#1245: “The Pirate Queen” Narrative Game Wins Tribeca Storyscapes Prize with Exquisite Environmental Storytelling

The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend is a narrative VR game with lots of exquisite environmental storytelling with embodied puzzles and escape room mechanics. You play as a 19th-century Chinese woman named Cheng Shih as she becomes one of the most powerful pirates in history. Singer Studios premiered the first 30 minutes of the experience, and it won the Tribeca Immersive Storyscapes award. The jury statement says, “For its outstanding technical execution, immersive user experience, and unique and untold story of a nearly forgotten woman in history.”

I had a chance to catch up with the founder and CEO of Singer Studios, Eloise Singer, who directed The Pirate Queen as well as producer Siobhan McDonnell, who looks after the immersive wing at Singer Studios. Singer Studios specializes in telling transmedia stories across film, TV, games, and podcasts. They’re also working on a podcast series and TV series of The Pirate Queen starring Lucy Liu. Liu also executive produced and narrated the VR game. They’re also adapting their Venice 2022 narrative game Mrs. Benz into a film version. We talk about the affordances of these different media, and how they’re changing how they tell these stories across these different mediums.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the potentials of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So continuing on my series of looking at different immersive experiences at Tribeca Immersive 2023, today's episode is with the main competition winner of the Storyscapes Award. It's called The Pirate Queen, A Forgotten Legend. So this is a true story about a woman named Cheng Shi, a woman in 19th century China who became one of the most powerful pirates in history. So I previously talked to both Eloise Singer and Siobhan MacDonald at Venice of 2022 when they had another environmental storytelling and immersive narrative and puzzle game piece called Mrs. Ben's. So this piece of the Pirate Queen was, again, similarly, a lot of really explicitly designed immersive environments where you're going onto the ship to explore these different objects, to learn more about the world. You don't see a lot of character interaction. A lot of it is silhouetted or you hear the voiceover of the different dialogue, which allows them to have a lot higher fidelity of all the world that's around you. And so it doesn't have any mismatch between the level of fidelity of the world versus what you would expect to see with any character actors. But it allows them to really focus on the world to tell the story. And so you have different objects, learning more about the world, but also a lot of embodied puzzles. Moving around and being inspired by the four distances of embodiment when it comes to virtual reality, and being able to translate that into an immersive story. So like I said, it did pick up the main StoryScapes award. And I'm just going to read the jury comment here. It says, for its outstanding technical execution, immersive user experience, and unique and untold story of a nearly forgotten woman in history. One thing also worth mentioning is that Singer Studios works on a lot of transmedia projects, meaning that they work on both film, television, podcasting, and immersive stories. And so they're often thinking about how to tell this similar story across all these other media. And so there's a lot of deep research and history and backstory that goes into each of these stories. And we talk about the process of telling a story across different media as well. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Wasteless VR podcast. So this interview with Eloise and Siobhan happened on Sunday, June 11th, 2023 at Tribeca Immersive in New York City, New York. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:30.354] Eloise Singer: Hello, I'm Eloise Singer. I'm a director and I have just directed The Pirate Queen. So I am the founder and CEO of Singer Studios, which is a company that specialises in telling transmedia stories. So we tell narratives across film, TV, games and podcasts.

[00:02:52.028] Siobhan McDonnell: Hi, I'm Siobhan McDonnell. I'm a producer at Singer Studios. I look after the immersive wing at Singer Studios, and I'm the producer on The Pirate Queen that's premiering here at Tribeca.

[00:03:01.963] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could each give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into this space.

[00:03:06.557] Eloise Singer: Yeah absolutely, so I started working at Poma Studios and worked in production there and worked on everything and anything from The Great British Bake Off to Transformers to The Crown etc and sort of small productions, big productions and then I worked freelance as a film producer. and I exec produced a film called Rare Beasts that was directed and starred Billy Piper and that premiered at South by Southwest in Venice and London and then I've recently exec produced a film called The Last Rifleman with Piers Brosnan and I'm directing a three-part documentary series that's exec produced by XYZ and Library Films and yeah, got into Immersive because we were developing The Pirate Queen as a TV series and when Covid struck we thought the story needs to be told and if we can't develop it as a TV series because of Covid we need to find another way to do it so we started looking into Immersive and thought actually what an incredible way of telling this story than to make it an immersive experience. So we developed the Pirate Queen into a demo, a short version effectively, that premiered at Raindance Film Festival and that won Best Debut at Raindance. And then we showed it to Meta and they were like, this is incredible. And we were like, yeah, this is just the beginning. We really need to make this story into a big experience and so they came on board and now we're developing it into a sort of two-hour interactive game and the first 30 minutes are what we've just shown here at Tribeca.

[00:04:44.473] Kent Bye: Just a quick follow-up because I know that you also showed Mrs. Benz at Venice and I don't know where that falls in the timeline. Were you working on the Pirate Queen before Mrs. Benz then?

[00:04:54.793] Eloise Singer: Yeah, we were. So we started with the Pirate Queen. We made one level of the Pirate Queen and that went to Raindance. And then off the back of that, we then made Mrs. Benz. And then whilst we were making Mrs. Benz, we've also been making the full version of the Pirate Queen. So it's a lot at a very small amount of time.

[00:05:13.619] Kent Bye: And then on top of that, it sounds like you've got a lot of film projects and podcasts at the same time.

[00:05:18.357] Eloise Singer: Yeah, exactly. So our company is growing really quite quickly. And it's really nice, because we're doing lots of different things all at the same time. And the immersive side that Shiv is the producer of is fast, and everything's happening. And lots is going on with Ben's and Pirate Queen. And then we're developing podcasts and doing films and TV as well. So it's all happening.

[00:05:42.008] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd love to hear a bit more about your background and journey into this space.

