ALT.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Our Sutured City

Our Sutured City holds a story within a woven tapestry, having players touch places within the art to progress through a point & click-like game.

Alt.Ctrl.GDC is dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase

Our Sutured City holds a story within a woven tapestry, having players touch places within the art to progress through a point & click-like game.

Tabitha Arnold and Corey Arnold sat down with Gamasutra to talk about the challenges that come from creating gameplay within a tapestry, as well as the ideas they came up with in creating its interactive elements.

Tapestry adventurers

Corey: I’m the co-lead designer on the project as well as the writer.

Tabitha: I'm the fiber artist.

Corey: We came up in the game jam scene here in Philadelphia with the Philly Game Mechanics. This includes our software developer, Andrew Cotter, who is one of the first generation of devs in our little community here. I started out doing analog games (Tab and I have collaborated on a few) and moved into video games after being asked by friends to write on a few very small indie titles. I have an academic background in literature, so now I combine the two at Drexel where I do a lot of research-based game design.

Tabitha: I love the game design community in Philadelphia because it fosters so much collaboration and thinking outside the box. I've participated in a lot of game jams, where I'm challenged to come up with a unique tabletop game on a tight deadline. 

Narrative weaving

Corey: Our Sutured City is a big tapestry that responds to your touch with audio. Imagine looking at a big textile, like a rug or a wall-hanging, and when you reach out and touch certain regions of it you hear a sound or some music. Now, imagine you’re holding a “choose your own adventure” style book that prompts you to seek certain objects to advance to the next phase of the story. That’s essentially the experience: a piece of interactive fiction whose story beats are advanced through this big beautiful weaving that responds to your touch with audio feedback. It’s weird as hell, I’ll be the first to admit.   

The tools used to build Our Sutured City

Corey: It’s such a weird project. We had to custom build a lot of hardware and software. We prototyped some circuitry using breadboards and teensy chips and alligator clips. We’ve since turned those prototypes into custom-built circuit boards that Rich designed. The boards send mainly MIDI signals, so the software is a mélange of custom programs developed by Andrew Cotter in Node JS + some kind of live music environment whose name escapes me.

The sound design, done by Chris Sanino, is recorded on-site in West Philadelphia and then worked through Abelton Live, I think. I’m composing the story with Twine, which is standard for interactive fiction. Tab can talk about the tapestry itself, which involved even more custom tooling done by our mutual friend Erik.

Tabitha: I had the choice between many different types of looms. Because I'm totally self-taught, I ended up going with a custom-built tapestry loom, where the whole thing is woven on a huge vertical frame that stands up on legs. This process was similar to painting directly onto an upright canvas. My friend Erik was working for a custom furniture manufacturer at the time, and could easily build the tapestry loom from scratch to the exact scale that we wanted.

Corey: For materials, I’ll say that silver coated nylon is the primary touch component, and it runs to alligator clips wired to the custom circuit system I described above. It’s backed on a big piece of pegboard we got at Home Depot, I think.   

Tabitha: Tapestry weaving is pretty lo-fi. We used gorgeous hand-spun wool yarn from a local shop. I have a couple of gold tapestry needles that cost about $5 on Amazon, and I used a kitchen fork to push the threads neatly down. I worked from the left side to the right, and used scraps of magazines to roughly pattern out the next shape I wanted to place on the field. I taped the magazine pieces right onto the warp threads, which hang vertically, and wove the appropriate colored weft threads over the pattern. The nylon-coated thread got woven in the same way as the ordinary thread, just leaving a long tail end out the back for Rich to clip things onto.

Creating play in textiles

Corey: I work in a video game design lab at Drexel University called the Entrepreneurial Game Studio. The EGS is housed within a multi-disciplinary engineering lab called the ExCITe Center, and we used to share space with a smart-textiles design lab. I would always walk by and see Rich Vallett, our hardware engineer, working these amazing soft metal fibers into textiles to make touch pads for fashion and heavy industry and things like that. We became friends and started knocking around potential collaborations that involved integrating touch fabric into games.

Meanwhile, my cousin and dear friend Tabitha Arnold was making these huge narrative tapestries that depicted her experience of Philadelphia. We’re both transplants here, and we experience the city through the same political and ideological framework (recovering Christians turned Socialist), so her work has always resonated with me. Her work is beautiful; she’s extremely talented. After Rich expressed interest in a collaboration, I went to Tab and floated the idea of making one of her pieces interactive in some way and was elated that she said yes. In terms of why it became a point and click adventure game, part of that had to do with design constraints, but part of it has to do with the fact that Tab and I grew up playing those games, sometimes together. We still get together and play them time to time. They are a point of nostalgia for both of us.

