In which writer-designer-director, Christy Dena discusses two new projects: AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS is due for release very soon; Robot University, the piece she will produce as Australia’s first ever Digital Writer in Residence, a program funded by The Australia Council for the Arts and Queensland University of Technology, makes the most of QUT’s $230 million (135 million pounds) seismic interactive space, The Cube.
Christy Dena has been breaking ground in digital writing for so long, the pixels beneath her churn as she walks. If it’s not solving the problem in front of her or pushing the tech to see what it can do, there’s no fun for her in her work. She will tell you this herself. She told me. Since her PhD, a first in Transmedia theory, she has sought new approaches to engage people through storytelling. Projects like Nokia’s Conspiracy for Good, Cisco’s The Hunt, and the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Bluebird AR continue to draw attention and audiences (despite being one off experiences that are over already). Henry Jenkins is using her work as study material on his Transmedia Entertainment and Storytelling course at USC. Dena is a key interviewee in Andrea Philips’ world-shaping, nuts and bolts, Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (2012). It’s a pretty impressive CV.
Sitting with Australia’s intrepid pioneer of transmedia theory and creation, makes me wish I was so much cooler. Despite my babbling, Christy is smiley and kind and generous through discussions on weekly play tests, how a story works at The Cube, QUT‘s world-leading, large scale, high-definition interactive display environment, and her web audio adventure, AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS (preorder the app here).
Christy’s not long finished a weekly play test. The emergent process – actors initially playing the robots, technical difficulties, using a game engine to drive the interactive narrative – is one of the most valuable elements in the work’s development. The most notable thing (among many) for me is how excited she is. While running the test, innocent passers-by, sucked in like fluff in a vacuum cleaner, have been trying to interact with Christy’s robots. Her grin would break up a funeral. It’s a leap forward for a project still in development.
Robot University features three distinct robots who (yes, who) will garner various levels of affection and possibly fear. The play tests are exactly what they sound like; the creators put it up and give it a whirl. They have to; “a game engine has never been used on the system in this way before,” Dena explains. This is the thing. It’s not simply a case of designing a program and splashing it onto the screen. The Cube demands interactivity, its users, the punters, anyone who wants to play, demands it do so intuitively. Story is key, but with three robots looking to draw on our empathy, and tech integration needed for delivery, the creative process requires levels of adjustment other practitioners may not be used to. Play testing affords Dena, and her team (artist Simon Boxer, 3D modeller Paul Stapleberg, programmer Adam Single and sound composer Jacek Tuschewski) the space to experiment and explore. Another mark of the depth of her curiosity, her search for solutions, lies in the monthly open seminars where Dena presents the project’s progress, gathers feedback, and openly seeks ideas and suggestions from an audience more than keen to contribute.
From all the articles about it, Robot University is about challenging our perceptions. But the title? The Cube sits among QUT’s leafy city centre campus, and the work is about robots, so the project’s current title is a fair way from early, possibly scary, iterations, such as One of these Robots Will Kill You.
“What I’m trying to do is get people thinking. People will assume they are there to teach the robots, train them, that they’re the ones who have the wisdom, the ones who give commands and the knowledge, and the robots aren’t.” Dena has found, as a society (unless you’re Ridley Scott or maybe Neil Blomkamp), we tend to think of our mechanical friends as something to command, control or program. Robot University is “actually the reverse”, she says. “The title plays a role in triggering the assumptions, and the level of expectation, but it plays with the notion of humans being superior.” Dena wants us drawing on those expectations. She wants us in a place where she can say, “Yes this is your bias. I want your bias to be in full effect right now. I need people to have that shared starting point because I’m going to take it somewhere else.”
Dena sees herself bringing new life into the world, mechanical or otherwise. A midwife, maybe? She laughs. And suggests, like the work itself, that shaping our views on robots is about training, about “giving someone a way of seeing the world.” Where this interviewer sees differences, Dena sees a healthy overlap that’s only going to grow larger. “In the future Robots will be their own beings, their own species,” she says, “how we create them will have some role on the evaluation of where we start them.”
But, let’s face it; some robots are still (down right) creepy and that what we’re using them for, painting the Sydney harbour bridge, or making 3000 plates of noodles might reinforce how we look at them wouldn’t it? Dena is quick to counter. “There are people who do these jobs now. There are people who do lots of different things. There are people who work in factories, who work in fast food places. We have variety everywhere.” I know. You’re thinking, I should have seen that coming. I imagine you did.
In a recent article for Cordite Dena discusses letting people digest the landscape of a story, she offers Journey as an example, and suggests giving the participant space to contemplate what and where they are in a game is crucial, but the level of engagement with the screens will be more fleeting.
“I’ve got about 3minutes with each person, I need to work with their bias to take them through an experience, if it’s too subtle probably nothing will happen, so take I need to take advantage of what people project onto things.”
The story’s opening screen will feature a closed gate, just above it and behind (influenced by King Kong) small robot copters will buzz a large, menacing shiny machine. We can only see its lid/head to begin with. Our interactions will open the doors and lead us to a heavily armed monster. We get to choose what happens from there with our bias breaking down as we go.
“You can get to that point in different ways, the military interaction leads through to something else and then there’s the shock of the ending, the doors suddenly close and they’re left with the consequences of what they’ve done. And that’s where they get the moment of contemplation. The interaction is over, so they get the moment to think about what they’ve done.”
“It’s more likely to get into people’s minds if I sugar the pill. I use comedy to do this in AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS I can talk about serious stuff, and people are more likely to take it on board if it’s done with comedy.” No sooner are the words out, and Christy reaches into her bag, and on the verge of a mischievous giggle, like we’re in school and she’s showing me the love note the class’s most gorgeous person just gave her, she says, “Do you want to have a look?” As she hands me the iPad, that same bubbling enthusiasm, from watching people play with the test robots is there. If I’m honest, I was pretty excited myself. In polite company, I might’ve been more restrained, but I just wanted to touch the screen, play the game. The colourfully lush, friendly art begs you to, and I couldn’t help myself.
AUTHENTIC IN ALL CAPS has been in development for two years and now, it’s almost on our doorstep. On even just a wee taste, the game, I’m sure, will be as gripping and fun as it sounds. It’s a web search and an audio play inspired by radio plays among many things. Ben McKenzie in one of an ensemble cast who deliver the dialogue that offers clues about the story world and its shadowy ‘under’ side. As the player you listen, poke the screen, solve small philosophical obstacles, and navigate your way to the next webpage. As I was giving it a shot, I realised I’d inadvertently fallen into Dena’s play test trap. A sneak peak with function, to illustrate, to test – because it’s what she does continually – and because Christy just simply loves her work and wants to share it. It’s a beautiful thing.
There’s every chance robots will creep me out a bit longer, maybe forever, but I figure if anyone can change that view it is Christy Dena. I think, she’ll continue to change a lot of things.