[00:05:48.327] Siobhan McDonnell: Yeah, it's interesting actually because I've kind of flitted between fiction and factual in films for a while. So, studied anthropology, loved documentary, also worked at Warner Brothers, worked on the big films like Justice League, Wonder Woman, and some of the big blockbusters, tentpole productions over there, and then went back into a documentary, and then have always been in love with immersive documentary since Nonny de la Pena's early work at Sheffield Dockfest from like 2012. and so I kind of saw her as the godmother of immersive factual storytelling and bounced between the big films, documentary and then really committed maybe four years ago now, really went back to study immersive tech with Story Futures at Royal Holloway and started working in immersive documentaries. I did a piece with another company that was for United Nations training peacekeeping troops. Dual Language, brilliant piece, that was 360 film. And then sort of sidestepped into digital immersive worlds that we build now at Singer, which is recreating. And what I love about these is because they are factual characters. So it's this beautiful blend of like immersive factual, and documentary all coming together. And so I think, yeah, that's how I've got here. I think studying anthropology, working in film, and then studying immersive tech. And so blending all those things together makes sense to be producing immersive VR games.

[00:07:09.510] Kent Bye: So there was a piece that I saw at South by Southwest of 2022. It was a 180 video depiction of the Pirate Queen. And so it seems like this is a story that is based upon a real character. Maybe you could give a bit more context to the Pirate Queen and how you came across this story.

[00:07:24.937] Eloise Singer: Absolutely, yes. So the Pirate Queen is a story about a woman in 19th century China who married the leader of a pirate fleet. He then mysteriously died. She killed him. And she then took over the fleet and commanded about 70,000 people. in the lead up to the Opium Wars and became the most powerful pirate of all time and it's a true story that very few people seem to know about and I heard about it in 2018 because a friend of mine told me the story and I couldn't believe that the most powerful pirate in history was a woman. A lot of people if I ask friends and if they had asked me previously I would have been like oh yeah it's probably Blackbeard or a lot of people are just like maybe it's Johnny Depp. I'm like definitely not Johnny Depp. But I couldn't believe that I didn't know this narrative. And so the more that I started looking into it, the more interesting I thought the story was. And it transpires that she quite literally paved the way for equality. She created a code of laws that meant that male pirates and female pirates had to be treated equally. And if male pirates acted outside the realm of monogamy, then they would be killed. and she set in stone a lot of rules to allow people to be treated equally on a ship which I think is really quite admirable and I was so amazed at her tenacity in how she managed to become leader of this massive fleet in a time where women faced so much adversity that I felt really strongly that it needed to be a narrative that should be told so that's sort of how it came about and yeah I think it's great that there was another project at South By. It brings me a huge amount of joy to see people telling her story because ultimately just because a story has been untold for so long or lost from the record books and very few people know about it I think the more projects that are made about her the more awareness that we have about this narrative and It's very rare for people to turn around and say, oh, yeah, you made a story on William Wallace. Someone else did that, too. So all the same with like Shakespeare, you know, you've made something on Romeo and Juliet. Someone else did that, too. So why can't we do it about the Pirate Queen? I think the more that we hear about her, the better.

[00:09:41.756] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I had a chance to play through the half hour demo of the Pirate Queen. And it sounds like that if it's anywhere from two to two and a half hours, I'm seeing the first 20% to 25% of the entire experience. And so maybe you can take me back to the Rain Dance demo. Is that something that was somewhat similar to what you're showing here? Or what was the difference between what premiered at Rain Dance and what is showing here at Tribeca?

[00:10:03.804] Eloise Singer: So what we showed at Raindance was a section of the Captain's Cabin, which is a portion of what we're showing here at Tribeca. So that bit that we showed at Raindance was showing the puzzle elements and the backstory to the Pirate Queen and a little bit about the journey that she was going to go on and ended when you opened, in the Raindance version it was actually a trap door that you open and then you fade to black and it says to be continued. And the version that we're showing here is a bigger, badder version of that. So, without going into too many spoilers, but you start off on a pontoon and you have to row your way to your ship and you climb up the side of the ship and enter into the captain's cabin. And whilst it's inspired by some of the puzzles that we showed at Raindance, it's a newer version and the cutscenes are really immersive and exciting. You open lots of scrolls to feel the story and be introduced to this world and the characters involved in this world. And then you climb down into another level and have to navigate through an obstacle course of sleeping pirates to discover a secret door at the end. And then that will lead into the full game, which is amazing and really exciting.

[00:11:19.867] Kent Bye: And so what I've seen so far is I'm going through and having these different embodied puzzles, these different things that I'm solving and to progress forward. Sometimes I get a hint either from what was being said or sometimes I get a hint from these little sparkles that are shown. But at the same time, there's this overarching narrative of getting to know a little bit about the character that I'm playing and then also the context of the ship and who's also on that ship. And so as you go into the rest of the experience, do you expect to see the same type of narrative structure where you're mostly embodied into interacting with the world around you? Are we going to see other characters? Are we going to only hear characters? Are we going to have like third person cut scenes? I'm just trying to get a sense of if you're going to continue to tell the story through this audio narration or if there's other ways that you're going to start to expand out to telling the story?

[00:12:12.211] Eloise Singer: It's a very good question. So the way that it works is we're going to have two modes of the game. There's going to be a story seeker mode and there's going to be a challenger mode. And so the mode that we're showing here at Tribeca is the story seeker mode. It's a mode where there's a glint system. So you see these sparkles and that kind of gives you the clues. You can hear all of the prompts very quickly and it's, allowing players, especially in a festival where the turnover time is quite high, it's just allowing players to be able to enjoy the whole experience and to get to the end and not get confused or lost. Whereas the challenger mode will be a delayed glint system. So it means that you have more time to work out the puzzles for yourself effectively. And the rest of the three quarters of the game are Basically, more environments, different environments. So you leave your ship, you have to row across to another ship and poison your rival, Gorgodai, before he realizes. And then you have to navigate back to your ship before an oncoming attack. And when the attack does eventually come, you then need to outsmart your rivals to become the Pirate Queen. In terms of how we're depicting the characters, we're using effectively a silhouette mechanic. So you'll be knocking on windows and you'll see a silhouette of someone and you'll hear VO from them like that, or they'll be behind a curtain or behind a screen. So we will be visualizing characters but through silhouettes so that it's effectively a bit of a smoke and mirrors device. And I think that because the art style that we've chosen to go with is super realistic, with the hardware limitations that there is there's a risk that if we create super realistic characters that it may actually be immersion breaking because the lip sync might not be right etc etc so for us a silhouette mechanic feels like the most natural and authentic way to be depicting this world and the stories and also the mystery as well like creatively the mystery behind the narrative and who these people were it's a very The world that we're creating is quite dark, effectively, and mysterious, and so to be having characters that are sort of guised behind screens is always quite interesting. Yeah, it's a fun way to show people, I think.

