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How to build a fictional reality?

Ambrus Ivanyos


technologies society - technologies society

The Hungarian artist Ambrus Ivanyos of the collective MeetLab describes the conceptual significance and the creation process of the project How to disappear completely, a site-specific reality game in the public space that has been developped and presented at PLACCC Festival in Budapest in September 2018 and adapted in Izmir, Turkey, in February 2019.

“Some people say they ran away, others think they are living in the canals, down in the deep roots of the city. Maybe they’ve died. Maybe they are still here with us somewhere. There are also some, who might know something about the ones who knew something for sure, but they’ve all disappeared as time went by. In this city, people disappear completely. Nobody knows exactly when it started. You could read about it in moldering old books, and you could read the same stories from the lips of the never dying old men. It’s not even a legend, it’s less, because it’s an everyday epidemic, but because of this strange value it’s also more: it’s a constant inexplicable miracle.”

Back in 2015, followed by a visit of a friend of mine in Naples, I wrote down these sentences. They define my work ever since. This paragraph became the cornerstone of numerous concepts and project ideas and finally led me to create a unique and complex piece.So what do these sentences mean? They simply describe a city. A fictional city for sure, with an absurd epidemic serving as a rather poetic metaphor for something that is not entirely clear or maybe many different things even. They might belong to a novel of magical realism, or fantasy. I had something else in mind though. I wanted to create a piece, in which the people who experience it (players, participants, viewers, interactors) can project this fiction to their own perception of reality and by doing so experience a so-called fictional reality.The intention behind this idea was clear from the beginning. In the political, sociological, cultural and economic environment both on global and local level multiple, ever changing and often contradicting narratives surround us, and they all influence our perception of the world. They all create our understanding of the reality around us. The experience of the fictional reality however not only serves as an opportunity to break out from all this for the time being, but to remind us that we are not only consumers of these narratives, we also have an active role in constructing them. This means that we have a responsibility as creators of the construction of our own perception of reality.It is important to understand that narratives are not equal to stories.They are not even ready made products of different political and commercial actors. Narratives are personal products of our own minds. As David Herman, the great scholar of cognitive narratology describes it:

“The narrative is a forgiving, flexible, cognitive frame for constructing, communicating, and reconstructing mentally projected worlds.”

In this sense the narrative design process of any kind is merely serving as a foundation and structural framework for the user’s own narrative for their own mentally projected world which can be triggered by storytelling, a film, an image, a sound, basically any sort of sensory experience.

Fictional versus virtual

Fictional reality – even though is rather similar to a virtual reality – requires a totally new approach in the design process. Whereas virtual reality experiences and the technology get more and more complex and user friendly, in its essence VR stays a simulation of an environment. It doesn’t matter how complex interactions you can make with it and how “believable” the experience is, the boundaries of it – in the context of creating a fictional reality – still felt limiting for me. I believe that these boundaries were not technological but more conceptual.

Virtual reality is both illusory and purely fictitious. There is a great difference however between the mentally projected world of a narrative and an illusion, which is by definition a misinterpreted perception of a sensory experience. The two can easily coexist in the frame of a virtual reality, but the sensory experience, the (audio)visual sensation tends to overrule the first.

It’s important to note that the perception of a reality – no matter how strange it might sound – is much more dependent on the cognitive process than the sensory experience.

The sensory experience is just the first step, the trigger towards building the mentally projected world, but the focused interpretation of these trigger events defines the experience of a reality. So instead of designing the exact sensory experience for the fictional reality, I needed to concentrate on the cognitive process and come up with a way to augment the perception of the individual.

Augmentation in the sense of augmented reality means an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real-world are "augmented" by computer-generated perceptual information and is seamlessly interwoven with the physical world such that it is perceived as an immersive aspect of the real environment. When we think of augmented reality, the first thing that might appear in our minds are CGI images, virtual 3D objects placed in the actual reality through different types of glasses or projected on the screen of a mobile device. But, of course, there is more to it and surprisingly I’ve learned this by playing video games.

