Storytelling with Locative Media: Michael Epstein’s take on ‘terratives’

westendmapA few weeks ago I attended a presentation at the MIT6-conference by Michael Epstein, the CEO of Untravel Media, a Boston-based company that produces location based storytelling media. Or as Epstein himself calls it: terratives – a combination of territory and narrative.

Untravel’s portfolio includes terratives for the New England Aquarium and the MIT Campus as well as several tours in the Boston area, including a murder mystery that is still in production. Terratives can be lineair experiences – like audiotours, but they can also be more exploratory, including elements of gameplay and competition. Epstein believes that these forms of storytelling can engage audiences more deeply in certain urban issues, creating an experience that links a story with an actual location.

[terratives use] public places as stages for dramas and platforms for involving visitors in local issues. In our backyards and in the places we visit, social issues will not be confined to fleeting glimpses from moving vehicles or the city desk in the local paper, but will become readily accessible as a narrative overlay on the maps we constantly consult for driving, dining, and orientation.

For his presentation Epstein researched 4 ‘terratives’. How do you make these forms of locative media storytelling truly engaging? Epstein:’Many locative media storytelling projects seem really interesting at first sight, but after 5 minutes or so you get bored. Now how do you draw the audience into the story, and get them to advance through the story?’ The projects researched were Rimini Protokoll’s Call Cutta in a Box, Untravel Media’s The Greatest Neighborhood this Side of Heaven, PETlab’s Re:Activism, and Soundwalk and the Kitchen Sisters’ The
Ground Zero Sonic Memorial. (see here for the full paper)

Here are some of his findings:

Many terratives use a fictional character that leads the participants through the story, played by an actor. Some (as Rimini’s Protokoll’s Call Cutta) use actors that interact in real time with participants.

A good narrators frames the story, adds to the emotional stakes, and forges a conspiratorial bond with the audience. This approach can, at times, distance the narrator as audiences feel their presence less and, in certain cases, an actor may not really be connected to the issue at stake. … Overall, the development of guide voices, whether live or pre-recorded, is bound to evolve immensely as Terratives mature. Similar to the Greek chorus, whose outside, interpretive voice became unnecessary as audiences were became more comfortable with implied meanings in theater, so too might location-based narratives lose some of the instructional imperatives encoded into its guide characters.

Some terratives offer the opportunity for participants to actually meet some of the characters. For instance Untravel’s Greatest Neighborhood tour on the controversial redevelopment of Boston’s West End ends in the museum devoted to the neighborhood, and there one can interact with some of the storytellers. In another production that Epstein did in Venice, he included a number of locations that featured people that participants could interact with. The story brought them to a bakery and encouraged them to strike up a conversation with the baker.

In other terratives, the participant him/herself is the main character, he is exposed to a series of unfolding events to which he has to react, or game play elements are introduced – a scavenger hunt, challenges, puzzle solving, etc.

If the end goal of a story is get audience members more aware of and involved in a specific issue, presenting the message in an active (scavenger hunt, human landmarks, teamwork) rather than passive (television, film, radio) media form may lead to much
more engaged and affected audiences.

While this may work to draw the listener in, it is also problematic: you cannot really plan any character development as you could in a movie – so this perspective can also flatten the storyline.

Sometimes, competitive elements are introduced to draw people in. For instance in Re:Activism participant are invited to re-enact particular social struggles in New York City. In one of the games they have to approach strangers in Washington Square Park and try to get their signatures on a petition to the Supreme Court advocating women’s voting rights. ‘People were really getting into it’, Epstein recalled. At the same time they focused so much on the competative element, that they almost forgot about the content of the even itself. ‘They started approaching strangers hurriedly, to get as many signatures as quick as they could. They were so fanatical that the original aim – to get a discussion going on the topic, or at least to educate – got lost.’

In the end, most terratives need good storytelling with an arch that develops but also truly links events to places. A mistake often made is that the terrative becomes too much of museum guide experience, just describing several places in a particular sequence. Or if they are more interactive, they just give out plain assignment without wrapping it up in a story.

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  1. Martijn, thanks for capturing these words I didn’t even realize I had thrown out. Now I can use them again. I went to the Come Out and Play Festival Last weekend and I felt that this divide between character and issues driven mobile media is widening as most of the mobile games featured there were shorter, simpler, “snackable” mobile media. While the social aims of Big Games are often admirable, the play fairly quickly denatures any complexity to the story. Thanks again for you great summary of the talk.

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Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.