February 13, 2007

Some Joe Schmo Was First to Experience True Interactive Drama

by Andrew Stern · , 4:58 pm

Matthew Kennedy Gould is a lucky guy. Not just because he won $100,000, a trip to Tahiti, and got playfully handcuffed to a buxom blonde while they soaked in a hot tub after wrestling together in a pit of honey. No, Gould is lucky because he is the first person I’m aware of to have experienced true interactive drama.

The good news for us is, it was all videotaped, edited, broadcast on cable in 2003, and is rentable on Netflix.

The vision of interactive drama I’m referring to, first put forth by Brenda Laurel in her 1986 dissertation “Toward the Design of a Computer-Based Interactive Fantasy System” and 1991 book Computers as Theatre, and expanded upon in the mid 1990s by Joseph Bates’ Oz Project team at CMU, has a single naive player entering an artificial, dramatic story world, with all the other characters played by improvisational actors guided by a drama manager, who is monitoring the plot as a whole to fashion a coherent, Aristotelian tension-arc style story, centered around the player.

The Oz team, to test their software architecture before operationalizing it in code, enacted a live-action version of the system with The Bus Station, a short interactive drama centered on an innocent person who gets involved in a life-or-death situation. A theater stage on CMU campus was dressed up to look like a bus terminal, and several improv actors (the interactive characters) were brought in, coached beforehand about their roles in the drama. A director (the drama manager), hidden above the stage, is able to give real-time direction as needed to the actors, each of whom were secretly fitted with wireless headsets. Finally, a naive person (the player, not an actor) was brought on stage, and told to pretend they want to buy a bus ticket to visit their grandmother. Little do they know, a robbery by knife point will soon occur, with a loaded gun thrown in the mix. Afterwards, the player stated it was a very intense, engaging experience; the experiment was considered a success. Much coding was done, character prototypes built, many papers published, and company spun out.

Michael and I essentially picked up where the Oz folks left off, incorporating techniques from Petz, conducting several more years of design and technology R&D together, to build a first complete, playable, drama-managed experience, Façade; we’re now continuing on with The Party.

There are several well-known fictional enactments of this vision, most notably the Star Trek Holodeck (first aired in 1987, preceded by Star Trek: The Animated Series‘ “recreation room” in 1973); and the movie The Truman Show (1998), similar to Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. There’s a less-known, amazing short story by Richard Powers, Literary Devices, from 2002. One could also draw similarities to lucid dreaming (1 2) and the variety of philosophy and sci-fi about simulated reality in general.

But — it turns out that a satirical reality TV show has gone the furthest towards fully enacting this vision of interactive drama, at least once, for a single real person.

I’ve alluded to the similarities between reality TV and interactive drama in the past, but until now, I hadn’t witnessed the connection realized so perfectly. It’s called The Joe Schmo Show, and it’s rentable and purchasable. I highly recommend it. I found it fascinating, hilarious, brilliant, and instructional.

From the Wikipedia page:

One man, Matt Kennedy Gould, thinks he is one of nine contestants on a reality TV show called Lap of Luxury. Unbeknownst to Gould, everyone else on the show, including the host, is actually an actor, and the show itself is in fact an elaborate hoax centered around him. Lap of Luxury is not a real reality show, but a parody of reality TV, designed to elicit comedic reactions from Gould.

I won’t write up descriptions or spoilers here of the events on the show; you can find summaries of all eight episodes written up on more than one site (1 2), including a second season, that I haven’t seen. But I’ll make a few comments about this reality show about a reality show — this live-action single-player story/game.

In the various incarnations of interactive drama I listed above, it makes sense to distinguish between those in which the player knows the drama is fake (e.g. the Holodeck, The Bus Station, Façade), versus those with a completely naive player (e.g. Joe Schmo, The Truman Show, Time Out of Joint, Literary Devices). The player’s experience should be different in intensity for the two cases, specifically, a completely naive player should experience events more fully, since she thinks they truly are real. Gould in fact got to experience that with Joe Schmo.

