The Mermaid’s Tears (BBC R&D)

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The Mermaid’s Tears is a short radio play (really, just a few minutes long) that allows the listener to switch audio positions and hear the story from any of three perspectives: as Dee or Bill, police officers, or as Lesley, the mother of a sick child.

Dee and Bill have questions about how the child got sick, and the chief question of the piece is whether Lesley is responsible in some kind of Munchausen-by-proxy scenario, or whether the whole thing is just an accident.

As the listener is just choosing what to listen to, there’s no narrative agency here. The structure is reminiscent of Sam Barlow’s WarGames (interactive film with a choice of strands to follow) or Iain Pears’ Arcadia (interactive novel with multiple viewpoint characters and locations) or perhaps a Punchdrunk production. All of these works belong to the category Hannah Wood would call Story Exploration Games, or games of dynamic syuzhet. But in all but Arcadia, there is an extra component: film, theatre, and radio are temporal media that have to be moving forward in order to convey meaning. A player/viewer/participant who chooses to pay attention to one stream is choosing to give up attention to another.

So player decision-making in The Mermaid’s Tears is about choosing what we want to know at the moment — do we keep listening to the conversation of two characters in the living room, or do we eavesdrop on a third who has stepped away for a moment? What do we feel we can step away from without missing anything important?

The framing story provides enough mystery that we have some curiosity, some motive to explore. The complexity of content is well-judged, too. With three participants, we never get into a situation where there are actually two separate conversations in progress. We can listen to the main conversation and then dip into the activities of the third, separated person. There’s enough here to keep things interesting and to motivate the player to change listening points, but not so much that it’s hard to understand what’s going on.

The interface provides no way of scrubbing backward and forward in time — a choice that feels very deliberate given that that ability is so often offered with audio on the web. You can listen to the whole thing again from the beginning if you like, but you can’t step back thirty seconds and listen to the same scene from a different place. I think, here, that that was actually a good decision. It discourages the listener from trying to lawnmow — I didn’t feel either able or inclined to try to listen to each character through in sequence, and the story kept its sense of forward momentum, which would likely otherwise have been lost.

As an audio piece, The Mermaid’s Tears feels substantially better crafted than a lot of interactive audio I’ve encountered coming out of the game industry — evidence of its BBC origins. The acting is naturalistic and convincing. The dialogue immediately orients us to a situation that is actually rather complicated to understand. And then there’s the sense of space. As we move from one listening point to another, different sounds become louder or softer, clearer or more muffled. Conversation heard from inside the bathroom is a little distorted. There is a sense of place and presence that I usually associate with 3D graphical spaces, a mimetic persuasiveness about the location.

Such a piece might have had a sort of documentary feel, an objectivity that comes from spying in turn on each of the major characters. But The Mermaid’s Tears also draws on certain radio play conventions to communicate interiority. If we listen to Lesley, we hear not only what is around her, but the soundtrack of her inner life, a blend of memory and fantasy focused on her child and the mermaid fairy tales they share. The dialogue is always consistent no matter from whose perspective we hear it, but Lesley’s emotional landscape gives it a different context.

If you’re interested in how this was built, there’s a brief documentary on this site as well, which shows the toolset and some of the intentions behind the design.

Related elsewhere: this interview about The Wheel of Fortune interactive audio drama, in which alternate elements of the story were broadcast simultaneously on two different channels, allowing the listener to change channels at will in order to remix the story for themselves. And The Inspection Chamber was an experimental interactive audio piece for the Alexa.

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