As a sound and visual artist, Rosen’s concern for non-linear narratives extends beyond purely sonic and/or visual environments. Also known as Rachael Melanson, she’s recently developed a work called PORTALS in collaboration with London-based studio Werkflow and affiliated London/URL-based label Quantum Natives. “There is some sort of venn where our circles cross”, she explains, in a conversation carried out online, “and that’s where that iteration of PORTALS exists… they have provided the visual elements and a place”. Essentially, PORTALS is a transmedia narrative with a format loosely based on text adventures, a form of interactive fiction whereby participants make commands based on given information. It falls somewhere between game and literature, with the terms ‘game’ and ‘player’ used reluctantly.
I too arrange to participate in PORTALS, and as far as I know I’ll be dropped in one of 15 virtual areas, and brought back once an hour is up — the portals are still in development and can only last for that long. The objective is to explore them, but participation is otherwise an opaque prospect. I can take a bag with up to three items, but deciding what to take is tricky. Unsure of the purpose, or what kind of situation I’ll encounter, I opt for expressly functional items.
Afterwards, I ask Rosen how PORTALS came about. She replies pictorially with a diagram detailing various moments or choices of significance over the last two years that ultimately led to its conception. It’s connected by variously coloured arrows, directing pathways — each its own story of events. Its makeup isn’t too dissimilar to how I imagine the system of connections that constitute the world of PORTALS itself. Rosen also sends the results of a photograph taken at a lake near Vancouver in Canada — the pools of light, which themselves look like portals, provided further inspiration.
This photo is recognisable from the first instalment of PORTALS which comprises graphics, video content and a playable hypermedia story that begins, “If u found a portal and couldn’t see what was on the otherside wud u go in? [[Yes]] [[No]]” [sic] The visuals are arranged alongside a text narrative on the Quantum Natives website, accompanied by the music of Rosen. It has a fairly simple structure, with limited paths, leading to a final ‘cutscene’ video if you make it to the end without being directed back to the homepage.
The second instalment of PORTALS, however, comprises one-to-one sessions with Rosen herself. It’s more complex in production and path mapping, taking place either online or IRL. When the hour is up, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to explore the portal as much as I would’ve liked, and wonder how the choice of medium affected the way the narrative played out. With such influential decisions being made prior to actual initiation, the boundaries between the real world and that of PORTALS feel blurred.
aqnb: How does the choice of online or IRL affect the way the narrative plays out?
R: The start for every one-to-one session is the same. I ask what three items the player is taking and then drop them in one of 15 locations. I describe to them what they can see/hear/smell, the weather/time of day, enough information to make choices about how to interact with the environment they are in. Text-based sessions vary in pace but are quite straightforward, and the same for voice-only calls, though the language is maybe more fluid, stuttered. I can’t edit before hitting return. There are all the “ummm”s and “eehhh”s and “sort of, quite like something-ish”.
Face-to-face is the hardest for me, as there is more expectation and desire for what a player hopes will happen and I find it easy to pick up on that through their body language/the colour of their voice. The venue can greatly affect the way it plays out. A loud, busy café for example results in some great sounds to listen back to and grab from the recording but at the time you are doing your best to concentrate on the task at hand and you find yourself silencing that so you can hear what the other person is saying. I also wonder how I look in these situations. The information is all very much in front of me, like google glass, or I’m following something on the table surface with my finger, or even moving my whole body round to face something that is only visible to me.
aqnb: To what extent are the 15 areas forethought?
R: They are pre-existing from the original Twitter version where the world has been created. With the hour time limit I knew there would be areas that no one would reach. It was important to me to explore and establish more details and links between all areas.
aqnb: Are there types of items that are more useful to take than others?
R: Ropes, torches, pen knives and snacks have been the most useful. You brought a can of red spray paint, someone else brought flowers. Only one player brought in a smartphone and that was mostly useless as I’ve never had one, so I hit some limits there, but this also limited the interactions by the player in a way. Some people take in other items they can leave there.
aqnb: How does your own person experience being stuck as mediator between the player and their environment?
R: It’s fascinating and occasionally frustrating. A player can be in an area that has many elements to explore with some narrative clues and then narrowly miss one that could give them really deep insight into more of the background story. I can usually predict the possible moves they will make but there will be at least one move every couple of games that I hadn’t thought of, especially when it comes to freely roaming into areas of unknown for me.
Face-to-face it can be very tempting to give more details than they would perceive in game, with the addition of eye contact and body language I can come of character, having to give answers like “THERE IS NO RESPONSE” repeatedly it becomes more like “oh, god, THERE IS NO RESPONSE, sorry!!!” I can see them willing some sort of response and maybe I do give in slightly to that. Text based is straightforward. I can be less emotional, atonal.
aqnb: It reminded me of the ‘gamebooks’ I used to read as a child (I guess I just caught the tail-end of their publishing boom), where I would follow narrative branches, advancing to specific pages based on choices at different text sections. How were you introduced to interactive fiction?
R: I definitely had some of those Goosebumps books, there may have been some others. There were also all those magazine flow charts where you find out what personality type/Friends character/Nintendo character you were, remembering if I answered truthfully. I’d never be the one I wanted and then going through again and maybe changing my behaviour to be more like the desired outcome.
But I guess PORTALS doesn’t quite work like that as there is no cheat sheet, you are going into unknown territory, and so am I in some cases. There were also games like consequences and group games where you would start by saying your location, the next person would repeat that and add another element and so on, collectively. I was a fan of RPGs [role-playing games] with strong plots. I would play or watch my brother playing when I was a kid. Actual text adventures like Zork, I must have played as there was an incredible sense of familiarity when I was doing background research.
aqnb: While more fluid than a regular novel, the plot lines of text adventures were still limited according to their sections, with only a number of possible outcomes. PORTALS, however, is only as limited as your imagination. Has it given you any insight into your own imagination?
R: I guess. I default to daydreaming a lot, working out possible scenarios especially around things I’m anxious about or when I’m sort of stuck. “What would happen if…” There are definitely elements I draw from actual experiences, places I’ve been, or the hazy memories of them. There’s constant reflection/action in the process. In the one-to-ones I’m responding much quicker, it’s something closer to automatic writing. I can speculate where the game/world will go but I’ve left it open to being influenced by certain exercises (like the one-to-one sessions) and other day-to-day events. I can’t be 100% certain where it will end, or even how it begins. It is simply happening.
aqnb: Is it possible to have a successful ending to a PORTALS narrative?
R: The one-to-ones are more about exploring. If people have interacted with the environment then it’s working. What I’m working on for Quantum Natives will have a conclusion that will be reached from different routes but I’m not sure if it would be classifiable as ‘success’ or ‘failure’.
aqnb: The first instalment was obviously composed of visual and sonic elements, but the second feels more remote. How does PORTALS relate to your sound and visual art practice?
R: My sound and visual practice are one and the same now and I’m not even particularly set on having to stick to those formats. It very much depends on what I have access to and if it is appropriate or there is an overriding curiosity. Due to the nature of how the project started it has led me to areas of art, gaming, sound and literature and theories around and between all of those that I wouldn’t have become aware of otherwise, so the portal element works on that level too. It’s very much an experiment and a new way of working for me but there are recurrent themes and thoughts that crop up, most of which are unknown or difficult to find as I’m far from prolific and I don’t want to give too much away at this point as it might act as a spoiler. Though one thing is distance, being remote, or details being obscured or absent, funnily enough it really draws people in. **