Two men found refuge on an island. You accompany them on their journeys of atonement and, as you walk alongside them, you discover the islands, their stories and perhaps find yourself making peace as you go along.
Part of an applied collaborative PhD investigating the connections between performance and video games, Inchcolm Project is a proof of concept that stages a video game (Dear Esther, The Chinese Room 2012) and a promenade performance as part of the same fictional world.
Dear Esther is a walking simulator, a first-person exploration game where physical and ludic challenges are replaced with space for meditation and imagination. The player motivation resides in exploring an sensory-rich environment and piecing out the non-linear, fragmented and lacunary narrative.
In Dear Esther you explore an island, a beautiful and deserted place in the Hebrides. Its eerie secrets are gradually revealed through exploration and walking triggers bits of voice-over narration. These are a man’s letters to Esther, his late wife. The soundtrack, composed by Jessica Curry accompanies the player throughout and contributes to the emotional journey that perfectly complements the voice over narration. The narration is constantly filling in interpretive gaps or opening up new interpretive possibilities.
Inchcolm project had three stages, a promenade performance that used geo-tagged sound and visual installations to augment the island. The second was a projection of Dear Esther played live in the Abbey. And the third was a musical performance by Mantra Collective who arranged and performed Always and Ascension from Jessica Curry’s award winning soundtrack.
The promenade performance is a response to the video game, the site and the refugee crisis. As such, it explores similar themes of refuge and isolation, guilt and dealing with loss as well as engaging with the paradoxical duality of islands: paradise and prison, exotic escape and insularity.
In designing the promenade performance we drew on performance and game design methods. The experience of the player/audience is delivered through an orchestration of the environment and its affordances. The motivation resides in the desire to explore the physical, sensory and narrative potential of the designed space. This echoes what Wilkie describes as the three functions of site in (site-specific) performance: site as symbol, site as storyteller, and site as structure (Wilkie, 2002, p. 158) but also Jenkins’ call for game design as narrative architecture through forms of environmental storytelling that engage with the full array of the space’s abilities: evocative power, storytelling abilities, and potential for emerging narratives (2004).
The story responds to the game’s themes: dealing with guilt and loss, forgiveness and redemption while in the same time engaging with the wider ongoing debates surrounding refuge, safety and humanity. The man in Dear Esther is coping with the loss of his wife, Esther, to a tragic accident that he feels responsible for. The man in Dear Rachel is tormented by the images of a capsized boat, a mother and her infant child sinking under the weight of their fake life jackets.
The traumatic event is projected onto the environment, a violent disruption of the natural landscape. This event is visually represented through recurring colours, displaced and misplaced objects, unnatural assemblages of natural and man-made materials.
In Dear Esther(left), the island is gradually coated in fluorescent green writing, paint, car parts, emergency room paraphernalia, chemical symbols, ultrasounds alongside bird nests, broken eggs, feathers and bird bones. In Dear Rachel (right), Inchcolm is overgrown by parasitical fluorescent orange rubber and tape, dinghies, buoyancy aids, barb wire, metallic wind chimes, fishing nets, life jackets, wire birds alongside bark, feathers, egg shells, twigs, shells and sea weed.
Pearson discusses McLucas’ distinction between host and ghost, the “co-existence and overlay” of the found, existent architecture of the site and the temporary, purposely designed one brought to the site by the artists (2010, 35). “The site itself became an active component in the creation of performative meaning, rather than a neutral space of exposition” (Pearson, 2010, 36). The relationship between them, be it of harmony or tension or both, was our playground.
The numerous site visits allowed us to observe the spaces at different times of day, in different weather and light conditions, in different temperatures and humidity degrees. Some areas would flood after a wet spell which meant that we had to be prepared to bring wood pallets and sand to allow traversal. The walls of the tunnel would hold the fluorescent tape only if they were not humid, which meant that we had to know every nook and cranny of the walls so that we would be prepared to set up anchors. We had alternative locations for the musicians in case of rain to protect the performers, costumes and instruments. We needed to know our temperamental host in order to design the ghost.
In terms of physical presences, the island of Dear Esther is also haunted. Elusive silhouettes can be seen in the distance, always out of reach. In designing the performance, I wanted to use the ghosts as an additional connector to the world of the game.
The island is a refuge for people who cannot deal with guilt, cursed to walk the shores until they atone for past mistakes. These inhabitants, the ‘walkers’ are audience, performers and musicians alike, as well as the two narrators of Dear Esther and Dear Rachel.
Physical exploration offers embodied experiences, while exploring a virtual environment offers freedom from physical constraints. But what if the exploration of the physical and the virtual environments is perceived as part of the same journey, in a world that unfolds over the two media? Could we then design video games and live performances that complement each other and bring their unique experiential affordances together into one holistic experience? This is the question behind Inchcolm Project.
We designed a world around Dear Esther, a world that has many inhabitants and which holds many stories. One of them is Dear Esther. Another is Dear Rachel. This world was the world of Inchcolm, a world that maintained its own identity and whose voice was constantly breaking through the narratives that we dressed it in. In the end what united the world of the game and the world of the performance was the physical voice of the island.
This project was made possible by the generosity of Abertay University Dundee, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, The National Theatre of Scotland, The Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities and the wonderful team who have volunteered their time and talent.
Watch the story unfold on Twitter: https://storify.com/monabozdog/inchcolm-project-inchcolmproject2016
Mona Bozdog – Writer and Director
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita – Set and Costume Design
Kevin Murray – Sound Design
Abigail McMillan – Production and Stage Management
We Throw Switches: Gaming Curators
Adam Thayers– Technical Management
Luci Holland – Composer
David Jamieson – Composer
Sandy Welch – Voice Acting
Dan Allan – Assistant design
James Gaffney – Assistant technician
Riona Gilliland– Assistant stage manager
Leo Graham – Assistant stage manager
Jennifer Logan – Assistant Stage and Costume Design
Rosie Orford – Assistant stage manager
Calum Patterson – Assistant Sound
Mantra Collective – Live Sound
Michael Ready – Flute
Luisa Brown – Violin 1
Anna Fraser – Violin
Atzi Muramatsu – Cello
Lewis Shaw – Double Bass
David Jamieson – Keyboard
Doug Kemp – Accordion
Luci Holland – Vocals
Gracie Brill – Cello
Always, composed by Jessica Curry, arranged by Luci Holland and David Jamieson, performed by Mantra Collective
Ascension, composed by Jessica Curry, arranged by Luci Holland and David Jamieson, performed by Mantra Collective
Abertay University Dundee, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, The National Theatre of Scotland, The Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities, The Chinese Room, Dr. Laura Bissell, Dr. Dayna Galloway, Dr. Kenneth McAlpine, Dr. Alistair MacDonald, Simon Sharkey, Avalon Hernandez, Cultural Enterprise Office Dundee, Sandy Thomson, Forth Tours, Historic Environment Scotland, Sandy Welch, Donna Holford-Lovell, Stuart Taylor – Hiper, Jill Smith, Kathrine Boyle & Feral Arts, Jules Nally & The Briggait.