“No one’s has done this before. No one’s really tried to tell a story in this way.” – The ambitious story of Wallace and Gromit: The Big Fix Up’s transmedia approach

Wallace and Gromit: The Big Fix Up promises to be a significantly more ambitious experience than you’d perhaps expect from many games with a big-name IP attached. 

Susan Cummings, Tiny Rebel Games, receiving the MCV/DEVELOP-judged Ukie Game of the Show Award at GDC 2018

The game, which released today on Android and iOS devices, is a joint effort between Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman Animations and Fictioneers – itself a collaboration between Welsh studios Potato, Sugar Creative and Tiny Rebel Games. 

As an augmented and mixed reality title, The Big Fix Up makes use of transmedia storytelling – players will experience the game’s narrative across AR gameplay, CG animations, in character phone calls, comic strips, Extended Reality (XR) portals and more. 

If that wasn’t ambitious enough, the story slowly unravels to players (acting as Wallace’s employees) over a period of roughly 28 days, culminating in a dramatic final act in February. 

There’s quite a few famous names behind the project too: the game’s cast includes the likes of Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter, Peep Show’s Isy Suttie and Harry Potter’s Miriam Margolyes.

The game launched today, and its month-long story is set to begin next week on the 25th. So as we wait to see how this ambitious project plays out, we sat down with Susan Cummings, executive producer and founder of Tiny Rebel Games.

WORKING WITH AARDMAN

Wallace and Gromit with the new characters Lily Hackerby and Bernard Grubb

Cummings tells us that Aardman were immediately on board with their plan for a transmedia title.

“The concept of transmedia has been this sort of beleaguered term over the years,” says Cummings. “People tried to do it. Usually, it’s like a comic book that maybe two people read before going to see a Marvel film, because of that discoverability issue. 

“And so what we pitched was that we can bring all this together in-app. We can bring different types of storytelling techniques together and take users on a real time journey, and reimagine what it is to experience a story, thanks to augmented and mixed reality and mobile apps.”

Aardman shared this vision, Cummings says, resulting in a mutually beneficial partnership.

“We were really looking for a partner that wanted to be involved, we didn’t just want a licence. Because it’s so new, we didn’t want to take someone’s story and just retell it this way. This had to be a new story. It had to be about giving a user agency over something. How can you feel clever and discover things along the way if it was a story that everyone had heard? There’d be nothing to discover.”

The collaboration with Aardman allowed the team to overcome the challenges of the transmedia approach, working alongside Wallace and Gromit creative director Merlin Crossingham and the rest of Aardman’s creative team to flesh out the game’s narrative.

Cummings seems hugely appreciative of the support Aardman provided throughout the project, 

“No one’s done this before,” says Cummings, “no one’s really tried to tell a story in this way. It was really complicated because we have to first come up with a viable story that would serve our purposes. Everything was driven by story in this project. Every single decision has been about what’s best for telling the story.”

Helping to navigate how best to tell each element of the story was just one element where Aardman’s expertise proved useful. The Aardman connection helped to ground The Big Fix Up in the distinct Wallace and Gromit universe. 

Tiny Rebel Games has history with working with beloved British IPs – the Newport-based developer previously worked on mobile titles Doctor Who: Legacy and Doctor Who Infinity. Still, Cummings acknowledges there’s a “heavy weight to bear” when dealing with such an expectant audience. 

CRAFTING THE CHARACTERS

The game’s new characters had to first be crafted in clay, Aardman-style

Which makes the love Aardman has put into this project all the more important. From smaller details, such as a list of pie-related puns along a bookshelf, to getting hands-on in the creation of the game’s new characters, literally leaving the Aardman fingerprint on the project.

“So there’s three new characters,” says Cummings, “but two of them, Bernard Grubb, and Hackerby’, had to actually be crafted in clay and then scanned, which is something we didn’t know going into the project. 

“But when you think about it, if you’re going to do that for Wallace and Gromit, you have to do it for the others. It was an unexpected thing to actually have Aardman modellers create these characters, which was just amazing watching them come to life from the drawings through to the clay models and to the real thing. 

“And then they do these LIDAR scans, these high resolution scans of the characters, and then we turn that into CG. But you even see thumb prints and stuff on the characters,  and we had to keep all that. So when we put out our first trailer, there were a lot of people fooled, and totally thought it was clay.”

Of course, even with all the love and support in the world – telling a coherent story across multiple different mediums is a tall order. With the app ranging from AR gameplay, to comic books, to in-character phone calls, it’s hard not to wonder if the team had created a huge challenge for themselves.

“Yeah, it’s hard!” says Cummings. “It’s hard to do any one of those things well. It’s really complicated to make videos to try and make augmented reality because it’s so new. And it’s hard to write for those things, and to get the gags in as well, because Wallace and Gromit is all about humour. I think we may be the first company that have tried to do AR comedy, it’s super funny throughout.”

Still, the transmedia approach allowed the team to focus on what elements would be best used for the sake of the story – even tailoring the medium to the specific characters.

