Alchymy 2021: Finding the Fear Frequency

Alex Robins on research conducted in the development of North Hessary for Alchymy Festival

We’re still piecing together the final section of the game, and hope to be able to share it with you next week. It will be hosted here as part of Alchymy 2021 on the 10 May.

I didn’t fully comprehend the scale of North Hessary Tor’s transmission tower until I saw it for myself. The mast stands at 196.7 metres high, and even with twelve guy lines rooting it in place, it creaks as it sways in the wind. That’s not to say the internet completely diminished NHT’s presence. From aerial photography, the surrounding concrete blocks appear to mark out a pirate-map ‘X’, as if a beacon for moor explorers. There’s even a 360° shot available featuring a Jack Russell Terrier staring in awe at the station beside the Tor’s Boundary Marker.

Despite these minor revelations, experiencing the tower first-hand altered my perception of it entirely; it immediately became much easier to picture how the beginning of our video game should feel – stark, cold and loud. Every section is fenced off and every gate has an assortment of padlocks. To replicate this, the building in our game should be an intruder, out of place in an otherwise green vista. It should create an atmosphere where coats can cast humanoid shadows and lights are expected to flicker. The player should feel that their instructions are always clear, so that when things get complicated, they can make the decision of stepping off the proverbial path themselves.

Further authenticity was discovered in documentation, from the opening of the temporary station by the BBC in 1954 through to current records held by it’s new owner, Arqiva Telecommunications. I worked with BBC Written Archives to acquire the permission to use a report on NHT’s service area from 1960 (https://bbc.in/3xAkFjm). This was the earliest record I could find of the tower being in operation, aside from some small newspaper clippings and photos. I found the mention of ‘West Cornwall Satellite Station’ especially interesting, as it appears to be referring to Goonhilly – the world’s largest satellite earth receiving station, located in Cornwall – which was, at the time, in the process of being built. The idea that the tower was set to be improved upon mere years after it came into being fed directly into a question I initially set out to interrogate with the game – how has technophobia changed over the years? Without spoiling any of the gameplay, the original plan was to create the appearance of a horror game with something else hiding beneath, as inspired by games like ‘Gone Home’ and ‘Firewatch’. Through this structure, the player discovers a series of clues which help them piece together the real mystery. With the changes we’ve had to make to the scope of the world during development the central questions have shifted slightly, but some of the original idea still echoes through the game.

After multiple dead ends while attempting to contact someone who could help us get inside the station, I came across this video series from 2013. In each episode, Dave Porter (Ex-Senior Transmitter Engineer, callsign G40YX) leads us deeper into Woofferton Transmitting Station, a comparable building to NHT. With a list of questions at the ready, I managed to find a way to contact Dave and was able to speak to him for just over an hour about technical specifications, workflow and history of radio in the UK. This was extremely informative, and although I have tried my best to fit as many conversational gems as possible to the script, it would have to be a very different type of game to convey the detail with which Dave was able to describe the innards of machinery and companies. Similarly, I was unable to fully represent one of the more eerie touchpoints for the game, Numbers Stations (which still feature, but are mysteriously unexplained). These are shortwave radio stations you can tune to which broadcast a voice reading a series of numbers. There are variations, such as stations that produce certain pitches or play recorded songs, but it is generally agreed that the numbers are coded messages being sent to spies. This website contains a wealth of data and recordings which they themselves describe as ‘overwhelming’, but if it sounds like something you might be interested in, I’d recommend their starter guide which contains links to proxy sites if you don’t have a radio of your own lying around.

I would be remiss not to mention mb21 – The Transmission Gallery which has been both a Rosetta Stone and Holy Grail at different stages of the project. Without the photographs and reports available here, uploaded and updated by enthusiasts, a great deal of NHT’s past would be lost to history. There’s a lot to choose from, but as a highlight I’ll draw your attention to the Opening of Radio 1 in 1990 (a collection of photos by Arthur Morely, uploaded in 2012). At first, it appears to be a record of pipes and exposed wires, but as you start to scroll down the page, more and more images of colourful transmitters reveal themselves, accompanied by blurred staff and guests. It feels nostalgic and spooky and poignant, or as a certain Ex-Senior Transmitter Engineer has called it, ‘rather naff’.

We hope that you’ll come back to this page a week from now, and would appreciate any and all feedback you have. I’m contactable via @NotAlexRobins on Twitter for any questions about NHT or hints to the more convoluted puzzles when the game launches.

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