[00:14:30.531] Kent Bye: If you have any other thoughts?

[00:14:32.853] Siobhan McDonnell: I need to bookend that in terms of design that we're developing as well in terms of power of suggestion I think is definitely going to be enhanced through some of the design features and we've seen already in some of the play that we have at the moment where there might be a comment or a sound effect or put someone in a situation where they think oh I think I will need this and we kind of facilitate them to join the dots and we really are doing that through play testing and seeing where the patterns of behaviors are landing and playing into those things that feel good and that people intuitively go towards and so in terms of also as you mentioned the VO and the glint systems and the player seekers, story seekers mode and then sort of the harder puzzle mode are refining and really leaning into intuitive human behaviors when they're playing and what makes sense to them. For example when we're rowing we hear a splash and it's the urge to and people you know we watch them they row faster because there's something lurking in the waters there or another favorite bit is there is an object that they pick up to protect themselves with when they answer the door because we've been locked in and those kind of things where it's leaning into intuition I think.

[00:15:39.520] Kent Bye: And so, yeah, it seems like that there's a similar way of telling the story through this environmental storytelling that is very similar to what I saw in Mrs. Ben's at Venice in 2022. But because there's no explicit characters, then there is these really richly developed environments that you get to see and be transported into this another place in time and having those integrated puzzles that are there, probably a little bit more embodied puzzles, I'd say, in this where you're like climbing around a little bit more. Really enjoyed the very beginning when I'm rowing out to the ship and I I tried to put both hands on their oar, and I think it only allowed me to do one, but I acted like I was rolling with two hands, because I would actually be rolling with two hands if I only had one oar. But from what I hear, it sounds like that there's this trade-off that if you were to introduce characters in the scene that it would not be matching the level of fidelity that you have in the environment. And so with that mismatch, there would be a little bit of immersion breaking. It also seems like you're maybe pushing the edge of what you can do with visual fidelity in these environments as well. So I'd love to hear any of that process of trying to really create these exquisitely designed environments to be able to tell this story.

[00:16:46.871] Eloise Singer: Yeah, I mean exactly that and definitely Shiv can lean in more in terms of how we are pushing the boundaries in the way that we're depicting these worlds and the mechanics that we're using and how we're telling stories. I think from a creative point of view, using cutscenes and allowing audiences to visualise the story itself has always been really important to me. I think that we underestimate how intelligent people are in stories and how much audiences can connect the dots and as you come into a festival like this and seeing people play the game and react the way that they're reacting to it and really understanding the story and a lot of people I think lean into the idea that they're in charge. I mean, you're literally stepping into the shoes of the Pirate Queen and we're challenging you to use her intuition and smarts to solve all of these puzzles. And it's amazing to see players just absolutely smash it, to be honest with you, and come out smiling at the end. I think it's really rewarding. But yeah, I'll defer to Shiv in terms of how we're pushing the boundaries.

[00:17:52.776] Siobhan McDonnell: For character representation and interactions, I think part of, I think, something that's come through from this is, and you mentioned it a minute ago, Kent, just that it could be seen as quite a dark environment, you know, this quest that we're on and it's, you know, in this challenge as the Pirate Queen to kind of survive, basically, and ensure her continuation as the Pirate Queen. But I think a lightness that's come through is like magical realism and an element we've leaned into with the glint. And it's been a really beautiful juxtaposition against kind of the potential challenge and darkness that lies ahead of the Pirate Queen with this empowering kind of magical realism elements. And that we're leaning into with sort of visual effects. We've got, as we were talking earlier about spatial sound as well, that we can really create those environments. And as the shadows as well that you mentioned, I think will bring them to life. We are obviously, we've got an FPS that we need to hit. So, I mean, that's really our kind of only boundary that we're working to. And other than that, we're being really creative about how we bring interactions and those representations to life.

[00:18:59.162] Kent Bye: I know that when we had a chance to speak at Venice, where you're showing Mrs. Benz, that it came as a result of the pandemic, that you were working on different film projects, and you were working on both The Pirate Queen and Mrs. Benz, and that you had said at that time, at least when we last chatted in September of 2022, that you were in the process of pitching Mrs. Benz as a TV show, so showing people the immersive experience as a way of getting people invested into this larger story. So I'd love to hear if there's any updates on that front when it comes to either the TV and podcast series for Mrs. Benz.

[00:19:32.431] Eloise Singer: Yeah, it's a very good question. So with Mrs. Benz, we're developing it into a film rather than a TV series. So it's being developed into a film and a podcast. And the podcast is a wider podcast on the age of innovation and IPs in particular. the concept of stealing IPs during the age of innovation because it was sort of a darker side of the age of innovation that happened quite a lot and is fascinating. So that's all in the works and then with the Pirate Queen obviously Lucy Liu is the voice of the Pirate Queen and she's also an exec producer of the VR game. So we are developing the Pirate Queen into a TV series and a podcast as well. And the Pirate Queen TV series that we're developing is with the producers of The Farewell, who won a Golden Globe for The Farewell, which was obviously starred by Awkwafina and one of the best films I've seen ever. So, yeah, it's all happening. It's all in motion.

[00:20:28.734] Kent Bye: You'll have to hear any other elaborations for how the immersive feeds into helping produce these other media of either the films or podcasts. How it either helps things get greenlit or how it informs how the story is being told.

