This Act, which also works to establish Eve’s character traits and relationships to both the player and Doug, forms a key narrative moment. Although the information contained in this moment is supplemented and reinforced elsewhere in the drama via visual means, through the objects in the hotel room or short video clips, such reinforcements rely on the player’s ability to notice and retain the information provided aurally in the opening twenty minutes. The fact that these twenty minutes only consist of sound, required an additional form of aural literacy that some players had not yet developed.
Aurally dominant narratives are certainly nothing new. For decades, television scholars have debated the comparative importance of image and sound to television narrative (see Ellis 1982; Caldwell 1995). Although in many ways reductive of the television viewing experience, which can be highly immersive, John Ellis’ glance theory reflects one mode of viewing in which narrative can be understood in a highly distracted way (Ellis 1982: 128). Christopher Balme similarly argues that theatre has long encouraged audiences to be “willing to adapt to quite heterogeneous ways of seeing and hearing” (Balme 2008: 90). In this respect, then, the multimodal literacies demanded by TMD are not that revolutionary. However, the fact that some participants struggled suggests that there is more going on here and that there are some fundamental differences in the nature of TMD and what it demands of those engaging with it compared to traditional forms of narrative, indicating how media literate adults may not automatically be literate in all forms of mediated narrative.
For some players, the struggle they had with developing a literacy based on listening was compounded by the pervasive nature of the drama. The fact that not only did they have to pay particular attention to sound, something they were not used to, but simultaneously ignore other sounds in the real world around them, led to moments of confusion. The following player, for instance, explicitly identified the experimental and unfamiliar nature of TMD as making it more difficult for him to know what was going on:
It is interesting how little goes in of what you’re hearing. Like, you can be really listening, and actually just because of being in a new situation and kind of being aware of the world around you, I think yes there is a lot of detail that passed me by. (SAE5)
A second player made a similar comment, identifying the public nature of the event as making it particularly difficult for him to follow the narrative via the soundtrack:
The difficulty sometimes was when people were talking to you, some of the actors were talking, and you had the music going on. It wasn’t clear whether there was gonna be some even on the soundtrack triggered, so I had to keep listening to this and listening to them. (FRE1)
These comments echo the concept of the bi-psyche, which has been used to articulate engagement with mobile devices. Originally the result of research for mobile phone company Motorola, the bi-psyche epitomises a sense of dual attention. As Sadie Plant (Plant 2001) argues, “the mobile exposes its users to information which may not be so easily absorbed in a busy, unfamiliar or public context, requiring them to ingest what may be incongruous news.” This, she goes on to argue, means that “the mobile requires its users to manage the intersection of the real present and the conversational present in a manner that is mindful of both and to improvise responses on the move” (Plant 2001: 50). Mobile, pervasive sound narratives such as TMD explicitly play on such dual attention, echoing Jussi Parikka and Jaakko Suominen’s (Parikka and Suominen 2006) application of bi-psyche to mobile gaming: “the user concentrating on Playman Summer Games (2004) while surrounded by urban noise or playing Sumea’s Extreme Air Snowboarding (2003) while navigating through busy urban streets is an exemplary attentive subject, a true bi-psyche” (Parikka and Suominen 2006). Inherent within Parikka and Suominen’s model is a certain kind of skilled attention, the ability to marshal information from multiple competing sources and via multiple senses. This skill, as the TMD participants demonstrate, is not automatic, but must be learnt and developed.
The difficulties of managing a multimodal literacy within a real world space were discussed by a number of focus group participants. Whilst this was compounded by the fact that TMD took place within a busy area of Bristol where the general public and traffic provided multiple distractions, at its core was the aural nature of the narrative. It is only by being aural that such a pervasive narrative is possible. A fully audio-visual experience cannot, for obvious health and safety reasons, take place within public space and real dangers such as traffic, other people or nearby bodies of water. By focusing on sound, it becomes possible to allow players to simultaneously focus visually on the world around them. However, balancing this focus between eyes and ears was not automatic or easy. As one participant commented, the need to balance a narrative that is presented in an unfamiliar way made it harder for her to complete the kind of narrative interpretation that she might otherwise be perfectly capable of: “Which means that as you’re listening, watching those installations, the other part of your brain isn’t necessarily connecting the dots, the storyline” (FRA1). The unusual nature of TMD, for some participants, made it difficult for them to engage in the level of narrative interpretation that they were familiar with from older narrative forms.
