OFFSHORE: a creative space between serious games and i-docs

OFFSHORE has just launched their online preview!  Try it for yourself… it is worth it…

OFFSHORE is a web documentary created by Brenda Longfellow, Glenn Richards and Helios Design Labs that explores the dark waters of the global offshore oil industry in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. The storytelling  takes place within the virtual world of a 3D, imagined oil rig that inhabits the same kind of space King Kong’s Skull Island does: a fog-obscured menacing destination.

 From what I have seen OFFSHORE looks as a very well-crafted project. It combines game logic and immersive interface to tackle a serious problem such as offshore oil extraction: its dangers, its economic and ecologic consequences. More than anything it tries to find a new language to engage a web audience that is game savvy, but maybe not energetically engaged.

Very kindly the Helios Lab has agreed to answer some of my questions… so here is the interview:

 SG: OFFSHORE looks like a game but speaks about a serious topic: oil. Would you call it a “serious game”, “a game for change” or would you link it more to the factual/documentary world?

 Helios:  “OFFSHORE is a web documentary that unfolds as a non-linear story through a virtual space.    Certain gaming aesthetics, especially from old-school epics like Myst, have greatly influenced how OFFSHORE combines an immersive POV user-experience with manipulated and created imagery, but OFFSHORE is not a game. We think of it more as an online installation piece that conveys story,  information and emotion to an audience as they travel through its space.” 

SG: What is your target audience and why do you think OFFSHORE will “speak to them?

 Helios:  “In our own experience we have seen a growing audience for interactive non-fiction like OFFSHORE. Definitely, the work we have done with Kat Cizek and the National Film Board  of Canada through the HIGHRISE  project over the last couple of years has demonstrated that as creators become more adept at using new technologies and platforms, the audience becomes more adept and eager to consume. This audience is the modern “every person” connected to and interested in the world. It is their responsibility to be curious, and our duty not to bore them.”

SG: What has been the greatest challenge developing the project?

 Helios: “So far its been great fun!  … But there have been challenges too.  

On the technical front, we’ve been able to deliver a uniformly rich and immersive experience across desktop, tablet and smartphone platforms. It’s quite a thing to see the site play on a funny little Android phone. 

On the conceptual front,  by presenting the imagined oil rig as a visual metaphor, we’ve raised  the storytelling and design challenge of how to integrate the non-metaphorical documentary footage and narrative elements. The OFFSHORE preview is only touching on how this integration will ultimately play out, but we’re all very happy with this as a starting point. Viewers to date seem to think so too, as our initial analytics are showing an average visit time of 9 minutes, which, in this A.D.D. world, is hugely flattering!”

SG: You are now delivering a beta version of it. Is this just a beta testing for bugs or is it a fully-fledged user experience test?

 Helios:  “What we just launched is not a Beta Version, but a Preview.  We see the Preview to work a bit like a movie trailer: the idea being to tease the viewer with a limited sneak peek of the experience that will be coming soon.  The full experience is still in alpha version stage , but will eventually include more environments that unfold the documentary story.  In the meantime, we hope to start engaging an audience through the OFFSHORE blog and social media in a conversation about the dark topic of Offshore oil drilling.”  

SG: Testing the full user experience of i-docs is something that we do not really know how to do yet. Some people take it form usability point of view, others use game testing techniques… what has been your own solution? Did you do any concept testing as well?

 Helios:  “The process of creating this Preview has already helped us gain a better understanding of how the user experience will work and the challenges and opportunities ahead.  From our experience with One Millionth Tower, we learned the importance of inserting focus group/user testing sessions after the Alpha Build and the Beta Build phases.  These focus groups will likely include people from all ranges of our target audience:  from documentary lovers to gamers.

SG: Do you think OFFSHORE is innovating and pushing the game/idoc field ahead? How?

 Helios: “This is a tricky question, as we’re more focused on creating the work itself than worrying about how “game-changing” it might be. Having said that, we do believe that OFFSHORE and a number of other narrative / documentary projects that hack with content types and delivery platforms, engagement and information, linear and non-linear, the real and the imagined, are absolutely by their very existence “game-changing”.

iDoc is a relatively new field, in which pioneers generally believe in the ethos of participatory documentary and the open web—where collaboration, learning and iteration are key. We position ourselves as a Lab to remind us that an integral part of the work we do is experimentation, and we have been lucky to experiment with and learn from our talented peers, including Kat Cizek and the HIGHRISE team, the folks over at the Mozilla Foundation, among many others.”

SG: When will you release OFFSHORE?

 Helios: “we’re hoping for early 2013”.  Stay tuned!  

SG: Good luck with your final re-touching!