[00:20:43.560] Siobhan McDonnell: Well I think people like to consume stories in different ways and I definitely think there's a generation that's coming up that consumes digital content in perhaps different ways than just at home on TV and even just cinema you know outside of that we've got streamers, platforms, handheld devices, games and obviously we're seeing games feed through as well and such a culture and I guess a community, huge communities behind games and IP that people realise that when you build something that works in one platform it can be adapted and work in other platforms. I mean I think we know all this from Last of Us and other games that are coming through. in sort of flat screen mediums. But I would say that the focus really needs to be on why are you producing that story in another medium. We don't do it just because we want to have it across lots of different mediums. It's adapting that story and that narrative to what works best in that medium. And it's really finding that, which I think we do really well, is finding what's the new angle that really strengthens listening to this story as a podcast. For example, it's oral histories and having narratives that might not work as well on flat screen, for example. If you're making something a game, you jump into the shoes of the pirate queen. It's one thing to watch a film, but to know what it's like when you've been locked in a cabin because your adversary is trying to take you out and your life, potentially, and your entire fleet of 70,000 people is at risk. You're not going to potentially feel that from a flat screen version. So having these different spaces where people can really connect with the characters, really connect with the stories. That's our focus and what kind of should be the focus when you're making narratives across platforms. And so far it's something we're doing really well.

[00:22:28.107] Kent Bye: So, yeah, as I think about these different media, I try to explore the different affordances of each of the media. As an example, I was just watching Succession, and then there was the podcast about Succession, and then I could get more information about the character motivations, or the behind the scenes, or the way it was produced, and hear from the producers, hear from the actors, and it's just such a compelling narrative that I really quite enjoyed. It was almost like needing to listen to all the additional information to get this other contexts that I may have not gathered from just watching the TV show. So there's this ability to really hear other pieces of information, like there was The Plumbers that was also on HBO, that it was a fictionalized version of the Watergate break-in, but then they had more of a historical analysis of what things were based upon, verified research and facts, and what was the best that they could know and sometimes they would extrapolate and fill in the gaps and so it was really helpful to listen to that podcast to understand a lot more of the history that was being represented in the fictional version. But also to hear from the actors and hear, I don't know, there seems to be this oral history dimension of the podcast and the film just is able to really modulate my emotions as I watch it in a way that has the building and releasing an attention that has a time-based component to it that feels really architected in a way that you can really control the dramatic tension and release, whereas in an immersive interactive experience, you don't have as much of that control, but it's more about the user agency as they're moving around, and it's more of an embodied experience for people. So I'd love to hear how you start to think about, as you take a story like The Pirate Queen, and what parts of the story would be best suited to tell in the context of VR, what's best to leave to a film, and what's best to leave to the podcast version.

[00:24:14.700] Eloise Singer: Yeah absolutely, I think for us with the Pirate Queen the intention from the beginning was to make a story that was culturally and historically as accurate as we could possibly get and so we ensured that 50% of our team had Chinese heritage and they are phenomenal, like our team are phenomenal creatives who Our composer, for example, grew up in Hong Kong and brought the idea of creating a soundscape that he grew up with as a kid. And so we use traditional instruments and we create a whole language around the story which is super historically accurate. and it required a huge amount of research to be able to get to that point so all of our artists researched for a good couple of months looking at how the ships were built at the time and we learned a huge amount of really interesting facts actually about the world that we were creating so for example in China at that point ships didn't use nails they were bound with dovetail joints so initially we created these spaces with nails and then our researchers came back and they were like, actually no, there were no nails at that point, they were all dovetail drawings. And we looked into how the reeds of the mats on the floor were bound, so whether they were bound left to right using reed bindings or whether they were right to left to ensure that everything we were creating matched the history and the time and place. And Maya, our writer, has Chinese heritage and she came on board because she grew up in Hong Kong knew the story, she used to go to the caves in China where this story is based, and knew about the characters and Xiong Huo Cai, who is sort of the guide in the game, and was so passionate about wanting to tell this narrative, and she crafted this world and how we were going to be on the night that Cheng Xi comes to power, so the night that the Pirate Queen comes to power. So Maya kind of led from a narrative point of view on how and what point in history we wanted to tell this story and so for us instead of starting right at the beginning of the pirate queen narrative where she was working on flower boats and she met her husband we decided to tell it from the night that she came to power and the whole narrative and VR was going to be on this one night and then the cutscenes would cut back to different parts of her backstory so that we could learn more about her and who she was and what her agency was going through the night of succession. So I think it's an interesting one because we effectively crafted the narrative to be just at one point in time and then from there it was working out what the stakes were going to be to ensure that the player sort of really embodied this character and felt the heightened agency that we wanted them to feel. So whilst it is all as historically accurate as we possibly can get, we're also sort of heightening the stakes. So, you know, the British do attack at one point during the full version of the game, which may or may not have happened on that night. But what's so fascinating about this point in history is that it was during the lead up to the Opium Wars. So bringing in additional adversaries that were based in history, like the British, allow us to shed light on what was happening at the time and also allow people to think about this part of history because it's not a part of history that is taught and especially for us growing up we don't learn about the open wars and it is a huge point in history which hasn't been addressed and as creatives we felt it was really really important to bring that in and to allow people to witness that bit of history and also to allow them to go away and learn more about that point in history as well so that we can encourage discourse around this point in time.

[00:28:07.429] Kent Bye: And I'm curious to hear how you think about telling the same story in other media, both in film and podcast.

[00:28:15.493] Eloise Singer: That is a very good question. So for the film, it will be a lot more linear. So it will start at the beginning of her life and her journey and where she was as a flower boat girl and then sort of progress through right to the end. Because again, what's so fascinating about the Pirate Queen is that The RBR game will finish on the night where she comes to succession, she becomes leader of the fleet and that's your reward is you manage to become leader of the fleet. Whereas what then happened is that she obviously commanded 70,000 people and there are a huge amount of battles that she had to grapple with and she effectively defeated the Qing dynasty and controlled the South China Sea. She was incredible. But then after she retired, quite literally retired as a pirate, like she wasn't killed at 40, she retired at 60 and then opened a gambling den and then just lived till old age and passed away, which is phenomenal for anyone. and especially a woman at that point in history. I think most pirates usually have like a lifespan of up to age 40 but seemingly not the pirate queen. So I think what's really interesting is with film it will be a lot more linear whereas in games we can kind of create like a beginning and a middle and an end that's sort of at one point in time and then also allows us to create sequels and prequels and DLC and things like that so it's sort of just the beginning and with the podcast we're actually looking at the Pirate Queen in a wider context because the Pirate Queen Cheng Shi who was based in China isn't the only Pirate Queen You know, there's Grace O'Malley, who was a very formidable female pirate in Ireland. There were women all around the world who were formidable pirates who became leaders of fleets, and we don't know about them. And so the podcast will be looking at different pirate queens, effectively, through history.