Interactive Narrative Design:video games as sources of inspiration

The Stanley Parable by Davey Wreden and Dear Esther developed by The Chinese Room are both first-person adventure or exploration video games based heavily on interactive storytelling and mocked by ludologists with the unkind term of being a “walking simulator”. It is true that judging from the principles of classical interaction and game design they are limited. But in case of these games, that’s the point, because the game experience relies heavily on the narrative. In both games, the player has the opportunity to explore a surreal world with the leading voice of a narrator and the process of the exploration and the relation to the narrator define the narrative together.In both cases, the depth of the experience is depending on the player’s own narrative.The storyline is based on the interaction between the player and the space while the voice of a narrator sets the framework for this mentally projected world. A literary content is projected onto a space through a sort of augmentation process and the experience becomes immersive, interactive and more importantly spatial.As I was playing these games, it became clear for me what tools I need to use to design a narrative for a fictional reality and I said to myself: “Ok. Let’s do this in real life.”

Public Space

In my artistic practice, I have a long history of producing work for public space. In all my work in this field, I’ve created a strong fictional and conceptual context for the experience of the performance, installation or game. In Reality Room (2014), the city went through a revolution and a paramilitary coup, and the players have to acquire a new passport for the newly founded state through an unpredictable bureaucratic system. In Intraverse (2016) a satellite has escaped from the orbit of the Earth and sends back radio signals that the players have to follow through the city. 

In this project, How to disappear completely (2018), people keep disappearing from the city without a trace. Nobody knows where they disappear to. At one point, a young man named Andrei arrives to the city. He wants to understand the mystery of the disappearing people and by doing so, he wants to disappear as well. The story follows Andrei’s investigation as he’s looking for the answer. He silently follows people as they walk home from work, he talks with witnesses of the disappearance, and tells his own stories as he seeks answers. At the end, in one unexpected moment, he understands the mystery and finally disappears from the city.

Public space is a stage for confrontation. A confrontation for political, cultural and commercial narratives. Public space is the most intensely packed sphere that we perceive as reality. Transforming this stage as one fictional reality states a great challenge, but an equally great opportunity.Whereas in a video game the boundaries and complexity of the game universe is limited to the creator’s imagination and skills of the developers, public space offers an unpredictable, ever changing stage with unlimited complexity. And while one could think that public space is bound to the limitation of rules and laws of nature, physics and common sense, through the augmentation process and within the narrative of a fictional reality anything can happen, for example in Budapest edition even a whole tram can disappear between two stops. The mentally projected world of the narrative augments the perception of reality and gives space for something beyond that.

As one critic of the Budapest edition of the game, Anna Dohy wrote: “It’s not the fiction that becomes reality, (...) but reality becomes the fiction as they direct a performance out of my live, sensory experiences. I step into my role and let them direct me. (...) It is possible that I’ve disappeared (...) I behave in a completely different manner compared to the normality of how one should be using these squares and streets. For more than an hour, reality disappears, and everything that can be perceived in my surroundings becomes part of the fiction.”

As I read her article, I felt after years of work I’ve finally reached my goal of creating a fictional reality.

Numerous enthusiastic feedbacks from the audience and critics in Budapest followed by the successful adaptation of the concept in Izmir in a completely different environment led me to believe that it would worth to continue working on future editions of the game in different cities and explore this idea even further. While I’ve learned that the working methods and processes can vary based on the conditions and even the actual script can change dramatically since the project is based on a very clear and elaborated concept and a well-designed procedure, the essence of the idea stays the same every time. I can share the experience of a fictional reality and show a way to the audience to disappear completely.

Augmented Audio

I wanted to create a flawless and timeless experience for the players using technology in the simplest way. I decided to work with only audio, because I felt that creating a sonic atmosphere is best way to influence the players’ perception. The players use their own smartphone and headphones to take part in the experience with an application on their smartphone.

In order to trigger sounds automatically without requiring any effort from the players other than movement in space we used a geo-locative technology. Geo-triggering helped to re-create a flawless, location-based storytelling experience similar to the aforementioned videogames.

Besides the location-based narration we used an ever-present musical layer. The long loops of music evolved and changed slowly as the players explored the city and the story.

The audience is involved in a multidisciplinary experience, which is in fact the projection of a literary text to the public space and the urban landscape through audio. The fiction can only be experienced fully by the augmentation process and the interaction between the public space and the audience. This interaction is deeply personal and is happening through actual movement in space. The experience is open to an unlimited number of participants at any given time.

