Ephemera-Based Storytelling at Now Play This Games Exhibition in London
In April, I had the privilege of creating a newly-commissioned art/play piece, “The Silence in Room 1258” for Now Play This, a games festival in London. Situated in an antique desk, the game is a self-paced examination of ephemera from a 1930s Hollywood hotel after a paranormal incident.
The description, provided by the curators, read:
“Like many of the games in this room, there is no point at which players have won or finished this game. Instead, they read, cross-reference, imagine, speculate, and decide for themselves when they are sufficiently happy to move on. These objects together tell a story; but players piece that story together in their heads, with no reflection of that process in the outer world.
How to play: Sit down. Look at the artefacts and letters in the desk. Maybe read them. Maybe see what you can figure out.”
The installation piece is an expansion of my interest in storytelling through ephemera and letters, so I wanted to elaborate a bit on what I feel makes it such a special and interesting medium.
For me, using physical and paper objects is an exercise in deliberate suggestion and nuance, and a dialogue with the player’s conscious and subconscious understanding of people and the world.
In one respect, information is directly conveyed, exactly as it was written down by a character. But there’s a lot of other information present. For example, a slightly closer reading of the personal objects might reveal a great deal about a character’s social standing, wealth, employment, sexuality, age, etc.
What my work seeks to explore is how a player’s interpretation of objects can suggest things about the character — what can be read between the lines of the writing?
How were they feeling at the time?
Why did the person crumple this page but not that one?
Why did they treat this object carelessly, while another person treasured and revered their own copy of it?
Further, how did those objects and papers come to be gathered and presented to you, the reader?
“The Silence in Room 1258” was designed to be self-paced, with the player choosing how much to engage with the work and deciding when they felt they’d seen enough; there’s a story to be read directly and in-between the lines of the materials, but what the player selects and understands as the game exists entirely within their own mind.
As a designer, that kind of interplay and relationship with the player is a lot of fun to think about. Here’s what I believe it boils down to:
1. Reading other people’s letters is thrilling
Seriously. If you’re a certain type of person — call it nosy or curious, take your pick — there’s little more intriguing than a glimpse into a specific moment of someone else’s life, which that person had deemed important enough to commit to paper. (This episode of This American Life touches on multiple perspectives on the intrigue of letters.) It’s like a sudden sunbeam coming through the window on a cloudy day, changing the shape and color of everything in the room for a single instant. To be able to experience that feeling of stumbling upon something surprising, which also yields an interesting and dramatic story, is a gift.
2. Real things feel great
There’s a long tradition of storytelling through written “feelies”, from the children’s book The Jolly Postman, to the ARG-inspired Cathy’s Book, and I’ve been drawn to it since I was a child. (I have a detailed post about that here; ephemera books are at the bottom of the page.)
On the topic of “feelies”, I’ve also been inspired by the Sci Fi Channel miniseries The Lost Room, which featured a myriad of objects, each imbued with special powers, which the show’s “Collectors” purchase, steal, or even kill for.
In real life, there’s a small subculture of fans of the show who have worked to identify the exact make and model of the props, so that they can assemble their own small collection.
The objects are the everyday possessions of a traveling salesman in the 1960s (a bus ticket [that teleports anyone who touches it], a pencil [that drops a penny every time it’s tapped]), but with the additional context of the show, they’ve been imbued IRL with special and exciting meaning.
3. The play lies in allowing players to read between the lines
The human imagination is one of the most powerful tools we, as storytellers, have at our disposal. We can use nuance, suggestion, and historical or cultural reference to evoke archetypes, specific feelings, or tones, all without ever having to point at them directly or state them explicitly. “The Silence in Room 1258” (and my previous ephemera-based art piece) is meant to embody this nuance. I touched on these principles in my GDC 2017 talk, and it’s something that ties in very strongly in the art of physical experience design.
Additionally, the human experience itself is often one of reading between the lines and making our best guess. When done correctly, work that doesn’t yield specific answers can be much more powerful, for referencing this part of our shared reality. I found Sophie Calle’s The Address Book very inspirational; in this work, the author found an address book on the street and interviewed the people in it about the owner of the book, essentially painting a picture around a negative space shaped like a person.
Another piece that I really enjoy that relies on the viewer filling in blanks is the videogame Her Story, by Sam Barlow. The player, via the interface of a police station computer, searches a database by keyword, pulling up videos of a police interview. The videos can be viewed in any order, although many contain suggestive keywords that will yield other videos. Although there is a way to see how many of the videos have been accessed, allowing players to “complete” the game, the player is given the option to conclude the game whenever they choose. It’s a perfect fit for the digital medium.
Likewise, the use of suggestion in Gone Home, specifically as it relates to the father’s backstory, is one of the best examples in games I’ve ever seen — I won’t describe it, to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve never played Gone Home, try and rectify that as quickly as possible.
Ephemera-based storytelling is a delicate art. It requires a deep understanding of player behavior — as an example, people are usually eager to search the work for hidden puzzles, so if it doesn’t have any, you have to be careful to not suggest it might (or conversely, if you’re putting them in, to make sure they all function properly and make sense without detracting from the larger work). And it also requires trust, both of the player, to be clever enough to suss out the story, and of you as the creator of the work, to provide something that’s intriguing and satisfying, in varying measures.
I knew that if I was going to ask people to engage with something that 1) asks a great deal from them, and 2) doesn’t give them specific answers in return, I needed to leave out more than I put in — adding too much information and materials would have been a path to frustration, as people would have started to expect more agency and influence on the outcome of the story (something that players of the Sleep No More RFID mask tests experienced, when they couldn’t save a doomed character).
I’m very pleased with how “The Silence in Room 1258” turned out, and thankful to the organizers of Now Play This for giving me the opportunity to create it. I wasn’t able to attend the event in person, but the feedback was very positive — people brought friends in specifically to see it, spent over an hour with it, and even left notes on their thoughts and discoveries for other players to use.
These papers and objects, left alone, are missing the thing that imbues them with life and meaning: the player. So it’s been very moving to see the photographs and hear the words of people who not only got to experience it, but enjoyed it as well.
L. E. Hall is an artist, writer, puzzle-maker, and environmental narrative designer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on the intersections between arts, culture, and technology, especially in gaming.
She is the founder of experience design and puzzle game company Timberview Productions, a co-founder of Portland’s first escape the room game company, the award-winning 60 Minutes to Escape, and the author of Katamari Damacy for Boss Fight Books. She proudly serves on the board of the Portland Indie Game Squad (PIGSquad), a non-profit organization supporting game development and indie game enthusiasts in Portland.