[00:30:08.937] Kent Bye: Yeah. And any other thoughts on, you mentioned a little bit about the different affordances of the media, but after I've heard the structure of taking this moment in time and then having more of a linear structure and then the podcast allows you to even set a broader context. Yeah. Any other reflections on the affordances of the different media of what you're able to really lean into that strengthens the story that as you watch all of them together, you get more of a holistic experience, but what are the strengths of each of those media?

[00:30:36.763] Siobhan McDonnell: I think with the game of the Pirate Queen, it's really pushing the sense of urgency, because there are certain pillars that we work with, so there's a sense of empowerment, there's a sense of informative, so you learn about your space, you learn about all these historical accuracies that we've woven into the game. But that sense of urgency and setting up your challenge slash premise quite early on so that you know the task and the quest that you're on, whilst that grows as you work your way through this narrative-driven game, you do have to kind of set that up quite early so that you understand, why are we in this space? What am I doing here, basically? And as soon as you have that and you're invested and you understand, that is the strength of the game, I think, and of the Pirate Queen, understanding your character's stakes So I would say just leaning into that from the game side whilst the podcast obviously will be the broader context and then the film will be more linear and be over a longer period. Whereas, as I mentioned, it's really the night of the succession and weaving things into that because we need that sense of urgency, because it heightens the stakes and it's exciting.

[00:31:41.065] Kent Bye: You mentioned having flashbacks and I know that there was some objects within the experience like a shoe that was bounding the feet of women and I don't know if that's considered to be a flashback or maybe you could talk about the other methods of telling the story both through the objects and what the objects mean and how they're connected to the characters but also how are you handling flashbacks?

[00:32:02.475] Eloise Singer: Yeah, absolutely. So we do have a lot of incidental storytelling in the game, as with all of our games. It seems to be a running theme for us. And effectively, there are different objects that you can pick up in the room, one of which is the Lotus shoe. There's also different objects that you can discover if you open different cupboards and lots of different Easter eggs that you can pick out different things. and they all have a bit of VO on them that give context to the time, the period, her story, her narrative and you don't have to find all of them. They are just there to enrichen your experience but if you do come across them then yeah you learn a bit more about her and what she had to go through which is always fun. And then in terms of sort of flashbacks it's more cut scenes so the cut scenes that you open the scrolls and you get points of her journey and her history and what happens in those throughout the game. And they are beautiful, I mean the cutscenes are designed and inspired by 19th century Chinese art and the art that was that style of Qing Dynasty drawings and they were created over several months. And then we sort of brought them to life by having subtle animations and sort of washes and really wonderful sound design by our sound designers. And they've come out really, really beautifully. And yeah, cutscenes are always one of the things that I'm most proud of when we create our games, because the level of detail and attention that go into them is easy to underestimate, but they are beautiful.

[00:33:35.703] Kent Bye: Yeah, so those are, you open up a scroll or you have what looks like a Chinese painting, but it's dynamic and unfolding, but there's usually just one scene, right? And then the voiceover, is that right?

[00:33:45.530] Eloise Singer: Yeah, so you open up the scroll and then it plays out a visual image of a bit of her backstory, so it will take you through the time where she was a flower boat girl and then to the marriage of her husband and then what happened to him and him mysteriously being swept away from the ship and then the fact that she's now facing a number of rivals in this environment and the objective is to outsmart these rivals or there might be another cutscene which gives you context to the time that you're in so the fact that she was commanding one fleet which was the red flag fleet but there were many different fleets of pirates in China at that time and they were all based under a different color flag so you have the green flag fleet, the blue flag fleet, the yellow flag fleet And her main rival was Gor Podai, who was the leader of the Black Flag Fleet. And he was incredibly well-read. He was a scholar. So when you do eventually go into his cabin later in the full game, you walk into this environment that's a cabin that's covered in books because he was very literate. But he's the one that you're challenging and you're trying to outsmart. But the other rivalries within the story world are also the British and also the Qing dynasty. It's really interesting because you're stepping, not only stepping into her shoes, but stepping into this point of history where all of these things really were happening. And so we are challenging you to take on the world at that time.

[00:35:14.732] Kent Bye: Yeah, I found myself going through the experience. I was listening for the next clue or looking for the clues, but also having a little bit of those backstories and getting a sense of the story. But sometimes when I experience the first chapter of a story and not knowing where the full arc is, sometimes I have trouble articulating what happens. And also I think Part of what happens with me in immersive experiences is that if I don't see an embodied character or a spatial representation of a scene, if it's just over voice, then the visuals tend to dominate. So sometimes I'll go back and replay an experience after I know where the arc is and be able to hear all those other nuances. But yeah, I think that's a challenge for me at least, is I have a very clear memory of all the different embodied puzzles and all the interactions that I did in the experience but I wouldn't necessarily be able to trace all the individual beats of the character because I was in part listening for what the next clue was and also trying to solve a puzzle so there's like cognitive load and so there's this interesting balance between telling the narrative of the story but also being immersed in the scene and It's an escape room vibe where you have to go through these series of different puzzles that you have to solve. So anyway, I don't know if that's just the nature of environmental storytelling and the way that you're doing without those characters that the trade-off sometimes for me at least is that the different characters I have to kind of hold in my mind all these relational dynamics and without having visual for what each of them look like then sometimes it can be difficult for me to fully remember all of the story beats and the stuff that I'm left with are more the interactions and the embodiment and the environment and seeing all the objects that I'm interacting with and Remembering different aspects of that. So anyway, there's some thoughts of this mode of storytelling. I

[00:36:56.009] Eloise Singer: Yeah I know that makes total sense completely and I think as well being at a festival where it is noisier than if you were to experience it at home and also this feeling of wanting to complete it as well whereas when you're at home and you can take your time and relax into it and really feel the space and the environment I think it's a very different experience. I guess the beauty with stories like this is that it does encourage you to go back and play it again because ultimately there are so many things in that room that you can pick up that you can learn more about her story there are different items and objects that if you go for example over to one of the cabinets and open them then there's an opium pipe in there and you can learn more about the opium wars so yeah it's the challenges you if you want the full experience then go back and discover more.

