words Sean Dodson
They seek him here, they seek him there, and they find him (perhaps) in Manchester. An intriguing urban game from Blast Theory.
Of course it is raining. Not quite coated with what Peter Kay would call “that fine rain that soaks right through you,” but a light drizzle greets my arrival at Piccadilly Station. As you might expect of central Manchester on Saturday afternoon, the streets are full of football fans and hen parties, but somewhere hidden among them is the mysterious Uncle Roy.
Uncle Roy All Around You is the latest project from Blast Theory, a loose collective of digital situationists with a reputation for exploring the intersection of virtual and real space. Hosted by the Cornerhouse, an arthouse cinema and admirable bar on the Oxford Road, Uncle Roy is billed as a place “where the console game breaks onto the streets,” a kind of 21st-century paper chase invoving a set of nifty handheld computers and a little espionage roleplay.
Blast Theory divides players into two groups. Street players use the handhelds fitted with an interactive map to search for Uncle Roy. They are assisted by online players who cruise through an indentical virtual city snooping on the street players and assisting them to find a secret destination. Blast Theory thinks of this space as a “mixed reality”, a place where location-sensitive data interleaves the real world and GPRS technology allows communication and cooperation between the two.
At the Cornerhouse, the game began when I was led into a room with two fellow players. A girl in a tight-fitting lilac knit takes away our personal possessions and puts them in a box. Our photos are taken and we are each given a small, handheld computer. The girl tells us that if we follow the instructions properly we should be able to locate Uncle Roy, who might have something for us. Keep a lookout for cars, she says, and you have 40 minutes to complete the task.
Initially, the mission is a frustrating. My handheld is covered with a clear, plastic bag to protect it from the Mancunian drizzle, but this makes the screen awkward to read. It is also difficult to be sure exactly where you are in relation to the instructions that appear on the screen and – lost within five minutes – I resort to asking the locals where to go.
It takes about 20 minutes to get my bearings and for things to get interesting. A text message points me into the Thornton Arms, one of Piccadilly’s most notorious gay bars, where a pile of helpful postcards is hidden somewhere amid the Saturday afternoon session of bemused men with shaven heads. I’d have honestly stayed for a drink, but Blast Theory had all my money and the clock was ticking.
The pace of the game is certainly bewildering. Messages from Uncle Roy increase quite rapidly as I begin to develop a sense of direction. Five minutes later and the game suddenly pushes me down a back alley on the edge of Chinatown. Suddenly, I am in a dark, rubbish-strewn street, filled with the fetid smell of decomposing peppers and fried food. A furtive, middle-aged man destined for the street’s massage parlour passes and suddenly you get one of the central points of Uncle Roy. The virtual trail is simply a medium designed to provoke exploration of a city’s invisible conduits and private thoroughfares. The singular world of Uncle Roy is a place where familiar landmarks take on new meanings and everyday events seem to become part of the game. Throughout my 40 minutes I suspect that complete strangers are secret members of Blast Theory strategically placed throughout the route.
You do notice the city – if only in snatches – as the map eventually becomes the place you inhabit, not the real space. This can have a dislocating effect, as if viewing the city through the window of a fast-moving train: you catch snapshots of grand, redbrick Victoriana, a solitary, minaret-like chimney, manky flags fluttering outside faded hotels.
Where the proposition falls down, for me at least, was the lack of interaction with the online players. Only once did I receive a prompt from any of them, despite making several voicemail requests for help. This is to be expected, though, as they play for free and so have far less incentive. Whatever the attractions of cyberspace, running round the back streets of Piccadilly is much more fun and at times I felt like Anneka Rice in an online episode of Treasure Hunt, sans orange jumpsuit, helicopter and jaunty demeanour, of course.
Uncle Roy is a collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab.