free space: an interactive dystopian fiction told through whatsapp bots

A research and game-making project in development since December 2018. Within this I am exploring the use of the most standard communication platform – WhatsApp, in developing an interactive narrative set on a moving train. The objective is for the player to engage with a fictional character on their device, as well as absorb their external surroundings, with their role being a communicator between them. My investigation is therefore within and towards approaches to storytelling in ‘everyday’ spaces – both digital (WhatsApp) and offline (the train carriage), and ways to merge the two.

Initiated on the AMAZE Train Jam from Johannesburg to Cape Town. The theme of ‘nature’ and context of the 26hr train journey across the country, struck me as being in some way contradictory. As it involved a moving vehicle and container, that transported bodies from one urban city to another, passing through nearly 1300km of mostly nature – the theme, yet none of which we engaged with or explored. I understood the limitations of a game development process and expectations of the outcomes, but was intrigued by the opportunity to respond to the theme more deeply and personally within this very particular transient setting, as well as the chance to reference the observations and experience of the countless individuals that take these journeys, whether short daily commutes or long-distance voyages.

Questions around the value of time, of productivity, of the meaning or relevance of objects, people, ‘what lies on the other side of the window’ when in this liminal space, led me to source a narrative set on a moving train to base the game on.

I found J G Ballard’s The Concentration City fitting as it involved the protagonist Franz living in the distant future, in a never-ending city, dreaming of flying in a world where no free space exists, it is due to this that he embarks on an 11-day train journey to ‘reach the end of the city’, despite his skeptic friend Gregson’s discouragements. The passionate belief in ‘something beyond the city’, not artificial and man-made like all else, I felt related to the idea of an innate connection to nature, how we can be drawn to it and explore it within ourselves, even without it’s obvious presence.

In the dystopian world of Ballard’s short story, Franz search leads him onto the train, yet he never reaches the end of the city nor leaves the train besides back where he started. I wanted to use this story as a backdrop, for the player to enter the fiction as another character, in contact with Franz and Gregson on WhatsApp, and with their willingness to cooperate, to interact with the natural environment, interpret and communicate, allow Franz to ‘see through their eyes’ and finally understand ‘what nature is’.

For the Train Jam I used simple WhatsApp bots to respond as the characters ‘Franz’ and ‘Gregson’ within the narrative, I plan to continue developing on my approach, to explore further the application of bots and the platform to deepen the storytelling, interactive experience.

Details of the initial experimentation, including screenshots and the flow-chart on Twine are below.

Characters: 

  • Franz: @ Day 10 – Asking participant for help.. he’s stuck in the toilets of the train after running away from the police. And he needs the participant to create some distraction / extra scene?
  • Gregson: From different WhatsApp number. Hasn’t heard from his friend for 2 weeks, isn’t sure of the whereabouts and status, is worried.
  • “Q”: Role playing by participant / audience

Introducing player as Passenger Q on the same train as Franz on Day 10 – the day in which he is caught… Q backtracks through the days and pieces the story together, along with his role and missions, through a conversation on Whatsapp with Franz (hiding on the train) and Gregson (who sent him and is in the city), flashbacks (video links + AR layers on top of windows) and recordings of conversations of other passengers not he train. In accepting the challenges to help Franz, Q might even change the course of action and allow Franz to finally understand what FREE SPACE and nature is…

DAY 10: Q jolts awake and finds him/herself on a train. It is late afternoon. Where are they going and why? Franz is in hiding unbeknownst to Q. 

LEARN:

  • That Franz is an ally and needs his assistance
  • About Franz’s desperate attempt at searching for FREE SPACE
  • That FREE SPACE means a natural, open, organic space, ie, a type of space completely foreign and unfamiliar to Franz
  • That you were a friend sent by Gregson to keep an eye out on Franz on the train, to make sure he stays out of trouble..
  • Flashback: to Franz’s bust-up with the train assistant, when he learns he is not going West but East.
  • Overhears conversation of other passengers: who don’t understand how he has been open the sleeper for 10 days already.
  • Franz needs to be saved from the police.

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