[00:37:46.016] Siobhan McDonnell: Yeah, I agree in terms of, for example, when I'm in an art gallery, I connect with the art more when I understand more about the artist and I know that person. I feel like I know that person and they're personified to me. And I think in our game, the full game there is all of these events and stories that are woven into the characters that give it actually a really rich, deep character to each of the characters who become present, particularly your adversary, Gwakwudae. And when you learn those and you grasp some of those parts, that character then becomes more alive, I think. even without the visual because you start to piece pieces of the puzzle together about this person and therefore I think it builds the imagination of that character and reinforces who that person is and what you're up against and so I would say not wanting to break the immersion of having as we've discussed before about the character representation but actually really reinforcing the rich stories behind these characters I think helps bring them to life which I think we've done really well in the full game and you do get an insight here for sure, but there's definitely more to learn about all of these characters in the full version.

[00:38:52.231] Kent Bye: Yeah, as you were saying that, it reinforced the fact that you are doing puzzle mechanics in this escape room, but you're also puzzling together what the story is as well. So I'd love to hear any reflections on what draws you to this form of puzzle mechanics and mental friction as a way of telling the story and having to piece together all the pieces to be able to learn about someone.

[00:39:14.222] Eloise Singer: Yeah, I mean that was beautiful because that's so accurate and it is exactly what we do and for me the Pirate Queen was such a formidable leader that she quite literally had to use her intelligence to outsmart all of these rivals and become leader of the most powerful fleet in history and so I just think there's no better way than to challenge a player by trying to step into her shoes and do the same thing and So to create puzzles that really challenge you and encourage you to use your smarts and use your wit to outsmart the rivals that you're going to face is exciting and it's rewarding as well. And ultimately VR is such a wonderful space to create tactile challenges and to really go around and open drawers and discover new items in a way that you can't do in any other medium. I find that a really exciting way of telling stories. And also I think like as a kid I used to design or just create puzzles for my friends and I think that that's always just like stayed with me as something that I've always wanted to do because it is fun ultimately and VR is supposed to be fun, you know. And so if we can tell these stories and share narratives about people from history that have been forgotten And we're doing it in a way where we're engaging players and we're exciting players and they're enjoying the experience. And ultimately, everyone wants to be a pirate. It doesn't matter who you are, you want to be a pirate. So if we can create this narrative where you jump into a headset and you're a pirate from history and you learn about her story and you have fun at the same time, then that's success, I think, for us. That's winning. It feels really nice and rewarding to see people just take off the headset with a huge grin on their face and say that was really fun and she's amazing because ultimately it should be fun and she was amazing.

[00:41:18.135] Siobhan McDonnell: a second that I agree that completely, people are just blown away. Wow, that was amazing. Oh my God, did she really exist? Those are the most common phrases that come out when people come out of head sex. They can't believe it's a true story. But just to dig deeper on that is in terms of the puzzles and how we use that. If we can provoke curiosity and you want to go and touch these items, you want to do these puzzles, and then at the other side of that, you feel a competency that is empowering, then great, we've achieved what I think we were hoping.

[00:41:48.669] Kent Bye: Yeah, I wanted to ask about the public exhibition of a piece like this because for me I know a lot of my preference of doing these type of escape rooms is to do them at home or to have plenty of time or if they are challenging enough then to have enough of a clue system because if there aren't clues that could be super frustrating to want to hear the next beat of the story but get caught up on not being able to know what the next step I need to do is and so it's nice to do that in the festival context because you can get a little bit of hints or clues as to what to do next but you have a whole system here to be able to monitor what people are seeing. You have docents that are familiar with the game to help provide tips and so love to hear what it's been like to be here at Tribeca to show it to a number of people who have a wide range of different experiences from people who have a lot of gaming and VR experience and for people this may be their very first interactive puzzle game in VR. then there may be a learning curve for them to get to that point where they understand what to do next. So, love to hear what it's been like to be here at Tribeca and to show the Pirate Queen here with all these puzzle mechanics to this audience here.

[00:42:52.176] Eloise Singer: Yeah, I think this is our first Tribeca, and so it's always really exciting to come to a festival and to be in New York. I mean, New York is great. And I think it's really nice just to be able to share it. And as you say, everyone here has such a different level of experience in VR. So for some people, you know, we're showing them how to use the controllers and how to put on the headset. It's always really special to see people who have never been in a VR space before putting on a headset for the first time. It's kind of magic. Up to people who have been playing VR for years and years and years and you don't even need to say anything, they get it. It's just lovely to be able to share the story with so many different people and the Glint system really helps in an environment like this because it just ensures that people don't get lost or confused and they can enjoy the experience. But equally the whole idea of us having two modes, a story seeker mode and a challenger mode, means that it allows people for when it is released on Quest headsets at the top of next year, for them to be able to take their time and really challenge themselves and have to figure it out in their own time at home or they can play a story seeker mode where they know that they're going to be able to get through the whole experience and feel the whole story from start to finish and enjoy it and I think that having that system is something that we learned from coming to festivals because everyone's experience and level of VR is very, very different. So having an easy mode and a hard mode just ensures that we can get as many people into Headset and experience her story as much as possible.

[00:44:37.595] Kent Bye: Any reflections of being here and challenges or ways that you've overcome or try to help people out here?