Procedural writing

Writing a script for a piece like this requires a strict procedural approach. For starters, there are three main characters in the story with separate and parallel storylines. The aim was to blur the lines between these characters. Secondly, we were designing an open world scenario, which means there is no exact linearity, the player can choose his or her own route, which defines a specific, personal storyline and yet we wanted to create a more or less consequent outcome for every player.

The writing of the script started both in Budapest and Izmir with a complex field research of the area where we’ve built up the game. Exploring the different actors of the area, building up location catalogues, and collecting possible characters who appear in the same places frequently.

This part of the process was followed by defining all the possible routes of the players and effectively design their own storyline and path within the fiction. I’ve created a more or less open dramaturgical structure with seventeen dramaturgical layers. These layers were represented by larger zones on the map. We designed the possible routes of the players through these zones in a way they have to pass through each and every one of them in order to complete the experience. The seventeen layers or zones contain up to fifty different episodes. Within one zone there are multiple episodic variations of same dramaturgical function connected to different locations and characters.

This way the player can move freely within one zone, explore the episodes fully and experience the story in a much broader sense or pass through with only triggering some of them. The player can even move “backwards” in the story and experience the episodes of a dramaturgical layer that he or she has passed already.

The script had to adapt to this fragmented and yet complex dramaturgical structure so for writing each episode we had to follow a strict procedure that defined the content of the episode through numerous factors.

The aforementioned critic explained the experience of this augmented literary text the following way:

“...the natural fabric of the city and the episodes we observe and listen to fit together so perfectly that the boundaries of the theatrical interactivity seem limitless. It feels like entering the fiction of a book as we read it and as an invisible (or actual?) character we have the chance now to become part of the same story."

Collaborative and site-specific  work

The storyline itself is deeply connected to these sites and the content of the episodes is always deeply site-specific. So every time we build up the project in a new city the story changes dramatically. The storyline is not linear and the experience more closely resembles an open world exploration game such as Dear Esther, than an audio-book.

While creating the first edition of How to disappear completely in Budapest took several months of work on my own – designing the dramaturgical structure, doing the field research, the writing part in two languages and designing and producing the sonic atmosphere of the game – we managed to realize the project in Izmir in more or less one month with the collaboration of Artopolis Association and UrbanTank – an Izmir based collective focusing on cultural interventions in public space in the frame of the Tandem Turkey program. 

Both the field research and the writing of the script were collaborative efforts with an active role for the students. With five writers and fifteen researchers, we re-created the fictional reality in a completely different urban landscape and with a storyline that differs from the first edition by more than seventy percent.

“Where do people disappear to then?”

“Where do people disappear to then?” – asks the narrator Andrei at one point in the game. As the players walk around in the city following the footsteps of a fictional character, protected by the sound of music and narration, they experience something strange. For the time being they behave differently, they see things differently, they may even exist differently. They disappear from themselves and soon they realize that something has also changed around them. Reality is not the same as it was before. And even when they finish the game, it is hard to get rid of this feeling.

 “In this city the people, in my body, the cells keep disappearing without a trace. I disappear and yet still remain. The city remains here, or itstays here, if you prefer. Why? Reality – just as the body – gets parsed up, it crumbles and in the meantime a certain kind of cohesive force pulls and sticks the essence together so what I’m talking about can stay oneand eternal. Even if people disappear from the city, the city remains one – if the city exists at all, which I grow to doubt deeply and ever more strongly. Even if the city exists, it is only because the story I'm telling you holds it together. In the case of my hand, for example, something holds the cells in it together to form a hand and in the same way something forges the tangle of stars into galaxies. What, you ask? The same thing that builds reality out of stories. The narrator, or the narrative itself.

How to disappear completely has received a Production aid by the IN SITU platform, in the frame of the ACT project, co- funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.


Ambrus Ivanyos is a writer and independent theatre/filmmaker born in Budapest, Hungary. In the past years, he started experimenting with different game formats and interactive installations. He’s exploring new technologies and new narratives with a strong interdisciplinary approach. He’s one of the founding member of MeetLab, a Budapest based studio focusing on interdisciplinary art and technology research.