But, actually, there are multiple levels of un-reality in Joe Schmo. Gould did know all along he was on a reality TV show — a contrived, constrained version of real life — so he knew to expect some fabricated tension. He just didn’t realize what the true nature of the show was, actually centered around him and the emotion turmoil he was being put through.

As hoped and planned by the show’s drama management (the hidden crew of directors monitoring Gould’s every move and coaching the improv actors), Gould was carefully manipulated over the course of a week into feeling a range of intense emotions, including a very strong catharsis at the end.

Just as interesting, Gould managed to greatly surprise the drama managers and actors more than once with his unpredictable actions, forcing the team to think quickly on their feet and rearrange their plans, and overall cause them to sweat bullets for days. Realize, if Gould were to discover the true nature of the show, it would have been ruined and un-airable, and a financial loss for the production company. (In season 2 in fact, there are two naive players, and reportedly one of them discovers the truth halfway through, and then is recruited to become one of the actors, to keep the other still-naive player in the dark.)

I won’t tell you how Gould took the news when he finally discovers the truth — that’s part of the intrigue of watching the show. I will say though, there were eerie parallels to the scene in The Truman Show when Jim Carrey’s character asks his “best friend” (an actor) for the truth, and the friend boldly lies to keep the deception going.

Although players of single-player digital interactive drama, e.g. Façade-style games, wouldn’t have the benefit (or danger) of possibly believing the drama was real, plus the shock of finally discovering it was fake, I think some of the pleasures and thrill could be of the same nature — just not as intense. However, I wonder, if we set the interactive drama in an online world, where there are both real players and AI’s, perhaps we could create that same level of uncertainty and intensity, if players don’t know if other characters are human or AI. In fact, from this thought experiment, this is the first time I’ve seriously considered online worlds as a medium for interactive drama. Till now, we’ve shied away from the concept of multiplayer interactive drama, since it’s probably harder to build than single player. But now I’m wondering if the payoff of potentially greater intensity for the player may be worth it.

In sum, I think Joe Schmo actually helps to validate interactive drama as a form, and even offers an example solution for those still confused about how story and game can be deeply combined. I say this at least in terms of structure; the show of course required some intelligent improv acting and directing, at a level AI can’t yet pull off. But overall, Joe Schmo is, I think, a lower-hanging fruit to reach for than the Holodeck.

(Too bad I hadn’t seen it before Second Person was finalized!)

22 Responses to “Some Joe Schmo Was First to Experience True Interactive Drama”


  1. Brian Magerko Says:

    So, one of the findings of the Oz group was that watching The Bus Station was pretty boring compared to being involved in the scene on stage, which was really entertaining. Any sense on how this viewing experience differs and why it is compelling?

    That having been asked, I’m ordering this video today.

  2. Darius K. Says:

    I’m gonna ask the obvious question: what about LARPing? I’m pretty sure stuff like this has been pulled off in LARPs, or hell, maybe even dinner theatre. Just not on this scale.

  3. andrew Says:

    Darius, LARPs and dinner theater aren’t single player, and how often are they carefully drama managed? And sometimes/often they offer little or no player agency. In the case of Joe Schmo, a crew of dozens focused on making an intense experience for one guy. (For the benefit of millions of others to watch as voyeurs, and advertisers to hawk their wares during commercial breaks.) And Gould, it turns out, affected the plot more than anticipated, both moment-by-moment and long-term (local and global agency). (The multiplayer idea I mentioned at the end of the post starts to overlap some with LARPs, true, but I was imagining a small group of players, closer to the ractor-staffed interactive dramas described in The Diamond Age, which may not have been drama managed? I can’t remember.)

    Brian, good question; the plethora of women in bikinis probably helped a lot. (Joe Schmo was aired on Spike TV; warning, the rentable uncensored version gets a bit raunchy.) But seriously, the show was much longer than The Bus Station, with more plot twists and emotional build up. And of course it was edited, filtering out the slow or boring parts. But probably the biggest reason was that Gould himself was well-cast — a really nice guy, who won over everybody — and it was fascinating to watch him deal with being manipulated without his knowledge.