[00:44:45.346] Siobhan McDonnell: Challenges I think are probably the acoustics, hard floors, hard ceilings, hard walls and lots of people it's really hard to sort of not have noise pollution. I mean headphones are mandatory if you're going to hear all the wonderful VO and music and sound effects. So the other thing I'd say in terms of challenges is just being on hand and having great docents and also you know we've been on the floor as well because we really enjoy hearing what people feel you know what they do all of this is really interesting data for us and it's great to be able to support people through the experience so that they come out smiling and Tribeca is great having a really diverse attendees so you have people who as you say have never touched VR before and it's their first time so climbing down a ladder into the main hold I mean, I had to talk someone down, you know, climb onto the ladder, hold on, yeah, you'll be great. And it really is watching someone go through that kind of emotional barrier at the bottom. They were beaming and like, whew, I'm so glad I did that. And it's really nice to see that growth of a person in one of our stories. I mean, that's really brilliant. And another time where there might be someone who was less physically able and they are swinging on climbing through on monkey bars on ropes in one other section of the game and even was like as they were doing it and then said I wish I could do this in real life I wish I could still do this in real life is what they meant they were an older person who physically may not been able to do that still and so just watching people come to life and be their version of the pirate queen in headset is just amazing to watch. So there are challenges with people having access but a good docent and being there to talk people through I think is definitely a way of making sure that people get the best out of the experience. I'm trying to think if there's any other challenges we've had. I mean there's always tech challenges because that is the nature of tech. But I think we've overcome those with some good brains here as well.

[00:46:38.697] Eloise Singer: I think also in terms of tech challenges people are experiencing the project for 12 hours a day and no headset can manage that and so we do often feel that headsets are just burning out like they're overheating and especially because our project it's super interactive so the controllers get tired everything gets tired and it's just that consciousness of wanting to make sure that everyone's getting the best experience. So we're swapping out headsets every couple of hours to make sure that things aren't overheating and everything's running smoothly. And it is very hands-on. Being in a festival is always really, really hands-on. And yeah, we just want to ensure that everyone gets the best experience at the Pirate Green as possible.

[00:47:21.160] Siobhan McDonnell: Do you think it will get less hands-on as we move forward? Because I enjoy being here and seeing this stuff and this reaction, but the reality is, you know, there's so much going on that physically may not always be able to be an event or an expo, but in a way that also would be a real shame, I think, because I think after all the hard work and such a talented team to bring this to life, that is like the golden nugget where we get to see people come to life when they play it. When you just said that just then, I just thought, oh, I really hope that never changes, that we're so hands-on, but also being realistic about how hands-on we can be, because we're working two time zones and back-to-back festivals don't stop at the weekend. So, yeah, I don't know, I just thought that when you said that, and I thought, I hope we can always be as hands-on, even if it's just for short bursts at the beginning, and then hand over to the talented team here. Yeah, it's fun being hands-on, but it's nice.

[00:48:11.382] Eloise Singer: Yeah, it totally is. And I think, yeah, it is really enjoyable. Both of us really enjoy that part of actually being with crowds of people who are enjoying the project and being able to put a headset on them and talk them through the project. And it is really rewarding when you spend so long and our team spends so long working on this to actually see people's faces enjoying the experience. I mean, this is years in the making. And so to share with people, it's really nice.

[00:48:39.835] Kent Bye: And there's a lot more embodied puzzles, I think, in this experience than relative to, say, Mrs. Ben's, which is more of like point and click and putting things together. But you're moving your body around a lot more. I'd love to hear if there's any other experiences that you look to where you got inspirations for the type of embodied interactions that you wanted to integrate into the Pirate Queen.

[00:48:59.663] Eloise Singer: Yeah, definitely. So the room is always like a tent pole in my life because of the puzzle mechanics. But with this, not only is it puzzle mechanics, but it is very physical. We joke that if there was a hashtag, it would be hashtag pirate fit because It's kind of combining fitness and puzzles at the same time and I think it's always just really fun to be able to climb stuff in VR. So quite literally the climb game is a really good reference in terms of the climbing mechanics that we use. We have a rowing mechanic as well, which is really fun, you know, you get to row through the water. The other reference that we had for this was Red Matter, just in terms of the art style and the design. But, yeah, we really wanted it to be a hands-on experience because she would have had to do all of these things. I mean, not quite literally, like, climb through a main hall of Sleeping Pirates, but, you know, she was a fighter. She was a warrior as well. So it's quite nice to make it really, really tactile and just to use the power of VR, which is... heights and vistas and to be able to do things that you can't do in the real world and you know you climb up the side of a 19th century pirate ship and you get to look down and see a boat that you've just rowed your ship to and so all of those opportunities I think we really really wanted to lean into to just give the scope of this story world because it's huge. And there is definitely more to come in the full version of the game as well. You climb up to the top of a mast at one point, like the tip top of the ship, and you can look out and around into this world. So yeah, it is spectacular, and we wanted to make it feel spectacular in VR.

[00:50:49.562] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you each think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:50:59.405] Eloise Singer: That's a really big question. Truthfully, I still think that we're just at the beginning of VR. I think that it's really exciting that Apple have launched their new headset and I think that that's really going to help pave the way. I can foresee a world where the majority of VR experiences won't have controllers and we'll just be using like the headset itself and everything will be with hand tracking which I think will be really really interesting. For example with Apple it's not just going to be immersive experiences like this it will be watching TV and a headset will be a lot more of a common thing. I think editing software for example like editors will be able to use headsets and really feel the space and be able to edit a lot quicker or if you're on a video call So I think there's a whole world of VR that will become more and more accessible as the technology develops and the hardware improves. And I think, honestly, this is just the beginning, and it will become mainstream. And Apple announcing their headset just shows the scope and the potential that VR is having and will continue to have.

[00:52:07.831] Kent Bye: Although they call it spatial computing. They are not saying VR, but yeah.

[00:52:12.997] Siobhan McDonnell: They don't want to use that term. Of course, they have their own term. I mean, it's correct, of course, but... Okay, where's it going to go? I think, and again, off the back of Apple and other headsets that are coming out that are pushing the fidelity, so we're going to keep going, I think, higher and higher to sort of photorealism. So the hardware will support that. I think connectivity with other people in real time will become more prevalent. I think perhaps something that has been a criticism that's been laid at VR's door is the anti-social element that people claim to feel sometimes. So connecting people I think is probably where it's going to go and will be really exciting to be part of that actually. I would love to be, for example, playing a pirate queen game but have other pirates to help me from other parts of the world. And then personally I'm really excited about, I think, haptics and bodysuits and I'd love to be able to hug someone in Brazil when I'm in London, for example, or, you know, someone throw me something across the room and I catch it. These kind of things I look forward to. So yeah, I think realism, connectivity, and accessibility. There's a lot of accessibility issues with headsets and tech, both with the price point and also design. I think there's some work that still needs to go with that in terms of inclusivity.

