The State of IF

A Report on the Production of
Ghosts In The Machine

The circle is still chanting softly as the CyberGoddess faces Darwin down. She turns to address the participants: "All those who find the defendant Darwin Krayne innocent as plead, say Aye" (participants respond); "And all who find the defendant guilty of crimes against humanity say Aye" (participants respond).

(The strength of the two responses will be compared to determine Darwin's sentence.)

- from Ghosts in the Machine

Interactive Fiction ("IF") is the currently popular term for any form of nonlinear scripted entertainment, from Role-Playing Games and MUDS to multimedia CD-ROM environmental simulations. A fledgling devotion somewhere between art and science, IF Design relies upon a sort of relativistic thinking which is a fairly recent addition to the artist's toolkit -- an ability to expand one's view of what was once perceived as only a narrow dimension of functionality, and to envision processes in terms of fields and possible relationships, rather than lines and discrete data.

The mental shift necessary to utilize these skills is not unlike that required by a "traditional" programmer who decides to tackle the strange new world of Object-Orientation.

As a GameMaster and IF Designer, I get to hear a lot of questions which reflect the boundaries of this paradigm shift: "How do you write a system which can resolve any type of attempted maneuver, even if it never occurred to you?"; "How do you create a world which is open enough to appear unlimited, but closed enough to allow you some degree of control?" and "If it's a game, how do you win?" (Of these questions, only the third possesses an easy answer, also in the form of a question: "Well, how do you win in life?")

As If Productions (AIP) answered these questions directly and by example at the third annual CyberArts International conference with two presentations of our experimental IF theater piece, Ghosts in the Machine. A live, interactive, gothic-cyberpunk horror-mystery, "Ghosts" takes place at a grand party held in the year 2042, in celebration of the opening of the world's first true DNI (Direct Neural Interface) network. Although the central story revolves around Information Mogul Darwin Krayne and his family (both living and dead), the game mechanics were designed to support scores of individual PlotLines, each of which was dependent upon the actions, decisions and intelligence of the Players (the audience members). Presentation involved the real-time coordination of twenty Co-Actors, a dozen specialized Game Operators and a "multi" of media: prerecorded audio and video segments, a live DJ, live video mixing and interactive QuickTime movies, with a continually-revolving crowd of anywhere between ten and fifty Digi-MIDI-Cyber-Technophiles.

AIP Co-Actors Mugging for the Camera

A key design parameter of the program involved the venue: because we were presenting the show at a conference, we had to assume that participants would be entering and leaving the game all day long (usually in one-hour blocks). This was addressed by designing the story in seven one-hour segments, each with its own central theme. Nevertheless, we were pleased that a number of participants waived the rest of their daily schedule and remained in the "Ghosts" reality most of the day. Many more came back the second day, and were (hopefully) intrigued to discover that the story didn't go quite the same way. Although nonlinear scripting has been used in experimental theater before, "Ghosts" was the first theatrical presentation to make full use of the interactive techniques and systems utilized by GameMasters and Entertainment Programmers in the creation of Role-Playing Systems. This underlying structure was maintained by a small arsenal of computers and communications equipment, which gave us a handle on game events which might have otherwise thrown the story into irresolvable plot-conflict. Some of the key elements used in the "Ghosts" system included:

  • Player Character Assignment Participants underwent a short and informal "personality inventory" prior to entering the game. Pre-generated Player Characters ("PCs") were arranged in three-dimensional arrays of four cells, and two databases were used (that's 128 Characters, for those who didn't want to do the math). The interview was based upon the well-known Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, a modern derivation of standard Jungian Typology. Bravely, our intrepid Interviewers fielded the traffic-jam of Cybernauts outside, relaying their data to PC Assignment Managers Jordan Foley and Catherine Seitz via Radio Shack radio headsets. ($35 each, and they worked pretty damn well!) Jordan and Cat acted as a creative team, engineering "Player-to-Character Transition" from both sides of the theater wall.

    The interview procedure helped to indicate which type of Character Players desired, and allowed us to predict Player behavior to a (very) limited degree, but most importantly, it afforded us a short "grace period" in which to pass the corresponding information to our Stage Manager and "central control unit" Torey Holmquist, who then primed the Co-Actors and triggered plot events on-the-fly.

Ghosts in the Machine
Example Player Character Form
(from PCA Managers' Database)
    PROFESSION: Socialite/Gadfly
    APPROACH: Observer
    SOCIAL CLASS: Upper/Corporate
    GOAL GROUP: Nosey
    TELESPACE PROGRAMS: "Call Map," "Move To...," "Go Back," "List Contents," Search For...," "Copy...," "Cut Line"
    BANK ACCT #: 72197
    BALANCE: $1,500,000
    CASH ON HAND: __________
    MOTIVATOR: You want gossip. You want to know everything about everyone at the Krayne's party, or anyone *related* to anyone at the party. You are not above spending $$$ to learn the juicy details.
    RUMOR: "Klio Veritt" is actually a society reporter, here undercover as an investor for a acquisitions conglomerate.