There was evidence in the focus groups that this ability to take in information from both visual and aural cues was a literacy that focus group participants felt they should have. A particularly noticeable characteristic of these discussions was that the majority of focus group participants who discussed struggling with TMD’s narrative also felt they were to blame for such moments of illiteracy. Phrases such as “but that’s just me” or “I didn’t do it properly” appeared in many discussions as numerous players sought to justify why they felt they’d failed in their experience of the narrative. Some participants were almost apologetic for not paying “proper” attention, as the following participants exemplifies: “And then I missed the crucial … I was sorting my, I don’t know, I wasn’t listening” (SUF1). Other participants linked this self-blame to more general “failings” in themselves that they had identified previously. One commented on the overall style of TMD’s narrative and how he was “not very good with sparse narratives where you have to fill in a lot anyway” (FRA4). Other participants spoke specifically about the aural nature of TMD but placed the blame on their own sense of hearing or language abilities. When discussing the final installation in the tent, one participants said, for instance, “My hearing’s not good anyway, so I didn’t know if that was just me” (FRF2). Elsewhere, a non-native English speaker positioned her own abilities with spoken English as a source of anxiety for her: “Well for me it is different, because I am not English, so I would worry all the time about if I was going to make a mistake or not” (SUI2). For each of these participants the perception was that they should have been able to easily follow TMD. They felt that their general media literacy should have been translatable even though the experimental form and unusual narrative presentation actually calls upon different skills.
Whilst the majority of participants who struggled with TMD positioned any limitations to their engagement as a result of their own illiteracy, the focus groups also revealed ways in which specific elements of the production aided their development of new literacy skills. Some desired quite straightforward methods in terms of clearer instructions or briefings beforehand. One commented on how “I would have liked a bit more briefing on whether I was supposed to act in this or just kind of follow along” (SUC6). Another promoted the idea of different versions that accounted for different levels of literacy:
I think there ought to be, like, different levels. If you’ve never done it before, you want like a beginners level, like minimum sort of work and … mainly guidance. But that would probably bore people who like to do this sort of thing more often. They might want to get involved a bit more, so like an advanced level where you know there would be more interaction, more involvement and more guidance. (SUH4)
This raises the complex production challenge of managing a range of literacy levels in order to allow players with little experience to learn how to fully engage with the narrative, without alienating more literate players.
Focus groups, however, revealed the potential for using certain production components in a pedagogic way, to guide players more subtly through the narrative. The presence of actors, and the quality of their performances, facilitated a form of guidance that gave unsure players the confidence that they were engaging correctly, while remaining consistent with the fictional diegesis. This was a frequent comment within focus groups, and is epitomised by the following quote:
I thought the characters we interacted with were very good, though, because even if we didn’t really know what we were meant to be saying or doing, it didn’t really matter. It didn’t feel like it mattered that much how we responded. (SAB2)
Another participant made a similar comment: “I think most of it was well-facilitated by actors. They were watching for our appearance and picked us up when we could’ve lost it” (FRE1). Such literacy aids are contained within TMD’s storyworld. The advantage of having live, responsive actors offers the chance to build in a more adaptive level of guidance and so facilitate differing levels of literacy amongst those taking part.
The formal components of TMD’s diegesis emerged as tools for facilitating and managing literacy. Components such as set design, props and costume contributed to players’ sense of belonging and that they were in a logical, coherent and understandable world. This is demonstrated in the following conversation, which discussed both the hotel room and the dentists’ office:
SAJ5: it made it real, because it was so real. There was a room and you were in there and, you know …
SAJ4: I think there’s a real authenticity about it though. So I was sitting in [the] reception, and the receptionist was, she was on the side, and then I looked at her, and she gave me a nod on cue.
The construction of the physical diegetic world helped the players believe, and therefore fully exist, in the narrative of the TMD. This in turn helped them navigate their way through that narrative, without losing focus and immersion. Interestingly, given the problems with the aural focus for core diegetic information discussed above, a number of participants identified the music as a formal component that aided their ability to navigate TMD. One participant commented that the music “reassures you that it’s working, doesn’t it” (FRG3). Another commented that “It mostly gave the whole thing structure. It let you know of- it strung all the bits together, gave it a consistency, like I said” (FRA4). The presence of a soundtrack, with repeated motifs, reassured participants that they were acting “correctly”, that nothing had broken and that they were following the correct, coherent path through the experience.
How these formal components are used in this way is not straightforward. Moments of perceived incongruity negatively affected players’ experience and provided a greater challenge to their successful completion of the narrative. One player, for instance, commented on how “it made no sense that the car would be open and we get into it and look at things” (FRA4). Making access to the car relatively smooth, rather than making them search for a way to get in, could aid some players in ensuring they easily find it but could also be interpreted as problematic. Another participant in the same focus group felt similarly about the memory dealer: “I didn’t believe, like when I went in and I saw the hood, I just thought, ‘I don’t believe this’, like the dealer wearing a hood and looking so obviously like, kind of stereotyped” (FRA1). These players highlight the challenges with using diegetic elements as signposts. The same signpost could be vital to ensuring some players’ successful navigation but simultaneously disruptive to others’. However, the fact that focus group participants called on formal components of TMD – such as the actors, sets, costumes and music – indicate that the reshaping of literacy is not reliant on explicit extra-diegetic material. Instead, the creation of a narrative world that looks and feels authentic, populated by actors who not only perform but are also trained in facilitating the progress of less literate, or confident, players, can contribute greatly to managing any limitations in participants’ literacy.