[00:53:31.800] Kent Bye: Yeah. Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:53:38.212] Eloise Singer: that you guys are awesome. I think it's been really nice coming to Tribeca and experiencing other people's work and just seeing what everyone else is doing in the space. There's an amazing AI film here which is really thought-provoking. There are some really great projects that are pushing the bounds of storytelling and different boundaries of storytelling in different ways and really fun projects as well which is brilliant and I think it's always just really exciting to see how people are expressing themselves because ultimately VR is an art form. And it's a definition of expression. And the thing that I've always loved about VR is that you start with a blank canvas, and you can create whatever you want in that canvas. There are no rules, really, apart from the constraints of technology. But you can create whatever you want, and that's really special. And so, yeah, it's always nice to come to festivals and to experience so many wonderful projects.

[00:54:34.586] Kent Bye: Anything else that's left inside that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:54:38.591] Siobhan McDonnell: To the broader immersive community I would just say I'm really excited about the kind of stories, the technology, even the diversity that's here at Tribeca is really exciting and it shows that it feels like the immersive industry is moving in the right direction. That I'm excited and very privileged and just really proud to be part of actually. As an add-on it's just I would say I'm really delighted and just honoured to work with our team who are really talented. The programmers, the artists, the sound design, researchers, everyone at Signal Studios. Honestly, they just work so hard and it's the same across all of the projects because everyone here will have a team in the background that you don't see. And, you know, because we're here at the front, yes, people think that we've created this, but we wouldn't have been able to create this, nor would any of the producers and directors here, if there weren't the artists, the musicians, the programmers in the background. And so just taking a moment to say thank you to all of the team who are behind the scenes, who are making these incredible experiences that are really having a massive impact on people in their lives. And you may not be here and we can't see you, but we know that you're there and we're, yeah, thank you for your input into the industry, because what you're making is great.

[00:55:43.942] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah, well, the Pirate Queen has, again, pushing the edge of environmental storytelling and adding more puzzle mechanics, embodied puzzle mechanics. And it sounds like a much vaster world that you're able to show here at Tribeca in a full on two to two and a half hour game. Look forward to being able to dive in and explore all the stories and all the objects as it comes out sometime early next year. And yeah, thanks for taking the time to help unpack not only your story, your journey, and your process, but also the story that you're telling here. So thanks again.

[00:56:12.723] Eloise Singer: Thank you so much for having us.

[00:56:14.583] Siobhan McDonnell: Thanks, Kim.

[00:56:16.244] Kent Bye: So that was Eloise Singer. She's the director of The Pirate Queen, A Forgotten Legend, which picked up the Maine Storyscapes Award at Tribeca 2023. And she's the founder and CEO of Singer Studios, specializing in telling transmedia stories across film, TV, games, and podcasts, as well as Siobhan McDonald. She's a producer of The Pirate Queen, also working at Singer Studios, looking after the immersive wing there. So I've a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all well again I think that the environmental design of these spaces is just really top-notch of really transporting you into another world and Eloise mentioned some of her different inspirations from red matter as well as the room and yeah, I think this piece definitely takes after the quality of Environmental design in those pieces, but the difference here I think is that the stories that they're telling that this piece of the pirate queen is based upon an actual historical figure of Cheng Xi, a woman in 19th century China, became one of the most powerful pirates in history. And so it's quite an amazing story if you think about what she was able to accomplish and taking you into some of these key turning points in the immersive experience. But in the film, they're able to go into much more of the history of going back to the very beginning, more of a biographical take of the pirate queen. And the podcast form, they're focusing more on other female pirates and other female leaders across history when it comes to Setting the broader historical context for the pirate queen So very interesting to hear some of those different transmedia discussions around how they're specifically telling this story I think one comment that I would make is that whenever I see what is essentially like a chapter one of a larger story Then I don't get a sense of like the overall arc of the story of where it's going to go And so this felt like you know early first peak of the first chapter the first quarter or first 20% of the overall experience and so I Really looking forward to see how it holds up to the overall arc of telling the entirety of the story So there's a lot of great start for being able to start to tell this story It's just as I walk away and whenever I see like, you know, this is the first part then I suspend judgment to see like the entirety of the experience, but I I will say that there was a lot of really engaging interactive gameplay and having the glint system that they have, I think is also really super helpful because they had it turned on, which made it pretty easy to figure out what to do next because it's basically directing our attention and being able to go over there and do these different actions, but to have different levels that they're providing for people to dive deeper into figuring out things themselves. And so using this mechanic of the puzzles and creating this type of mental friction where you have to solve a problem. And they're trying to translate those same things into the different types of problems that the Pirate Queen would also have to solve. So trying to use the affordances of the virtual reality medium in the embodiment and being able to climb around. And Eloise mentioned that another touchpoint of inspiration was the climb. So something that's using the embodied interactions and gameplay elements of virtual reality as a medium. So yeah, just really fascinating to get a little bit more context and backstory of both their process but also all the depth of research that they're doing on this story in particular and how they're planning to tell it across all these different media. So this is certainly a good experience to go try out when it finally launches and to also see how they're telling the same story across these different media and to really impact some of the different affordances of the medium of virtual reality where you're able to have this first-person narrative perspective and to explore these different locations and spaces and to have these different objects and to get a lot of the contextual information so that when they start to tell more of a biographical character-driven story with the film or looking at the broader historical relations in the podcast then seeing how they're able to blend in some of the affordances of these different media in the context of these pieces, you know, they're working on a podcast and Like I said, a lot of the different diegetic aspects of the story that you're hearing in the dialogue is all for people in the silhouetted. So you're not usually even seeing their embodiment. You're just hearing their voices. And so that's another way of blending in different aspects of the podcast storytelling medium and the context of virtual reality as well. And that, according to Eloise, was allowing them to go into a little bit higher fidelity of an experience with environmental design without how they would have to make the characters at a whole other level of fidelity because of what they're able to handle on these mobile chipsets. So very much looking forward to seeing how this story continues to unfold and lots of different storytelling chops that they're bringing to both the virtual reality experience but also across all these other media as well. So that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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