May 11, 2004

Artifactual eWriting meets Embodied Agents

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 9:44 am

In the ewriting world, the “artifactual” tradition is made up of work that presents itself as fictional digital artifacts. So, for example, Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse is a 1993 work presented as a box of items inherited from your uncle — floppy disks with “his” files, audio tapes of “his” recordings, etc. Email narratives and blog fictions (which have both gotten some press attention of late) are artifactual uses of the network. And now we have a game that’s an artifactual use of the console.

Lifeline (Wired News, GameSpot) is a relatively new game that transforms a console, controller, microphone, and television into, well, a console, controller, microphone, and television. You’re a survivor of a space station catastrophe, trapped in the old security station, and using your controllable display to guide another survivor through the steps needed for those who remain to keep living. You guide the other survivor by talking with her over your microphone.

And this is where Lifeline is doing some pushing at the edges. Back in the day, Infocom’s artifactual Suspended involved remote control of virtual characters. But these characters were robots that you typed to, and were understandably pretty limited. Lifeline, instead, presents an animated human conversational character — an embodied fictional agent.

The sad thing, of course, is that it doesn’t work terribly well. The collection at Rotten Tomatoes includes snippets such as, “It’s quirky and the controls feel like a toddler’s first step–wobbly and unsure but the beginning of something wonderful.” We aren’t going to be able to make things like this work without some game research results.

(Robin has a good post looking at Lifeline from a design perspective.)

2 Responses to “Artifactual eWriting meets Embodied Agents”


  1. nick Says:

    The idea that your computer is part of the fictional world is a bit different, and a bit more elaborate of a conceit, than is the artifactual idea seen in Uncle Buddy and The Electronic Chronicles. The artifactual idea offers you a heap of documents or relics; what Lifeline does is to position the interface to bridge between your world and the fictional world – something I was fascinated with, but found little to say about, in my undergrad thesis; Jill’s dissertation treats some aspects of this topic much more thoroughly.

    To give credit where credit is due, the first elaborate works I know of that use this technique were both published by Activision: Hacker (1985) and Portal (1986). Both are written by Rob Swigart.

  2. andrew Says:

    Another early elaborate example of using the interface in this way is Night Trap, originally developed for Hasbro in ~1988 by Rob Fulop and others on his team. Later released as Sega CD game and ultimately generating some controversy, in Night Trap the player’s television becomes a security camera monitor, in which you can switch among different channels to observe various views of a house. The game involves carefully monitoring the villians’ (vampires) activity, and remotely triggering traps to capture them. (And trying to avoid letting the scantily clad women get threatened by power drills and such.)

    As I mentioned in that past thread about fusing reality and fiction, a few years later Rob (with my help) developed Max Magic, which also foregrounded the interface in an explicit way, but differently from Night Trap.

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