  4. Darius K. Says:

    Andrew, point taken, although there is a genre of LARP called a Horde LARP which involves a small number of players (one to three, usually) going up against a “horde” of NPCs. The easiest kind of horde LARP to pull off is a zombie thriller, which is hardly interactive drama, but I’ve heard of more sophisticated horde LARPs out there.

  5. Mark Riedl Says:

    At the ICT we briefly looked into the Joe Schmoe show to determine it’s applicability as a real-world model of interactive narrative. It is definitely fascinating to see instances where Gould throws off the producers’ master plan. I think that, from the perspective of the audience, this is where the drama is derived. I think there is also some insight to be gained into how the producers try to adapt. From Gould’s perspective, Gould also has a personal narrative arc as a contestant. The reason we decided not to pursue Joe Schmoe very far is because the show is structured around competitions and we didn’t feel that there was a concerted effort by the producers to coerce a compelling or coherent narrative for the audience or for Gould. Perhaps others will come to a different conclusion. It didn’t quite fit our model of what an interactive narrative should be, although it may be highly suitable for more game-like applications. Instead, the ICT is planning to run it’s own improvisational theatre experiments where, hopefully, we can control for some of the variables that most interest us.

  6. andrew Says:

    Mark, I agree the most tension-filled and dramatic moments for the TV audience/voyeurs were when Gould threw off the drama managers’ plans, forcing them and the actors had to somehow recover. (Note, this concept of accomodating the player’s deviance from a master plan for an interactive story closely mirrors the research Mark has been doing at ICT, that I contributed to last year; it hadn’t occurred to me how closely related they were till now! Neat. :-)

    But, from Gould’s (the player’s) perspective, those moments were not the most dramatic; he was purposefully hidden from the turmoil he was causing behind the scenes. I’d argue that the carefully engineered moments — the successfully drama-managed events — like how Gould reacted very emotionally to Earl’s (fake) heartfelt speech when being booted off the show, or when the Hutch bragged about sleeping with Dr. Pat, or when Molly’s boyfriend makes a cameo appearance only to find her handcuffed to Gould in the hot tub, and of course the ending — were among the most intense for Gould. (Note the bragging about Dr. Pat was an improvised event, since Gould had previously unexpectedly extracted himself from being Dr. Pat’s roommate.)

    It’s true the “game” part of the show is scaffolded by (parodies of) reality TV contests. But the core of the show’s story and drama are the interpersonal tensions and conflicts between the people. I could imagine coming up with some other reason for a group of people to stay in one location for a period of time, with various forces put on them to build tension and create drama. Oh, like a dinner party, for example…

    I’ll be very interested to hear/read about the improv theater experiments at ICT, and what you’re focusing on there! Cool.

  7. andrew Says:

    And, Mark’s comment addresses Brian’s question, vis-a-vis the The Bus Station experiment’s finding that interactive drama may be far less entertaining for an audience watching it, than for the player playing it. The audience of Joe Schmo was perhaps most entertained by the meta-voyerism of watching the drama managers and actors deal with the player. But, even if Gould had never done anything unanticipated, I’d suggest that the show would still have been entertaining to watch, because Gould was this nice guy put through enough uncomfortable situations — the same reasons for the best moments of American Idol, witnessing intense emotion from nice people.

    That said, these are tangential points, because for single-player digital interactive drama, there is no audience we are concerned about entertaining. We only care about the player.

  8. erict Says:

    As someone who does a good bit of table-top roleplaying, LARPing and one-on-one roleplaying, both as a player and a ‘drama manger’, I can confirm that this is kind of old news. Any decent GM is surprised relatively freqently by the decisions of their player(s) and has to often revise, replan and improvise. This is true all of the forms of roleplaying I mention… it’s only in badly designed LARPs that the players don’t have a significant amount of story agency and thus cannot wildly surprise the GMs! That the writers were surprised by this suggests they didn’t have enough (any?) experienced GMs on staff.

