This year Digital Week 2009 extends across the whole of the Yorkshire region, shining a light on the creative and digital stars from Sheffield to Scarborough, Barnsley to Bradford, Huddersfield and Leeds where, for the second year running, the week concludes with the return of the Drum Awards for Digital Industries.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Designing Mystery: Anticipation

"The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last."
The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde (but I first heard it from Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka).

On Halloween I went to a disappointing séance.
It's very sad to have to write the phrase "disappointing séance".

I went with friends who have worked in theatre, circus, and tourist attractions so we were all excited and ready for the ride. Why was it so disappointing? For one thing it was rushed. A hurried séance. It lacked silence. Whenever a bubble of tension began to form the host would immediately say something to puncture it. An object would move unexpectedly, as if by a spirit hand, and he would say, "Ooo! That was a good one!" This was a "reconstruction of a Victorian darkroom séance" but the full extent of the historical introduction was the phrase, "Victorian séances were... more spooky." Pop!

Anticipation, suspense, tension - all delicate, easily broken experiences that need a lightness of touch, a gentle theatricality, and a deft control of information. Traditional film trailers have long had to tease without spoiling and have at times played cleverly with the withholding of information - Blood Simple and Cloverfield
for example - but the game of hiding and revealing is played whether the experience is live or mediated by technology, traditional story or complex cross-platform drama.

Performance magic is one of the oldest forms of interactive storytelling and it has many strategies for managing anticipation can be applied to other forms of interaction design. These strategies may be secretive - "never tell the audience what your are going to do" - deceitful - "never give a sucker an even break" - or strangely honest - "tell then what you are going to do, tell them why it's impossible, then do it."

In the Designing Mystery Workshop, anticipation is just one of the aspects of interaction design that we cover in-depth.

Two new online drama's have taken very different approaches to the game of hiding and revealing. Girl Number 9 takes great trouble to introduce itself as traditional "quality" drama with its publicity saying more about the camera technology than the story, which at this stage appears to be an extended riff on a familiar TV crime drama climax. A clever use of a comfortingly familiar premise to capture audiences new to Web drama or a bit too cosy depending on your taste and milage. Seeing fictional characters post on Twitter was cute when fans of Mad Men were doing it for the fun of it. When done as deliberate marketing it already feels gimmicky but the Girl Number 9 character tweets promise "exclusive clues and secrets" that could work nicely for its audience. Meanwhile, The Alexander Wilson Project is an altogether stranger proposition with teaser trailers slowly introducing us to characters and events from a much less familiar world. AWP raises more questions than it answers right now and this may be a good thing. There's old saying from the horror film industry - "don't show the monster too early."

Since 2002, the Designing Mystery Workshops have addressed interaction design for screen, cross-platform media, game design, technology design, installation art, and service design with clients including NESTA, Helsinki University of Technology, The Royal College of Art and MediaLab Madrid. To see a video of MediaLab Interactivos! Magic and Technology visit

Stuart Nolan will run the first Designing Mystery Workshop to be open to the public on 12 November, Huddersfield, Digital Week 09. Although participants will be free to apply the techniques to their work they will be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

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