Documenting the process of imagining and bringing-into-being…

The backstory: transmit history, avert apocalypse

So where have the devices come from? Who made them and why? Thinking on this, I came up with a backstory:

A set of devices has been sent back from the future, after the apocalypse, when people have forgotten about the time before, what the world contained, how things worked, and what it all meant. They yearn to know of the richness and diversity of their former world; they want to learn about the past — our present – in an organic but semi-systematic way.

So they created a game-in-a-box that we past people can enjoy playing and which streams its generative data back into the future, through a hub device that orchestrates and prevents random data entry. The more games are played, the more the future folk remember and understand.

There is an ulterior motive, but it is not evil: it is only to prevent the apocalypse. Yes, the future folk hold firmly to a fragile hope that if people in the past could understand things better – if they would only pay more attention to how meaning is made – then the apocalypse may never happen. The future folk must be subtle; they must not reveal the disaster ahead – the past people must not be afraid! So they operate under a guise of intriguing frivolity, and own only half their purpose.

And why did they choose to send the devices to the National Museum of Australia? Well, that will be the subject of a future post…

A steampunk device

Very early on, our trusty developers had the idea to figure Sembl as a machine. Seeing as it’s an iPad app, we started to think about it as a handheld device, made of wood and metal, so *of course!* it wasn’t long before we started to draw on the wonderful steampunk zeitgeist for inspiration.

I wondered how faithful we could be to the figure of the device – how plausible (in a non-slavish way, of course) – so I started to sketch.

Hand-drawn sketch of a device with a button, a slot, an aperture and a key

Above is a rough (and dodgy!) early sketch of the spine of the device, where teams will register to play. Below is me dreaming up how a node on the gameboard might change as it becomes available and then filled with an object.

Hand-drawn sketch with notes of three connected nodes, one 'locked', one with an aperture and one filled with an image

These are early ideas; they may well be superseded by those of the visual designers… but drawing in this way helped me to think through the visual dynamics of gameplay and, yep, fed my already substantial enthusiasm for this project!

Sembl: conception

Dream announcement: the Museum is developing a prototype of an iPad game for teams of students visiting the physical space of the Museum. It’s called Sembl and I’m just a bit excited about it.

The game

Sembl is a game of relatedness. The challenge is to think about an object’s attributes – composition, shape, colour, use, provenance, whatever! – in order to find a way in which it relates to another object.

The aim is to occupy nodes on the gameboard, by making meaningful – and appealing – connections. In each round, players must identify an object and describe how it relates to existing objects on the board. Each round is time-limited, but teams need to take care to create connections that are interesting or delightful in some way – whoever proposes the best object and relationship wins the place on the gameboard.

Paper gameboard seeded with four items

Board design

We’ll provide a few different boards, to suit different player numbers and levels – we want kids as young as 10 to enjoy the game. Above is a sample board for four teams, which might work well for older children and adults. Seed content can be anything on display at the Museum but in this case all the objects are on display in our Landmarks gallery.

Origins

Sembl is based on a conceptual game that Charles Cameron aka @hipbonegamer has used for decades now – hipbone games – which take many forms and work for many purposes, from pure amusement through to thinking deeply about the connections between apparently disparate opposites. Charles’ games are in turn inspired by the glass bead game in the Herman Hesse novel of the same name.