  • PlotSeed Assignment Based upon answers given in the interview, each Player received two important pieces of information known as PlotSeeds: one "Motivator" and one "Rumor." While the Motivators -- prewritten descriptions of "typical" Character Class goals -- were coded into the PC database, Rumors were selected (or even written) on-the-fly by the PCA Managers, ensuring that each Player had a pertinent link to a currently active PlotLine.
  • Multi-Tiered Plotting Structure The presentation included one "Primary" PlotLine, which could be resolved in only one of two ways. "Secondary" PlotLines were developed around supporting Co-Actor Characters and hourly themes, and each possessed a number of possible resolutions (many possessed no specified resolution at all). "Tertiary" PlotLines were comprised of clues and props given to Players, which drove them to seek out other Players or props, or to enact sequences which did not radically undermine the higher tiers. There were, of course, a number of red herrings thrown in for good measure. No indication was made to Players that these distinctions existed.
  • Rewarding Intent One of the key operating principles of the system involved encouraging the Players to take an active hand in their own PlotLines. This was done by showing good faith wherever possible in dealings with Player Characters (except when the Co-Actor Character doing the dealing had an already-established bad reputation). We tried always to reward Players whose actions and lines of questioning indicated that they were actively involved, either by selling them what they wanted, giving them a clue, or directing them to a character who might help them. Remember: The GameMaster is in the business of losing - a good GM may push you up against the wall, but the best stories are the ones where you beat him in the end.
  • "TeleSpace" Nothing helps real-ize your reality like placing a different reality next door to it. For Ghosts in the Machine, multimedia/graphic artist Craig Halperin created over fifty large-screen displays of a TeleCommunications Matrix we called TeleSpace. We simulated verbal Player-control of the ten-by-ten foot graphic display using a Hypercard system (written by Craig), which controlled the projection of QuickTime movies through a RasterOps 364 ColorCard to a Barco Data PC projector.In effect, we had designed two games -- running simultaneously side by side -- which used the same pieces: the characters and the clues. The "Party Game" involved the creative use of social engineering skills and finances, while The "TeleSpace Game" gave people a chance to play hacker and utilize their analytical skills a bit. Participants "traveled" through TeleSpace by issuing commands to a Co-Actor playing an artificially-intelligent electronic Guide. These commands were relayed via headset mic to a hidden Operator who controlled the visuals on the big screen. The result was a larger-than-life representation of realtime movement through a vast multidimensional cybernetic environment. Players could hack their way through ICE, obtain illegal access to electronic funds and information, and bring this stuff back into play in the "Party Game" room. As was evidenced by the constant bottleneck outside the TeleSpace room, this was undoubtedly one of the most popular parts of the presentation.

What Did We Learn?

Well, we learned Friday that neither system was up to handling the load required of it. The nearly constant flow of Players and PlotSeeds kept our PCA Managers up to their necks in work, and the TeleSpace system was plagued by a bug which forced it to crash once or twice an hour. Craig and I stayed up for the second night in a row as I redesigned Motivators and automated the PCA process, and Craig debugged TeleSpace. By 11:00 Saturday morning we were ready to run, and the testimonies of returning Players rewarded our labor. The system had evolved considerably within a twenty-four hour period, and participants seem to agree that the new design was far more user-friendly. The TeleSpace simulation only crashed once, and that had a little something to do with the fact that we had been running 80 amps through 40-amp circuits...

Ghosts in the Machine may or may not ever be presented again as such, but for us at AIP it was an important experiment; a query into the desires of multimedia audiences, an attempt to simulate a fully immersive, interactive display by using live actors, and a decisive step toward a better understanding of the art and science of IF. Ultimately, our goal is to inhabit our own HyperTheater, which will make full use of computer-assisted stage and audio/visual technologies (such as MIDI Show Control), in order to automate as many parts of our productions as possible. This will allow the human Co-Actors, Managers and Operators to concentrate on the "fuzzier" aspects of this new paradigm -- like logic, detail, and elegance -- at least until the machines can do that for us, too. As If Productions is interested in hearing the opinions of any CyberArts-goers who participated in the "Ghosts" presentations, so that we may better understand people's expectations and desires for future live interactive productions. We will attempt to respond to all mail personally. If you have any input, please feel free to contact us.

-12 Feb 1993

"It's hard to know who you are... until you pretend."
- Red House Painters
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