    -E

  9. andrew Says:

    I don’t want to harp on this being the “first” “true” interactive drama — specifically, true to the Holodeck-like form I laid out in the first half of the post — but I’ll point out a few important differences between Joe Schmo and table-top / live-action / one-on-one roleplaying that you mention:

    Joe Schmo was fully enacted — table-top is not, and one-on-one probably isn’t;
    Joe Schmo is single player — live-action is not, table-top rarely is;
    Joe Schmo is drama managed — one-on-one is not, correct?;
    the drama management itself in Joe Schmo is taken to greater level than I suspect you’ll find in live-action roleplaying (but table-top has surely achieved this);
    the ratio of crew-to-player in Joe Schmo is 20:1 or more, whereas table-top is usually around 1:5, live-action I’d guess 1:2 at best, one-on-one is, well, 1:1, or 0:2.

    The point is, Joe Schmo takes the Holodeck vision much closer to its full realization than any past events I know of, and therefore I suspect Gould had an unprecedented experience. This is also signficant to me since we’re trying to build that form, in the digital medium — enacted, single-player, drama-managed, high crew-to-player ratio, minus the holograms. (I couldn’t fit all those descriptors in the title of the post. ;-)

    Please let me know of any other events of a similar magnitude and form, that I’m unaware of! For example, I could imagine a case where some rich person hired an entire theater crew to give him/her such an experience.

  10. Aaron Reed Says:

    The group Improv Everywhere, most famous for their annual “riding the subway with no pants” prank, also sometimes stages elaborate interactive mini-dramas for unsuspecting participants. Many of these are more like weird experiences than stories (like Anton Chekov speaking at Barnes & Noble or a Best Buy gradually filling up with helpful employees), but some of their events have actual narrative arcs, such as the story of the matchmaking taxi cab driver. Interestingly, in this last case, the unsuspecting cab driver never found out he was the star of an elaborately choreographed interactive drama.

  11. andre Says:

    LARP having been brought up, there is a technique used in games where NPCs are thrown in amongst the players without their knowledge. After which, pre-organized events can occur (a random death, betrayal, any number of special effects) that make the players feel a lot more implicated. Blurring, or completely masking, the distinction between player and actor is a powerful tool since the player(s) will feel empathy towards their fellows, and more importantly, they will believe that apparently random events could occur to them when in fact it’s all scripted.

  12. andrew Says:

    Aaron, ah yes, I had heard of Improv Everywhere once, but didn’t remember who they were. Great links, thanks! (I’m surprised they haven’t tried a mission with a lot of people totally focused around one person.)

    Andre, yeah, the more I think about it, the more I realize that my suggestion about multiplayer interactive drama = LARPs, when the number of human players is greater than, oh, 4 or 5. With more than 4 or 5, you start to run into the same problems as LARPs / the attempts to do non-linear story in MMOs — you can’t make everyone the star. So, this multiplayer interactive drama idea probably would only work in mini-shards, or small subsets, of an online world, with only up to 4 to 5 human players, and dozens of NPCs. If the AI were good enough, human players may wonder who is real and who isn’t, upping the intensity of the drama with the (drama managed) NPCs.

  13. Jeremy Penner Says:

    You’d probably be interested in the Ted’s Birthday and Best Gig Ever missions, then.

  14. andrew Says:

    Ha, I searched among a bunch of missions, but by chance didn’t click on those two. They’re great, thanks for pointing those out.

    Funny, they were done in 2003 and 2004, around the same time Joe Schmo first aired. 2003 was a great year for interactive drama, it seems. (We gave our first public Façade demo in late 2003 as well!)

