseas or outside of Sydney, you’ll still be able to experience the media and storyline of China Heart through the App or online version.

Stay tuned for the go live.

One reply on “China Heart – mobile locative storytelling: interview with Tara Morelos, Annette Shun-Wah & Jennifer Wilson”

Big thanks to Seb for a very useful interview with the creators of China Heart. For those thinking about, or already developing projects for mobile spaces this interview really gets down to key issues and consideration about the creative and technical development Great to see the Powerhouse moving into this type of venture and like Seb very interested in how it goes.

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