Dissecting the Doctor

This post reflects on our on-going development of a prototype location-based app that connects the narrative of Jekyll and Hyde to the cityscape of Br

The Victorian cityIn his previous posts, Simon discussed the frustrations of finding out that the tech that we’re hoping to exploit doesn’t do what we want it to. Although an irritation, this isn’t an insurmountable problem, but it has given us an opportunity to concentrate more on the narrative strand of the project. More specifically, we’ve been exploring the challenges involved in adapting our literary text, Jekyll and Hyde, into a locative audio app as a prototype for the final experience. Using the AppFurnace development platform, we’ve been putting together what we might call a ‘gothic soundscape’: in essence, an interactive walking tour set around Bristol locations near our HQ at the Watershed. This will allow us to accomplish a number of tasks.

Firstly, there is the question of effective adaptation: how can we balance the conventionalism of the gothic narrative without making it sound too contrived or too artificial. Of course, one of the markers of gothic is its fundamental conventionalism as a mode that often tips dangerously into self-parody (just think of the countless B-movie horror films that are more ridiculous than frightening). As such, ‘cheesiness’ has become a bit of a watchword with us. At the same time, gothic aficionados rely on those conventions to generate the experience, and we don’t want the experience to be so removed from people’s expectations for what a title like ‘Jekyll’ might convey that they feel somehow misdirected or duped.

Secondly, it will provide us with a methodology or toolkit for rendering an adaptation effectively because we’re having to think about the act of translation. What renders well in the linear narrative of a book doesn’t necessarily translate into effective praxis for an experience that’s meant to keep participants moving from one location to another, processing the cues from the story that we’ve rendered into audio, following guidance towards the next stage of the experience and interacting with the physical location within which they are proceeding. That’s no small ask.

Finally, the construction of this locative soundscape will offer a wireframe for the interactive components of the experience. We can construct an overall shape for the experience, which can then be adapted and rendered more interactive and into which we can embed the bio-data components. But that wireframe is of primary importance, as without the project output would be an amorphous and disjointed set of encounters, rather than a legible gothic experience.

Although we’re intending that our final iteration will be a single-location environment (e.g. a warehouse), over which we’ll have far more control in rendering the gothically uncanny experience, generating a city-based walking tour can test these variables quite effectively. For instance, how much spoken narrative is too much spoken narrative? (We’ve found that 3 minutes way too long.) Should participants stand still and listen to this diegesis or keep moving while they listen? (My feeling is longer passages require standing and listening; shorter sound clippings can be tied to movement: move to a location, you hear a fragment; move to the next one, you hear the next portion; etc.) Do ambient sound effects work or are they too formulaic and (God forbid) cheesy? (James created some really effective sounds for a dream-sequence of footsteps treading the ground, followed by a thud mimicking Hyde’s violent collision with a child and her screams. When he was recording them, we were having a bit of a chuckle; but walking around the streets and hearing this playing through the earphones actually did generate a frisson of disturbance!)

Over the last two weeks, we’ve been dissecting the text of Jekyll and Hyde into a soundscape that we can further chop up. Stripping the text down to its aural cues is a really useful exercise, because it makes you think about the adaptation and how it must be embodied, and not simply cut-and-pasted from the novel, to be effective. This soundscape then gives us a basis to start creatively adding components. This included recording (pretty awful) vocalizations, including my rendition of Hyde, which sounds to me less like a hoarse-voiced criminal than a whiny teenager … Still, these are meant to be placeholders to see what happens rather than a final polished product.

Yesterday, we put things to the test by trialling the first two chapters as a peripatetic audio app. The three of us were tramping along the Bristol sidestreets, mobile phones in hand and headphones locking us into the narrative … what a sight we must have made. What was really useful was finding out how things we envisaged in the preparation didn’t necessarily work as planned once played out in the city environment, while other aspects that we were a little sceptical about actually worked rather nicely. This experience will provide us with a really useful context as we go into overdrive next week, and spend three intensive days at the Watershed trying to finish off and refine this first iteration of the pervasive media experience.

It looks like I’m in danger of having rambled about our rambles, so I’ll leave it there for now (plus I’ve got a lecture to give in a 20 minutes) …