“But like I was saying with the story beats, we had to figure out the best way of telling each aspect of the story. So for example, Gromit doesn’t talk. So we had to figure out how to bring him into the story, what was the way of telling Gromit’s story? And so we settled on these noir full motion comic strips. And so that was a decision as being what is best for the story.”

TELLING A TALE

Players will be signing up to be an employee of Wallace’s new company

Splitting the story across multiple different mediums runs the risk of an audience getting lost, though. The game has a clear framing device: upon downloading the app, the user is signing up to be an employee of Wallace’s company – tasked with helping him with a job to fix up Bristol, as the beloved character once again finds himself in way over his head.

But when a narrative that began in AR continues into a comic, only to end in a phone call, there’s a chance audiences might lose the thread of it.

It’s a potential concern the team is all but too aware of, though Cummings seems confident about the final result.

“The past month or two has just been integration and going over and over again, to make sure that the story flows. I think one of the most important outputs of this project is going to be: ‘did you get the whole story? Did you feel like you missed something, because of the way we delivered it?’ And you know, we feel really good about it, We can only get it out there now and see.”

The game’s narrative will take place over roughly 28 days, with new content available every day (apart from Sundays, even Wallaces need a break sometimes, trust me on this one), before its dramatic final act in February. Of course, the entire story will still be available after February, to cater to any latecomers. 

It’s certainly an interesting experiment, and the daily rollout of content over the 28 day period opens up the opportunity for water-cooler conversations – something that we haven’t had a lot of this year. With all the players receiving the content at the same time (time zones depending) each day, it’s a chance to give players a sense of a shared experience. 

“I feel like we are missing those, notes Cummings. “There’s so much out there to watch. I end up telling somebody about something I watched, but no one’s watching it at the same time. I really miss the Game of Thrones experience of ‘could you believe what happened last night?’ That’s what we’re really hoping in this experiment, is to find out if people actually care about that.”

The Big Fix Up is very much a narrative-driven experience. While there are gameplay elements, they’re skippable for those who would simply rather focus on the story and the game’s AR features. Cummings stresses that the game is not a ‘game’ in the traditional sense, with no failure states.

“We know that this is a broad audience, and we’re not trying to make people uncomfortable” says Cummings. “There are a lot of people out there who are scared of games, who think that they’re too hard, and they’re getting punished and so forth. The audience for Wallace and Gromit runs the gamut, and we want parents and grandparents to be able to interact with this with their children, and teach them about something that they grew up with.”

What gameplay there is focuses around a traditional gameplay loop of collecting parts and building gadgets. Players can send their contraptions out for less important jobs, similar to sending Fallout Shelter’s vault dwellers out on tasks. More urgent jobs take place in the game’s AR mode. For instance, the first urgent job players will encounter is to fix the Wrong Trousers, which have once again gone haywire. 

The gameplay itself promises to be fairly simple, and can be repeated at any time. For players particularly impressed by the AR technology, there’s even a sandbox mode called the Playground,  Unity’s MARS technology and allows players to send Wallace’s bizarre contraptions whizzing around their own houses.

A GRAND DAY OUT

The game’s first job sees the player repairing the Wrong Trousers

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Not only was the game originally scheduled to release last year, but was due to culminate with players coming together on the streets of Bristol for the game’s dramatic final act. 

Of course, our current COVID-reality put an end to those plans. This unexpected spanner in the works forced the game to delay until 2021, so that the game’s final act could be reworked to fit our new normal.

“The finale of the story, which is going to happen in February, was meant to be on the streets of Bristol,” says Cummings. “Something was going to happen, and everyone had to get to Bristol to help. And so we partnered with a company called Fantasmo to LIDAR scan the sections of Bristol that we needed, so that we could have everyone come together for this rich finale involving crowds of people. Obviously, that suddenly isn’t going to be a thing. 

“So what we’ve done is we’ve taken the LIDAR scan data of Bristol, and our Unity team has been able to turn that into something akin to a diorama and made it scalable. So you can either make it really small on your tabletop if you’re confined to a small space, or you can make it really big and you can put it in your back garden or in your local park. 

“You’ll have a series of about a dozen AR experiences all open up at once, and you get this experience that you would have had on the streets of Bristol, but you can do it from home.”

The work done to adjust to the changing situation is certainly impressive, but we can’t help but wish we could take to the streets of Bristol in February. Still, there are plans for this to take place, once it is safe to do so, across three yet to be determined cities. It’s certainly in-keeping with the idea of bringing people together through Wallace and Gromit. 

It all sounds very promising, and if all goes well there’s certainly hope for future collaboration with Aardman, or future transmedia narratives coming in a (hopefully less locked down) future.

“We love working with Aardman, we have a great relationship and we’re really excited with what we’ve managed to pull off here. So I think there’s definitely interested in doing more of both with Aardman, and just more of these types of experiences generally. You know, we hope we’re right, that that this is something that that users want and that blended storytelling is something viable, and a fun way to interact with experiences.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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