The heartbreaking true story of Joyce Vincent, a young woman whose dead body lay undiscovered in a north London flat for three years, is the subject of a bold new drama-documentary opening in British cinemas December 16. It’s the kind of story that sends an existential chill down the spine, but the grim topic has spawned a powerful, innovative interactive online experience on nothing less than the nature of life and our connections with fellow human beings.
In the film, Dreams of a Life, director Carol Morley interweaves interviews with family and friends with imagined scenes from Vincent’s life to contemplate how little we may ever know about each other—a key theme in Dreams of Your Life, the "experience," commissioned by Film4, the film’s major backer and created by London-based game design studio Hide&Seek.
"Our aim was to create something in the multi-platform space to position the film in a meaningful way—both for those most likely to see it and others we hope we can draw to it through their interest in gaming, literature and art—and that would live on as a timeless piece throughout the film’s lifecycle," Hilary Perkins, multi-platform commissioning editor, drama & film, at Channel 4, Film4's owner, explains.
"What we’ve ended up with is a world away from a conventional film trailer and very different to the usual online content snack, but response so far has been fantastic."
Dreams of Your Life is accessed via a dedicated web site where visitors are invited to consider difficult issues about friendship and abuse, death and the passing of time by interacting through a series of meticulously crafted observations made by an anonymous voice and the questions and answers it poses.
Immediately striking is the use of photographic stills rather than moving imagery. There’s no music or sound, either, as the dialogue is conducted solely via the written word with ideas and emotions either underlined or counterpointed by the visual imagery - a sequence of photographs taken through a window.
The view - with its jar of flowers on the window sill, the branches of a tree just outside, and the red brick wall of the block of flats opposite - remains constant. However finer details—such as shifts in light, the changing leaves, the flowers that slowly die, and more—gradually evolve through the time lapse sequence conveying the passing of time.
Work began on creating the interactive experience in autumn 2010.
"It was very early in the filming so there was no film to see," says Hide&Seek development director Margaret Robertson. "This was a benefit, however, because it made no sense to duplicate telling Joyce’s story or distract attention from it. We needed to find a complementary space to do something else."
Though firm believers in the ability of games to successfully tackle difficult subjects, Hide&Seek faced a number of difficult issues developing an appropriate game mechanic. "It is a true story so we had to tread carefully given the relationships Carol had built over a number of years with Joyce’s relatives and friends," Robertson explains.
"We also needed to consider the potential risks of exploring issues like suicide and domestic abuse because no automated system we could ever create would 'understand’ the mindset of those interacting. It was important to steer well clear from creating a therapeutic or self-help tool, too, because that was neither our brief or our strength."
Then there was the fact that games are, by definition, goal-oriented which puts players in a problem-solving frame of mind. "Yet as Joyce Vincent’s story is one with no easy solutions setting a set of objectives for participants felt dishonest considering hers is a story of inattention," she adds. So instead, Hide&Seek developed an interactive experience that’s more linear than many of the others it has created.
"We knew the writing would be critical which is why our first thought was (Scottish novelist and short story writer) AL Kennedy because of the fearlessness in her writing and her frank approach to writing about death," Robertson adds. "She is deeply sensitive but never maudlin or sentimental, and extremely funny, too."
Though some interactive games rely on scripts comprising (literally) hundreds of thousands comments to cover off every potential player interaction, Kennedy’s brief was simpler because of Dreams of Your Life’s more linear structure. This allowed her to focus her efforts instead on creating a compelling character which is, by turn, playful, teasing and unsettling.
"It all came very naturally to her - not least because the novel she was finishing writing at the time (The Blue Book) dealt with fake mediums and she had done extensive research into the grammatical tricks used to make an audience feel something they are being told directly relates to them," she says.
The final element was the time lapse sequence shot by photographer Lottie Davies. Taken over just two and a half days, the photographs chart the progress of a year providing a poignant representation of how life changes with the passing of time, Robertson explains: "We wanted stillness, quite literally, because the online experience is usually so busy."
The end result, which takes visitors around half an hour to navigate, allows participants to contemplate their own life as well as Vincent’s story. There is then an opportunity to view - and share - a visualization of some of the words and images just seen the make-up of which is changed by the responses of each new 'player’.
Visitors can also opt in to extend the conversation through follow up emails from the voice which they will receive periodically over a period of 12 months.
Numbers are just one of many different measures that will be used to gauge the impact of the project, Robertson says: "Given that we don’t yet have a very long list of landmark cross-platform projects, a true measure of success for me will be if Dreams of Your Life is seen to show the value of producing not just one piece but a suite of related content."