Tabitha: The worlds of fiber art and technology have just begun to intersect in very interesting ways. When I started to pursue weaving a few years back, I was also an amateur game designer, and kind of naturally looked for ways the two disciplines could overlap. My textiles evolved over time to become more representational and narrative, and I was learning about artists who programed their textiles to respond to touch. However, no one had created a storytelling tapestry yet. So, when I realized that my cousin, Corey, was working in the same space as an extremely specifically skilled smart textile programmer, I realized we had an amazing opportunity to break into this unexplored world.

The challenges of turning a tapestry into a gameplay input device

Corey: Oh man, where to begin? The project is so multi-disciplinary and weirdly unprecedented in terms of design, so we’ve each had our share of setbacks. I’ll spare you the myriad tech issues and say that, as a designer and writer, my biggest challenge is about how we prompt the player through the experience and offer them narrative without any visual feedback. Early on, Tabitha made the inspired decision to forego all screen graphics and have the tapestry be the single visual focal point of the experience, which I continue to love.

Currently we’ve settled on including a quest-book with language that prompts players through the narratives and presents them puzzles whose answers are different objects in the tapestry that you have to seek out and touch. If you’ve ever read a piece of Interactive Fiction built with Twine or ChoiceScript, the experience might be familiar to you.

Tabitha: It's been incredibly challenging in so many ways. Many of our meetings have been spent trying to figure out how to make a static object interesting enough; not as dull and information-heavy as an interactive museum display, but not as quick to work through as a simple toy. It took us a long time to figure out how to attach cords and circuit boards to the piece without weighing it down or adding visual noise. We've settled on using a custom-cut peg board as a backing. It was also interesting to call huge vendors of steel-coated nylon and try to verbally describe the right type of thread that we needed for these dainty weaving areas.

Gameplay in a weaving

Corey: We were looking at classic point and click games early on, the Tim Schafer Lucas Arts games in particular (Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island and things like that.) Those games are actually pretty static, visually. Each screen is a detailed background with a few key interactable objects.

If you imagine the tapestry as one big point and click game background, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine puzzle-building. The only issue is that we don’t have an “inventory” system, exactly, and we have to use language in the quest book to explain the puzzles and tell the stories. So, there’s reading, and a lot of the current discussions are about how much reading we’ll ask the players to do. Not an easy question, to say the least. People hate reading in games, me included, and I love reading outside of games.  

On seeing their art touched and interacted with

Corey: Tab has a better read on this than I do. I can say that at one of her gallery openings in Baltimore, someone kept reaching out and touching her work and we had to keep telling them to stop. So, there is something somewhat natural about wanting to reach out and touch something soft that I hope we lean into in our game.

Tabitha: It's been fun and a little vulnerable for me. My best pieces involve objects and scenes that I don't fully have an explanation for, because I usually rely on gut and intuition to tell me what needs to be in the picture. That's the process I used to create the weaving, and then Rich needed me to catalog every detail that appeared, which lead to interesting conversations in our group. I also really like the idea of touching art, and I don't agree that every art object needs to be precious and preserved like an ancient mummy. It warms my heart and brings me some existential closure to see people touching and interacting with my work in this lifetime.

The accessibility of tactile art

Tabitha: Textiles have a very interesting context as both art pieces and practical domestic objects. They have a deep narrative history, sometimes carrying a revolutionary message, or capturing an intimate story of somebody's home and family. When I first got into weaving, I basically wanted to make tiny paintings out of thread and hang them up in frames on the walls of art galleries. That was the type of work I made in my last year of art school.

Then, when I graduated, I explored on my own and learned about Chilean applique quilts, Afghan war rugs, and Gee's Bend textiles. I became so fascinated with the messages one can embed in an innocuous object like a blanket or rug for the home. Basically, a tactile object brings people into the conversation who normally don't get access to the fine art world, and that was really important to me when I left the academic bubble and wanted to make work that my neighbors and community would connect with.

The story within the fabric

Corey: The details of the story are still in development, actually. I write short fiction, and my process is to write a bunch of small things until I find a voice that fits. I’ve been staring a lot at the tapestry and thinking about living in Philadelphia in 2020. Most of the current drafts deal with the very particular problem of remaining mentally healthy and effective in an era defined by a sense of futurelessness, where all our projections forward are obscured by the potential for climate catastrophe. You get reminders of that possible future all around you when you live in a big city, especially when you are media obsessive in the way most of us tend to be.

Recently it has become clear that it is our moral responsibility to encounter and hopefully counteract a catastrophic future through political organizing and working-class solidarity. I’ll try to depict some interior struggle associated with those realizations that isn’t didactic or insanely depressing. I might fail though! Writing is hard.

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