  15. Fox Harrell Says:

    Those missions, and their fallout, were reported about on “This American Life.” It’s worth a listen:
    Thislife.org
    Mind Games
    4/8/05
    Episode 286

  16. Jason Finley Says:

    Fascinating thoughts & discussion! In addition to the Truman Show, another relevant movie is: The Game, starring Michael Douglas (1997): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119174/

    Now, to rein in the acronyms for a minute:
    LARP: Live Action Role Playing (game)
    NPC: Non-Player Character
    GM: Game Master (alternatively, Dungeon Master (DM) in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D))
    MMO(G): Massively Multiplayer Online Game (also Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG))
    ICT: Institute for Creative Technologies (at University of Southern California (USC))
    CMU: Carnegie Mellon University

    I was going to leave out AI, TV, and R&D, but that may be a little short-sighted of me. Aside from the issue of making assumptions about all the fellow humans who might read this today, what if this webpage, in near or total isolation, ends up in the hands of some far-future alien anthropologist? So, for completeness:
    AI: artificial intelligence
    TV: television
    R&D: research & development

    I personally strive to clarify (or even avoid) acronyms every chance I get, because being fast & loose with them can needlessly obfuscate, especially when our (often implicit) assumptions about audience are violated. Sure it may be redundant a lot of the time, but I’d rather be redundant than misunderstood.

  17. Jason Finley Says:

    Oh yeah, and I think some Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) have included interactive drama, right?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_reality_game

    Didn’t the ARG “I Love Bees” have a few lucky players interacting with live actors over the phone? Maybe that was another game, but I think things like that have been done. All told, I think interactive drama and ARGs are two closely related topics. Perhaps one is a subset of the other?

  18. Ken Says:

    The Interactive Performance Lab (http://www.iplonline.org) at the University of Central Florida has been developing and producing interactive drama since 2003. One of the forms is called Simu-Life, which is a fictional story set in real locations all over a city. It is similar to a real life Truman Show, except that the non-actor participant is aware that he/she is in a story and is therefore empowered to enjoy the narrative and take control of it. Whereas Joe Schmo was tricked into thinking the contest was real, Simu-Life participants are given license to change the story. They do not know what will happen, but they can make decisions as they see fit and the production supports those choices.

    The world is filled out by trained inter-actors who play characters in the story. IPL inter-actors are trained in improvisation, dramatic acting, digital media, social psychology and story. These people have the skills to create investment and confidence on the part of the participant such that he/she feels comfortable to take control of the story. They are not guided in the moment by the director, but are allowed to improvise off of what the participant contributes. This provides a dynamic element and the ability for the story to truly go anywhere immediately.

    There have been two Simu-lifes so far. The first one was called The Game, and though the genre was similar to the Michael Douglas movie of the same name, it was a completely new story. It was a mystery thriller in which the participant’s in-story girlfriend was kidnapped, his best friend was murdered and he exposed a plot to control an election. The story was covertly captured by a separate team of technicians and later edited into a film record.

    The second one was called The Voice (www.nextart.floridafilmfestival.com) and it featured two participants, both of whom thought the other was an inter-actor and it used the opening of the Florida Film Festival as one of the scenes. The story centered around a reporter and a businessman whose new venture was being hidden from the public. The Voice involved a fictional court trial and a fugitive from justice, and the story was carried almost live over the web, and also later turned into a documentary film.

    These have not been done for a rich person but for free to willing participants. The interesting thing is how the community around Orlando has come together to support this new form of art. Businesses and city leaders have made these interactive dramas possible and are currently helping to make more happen.

  19. andrew Says:

    Very, very interesting! This is the first I’m hearing about your group. Awesome. I’d like to visit you guys.

    I’ll read more and do a top level post about your group soon.

    And, the year 2003 comes up again!

    One response: Matt Gould in Joe Schmo had license to change the story as well, he just didn’t know he was in a story centered around him. (It’s true the directors / drama managers were trying to manipulate him into a certain story, but they had to re-plan when he went outside what they planned for.)

  20. Ken Says:

    We’d love to meet with you, as well. In addition to our current projects, we will be hosting the first annual Conference on Interactive Performance early in 2008. There are details on the IPL website.

    Cheers.

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    [...] ame developers to make games that listen to the player more, and suggests Groundhog Day or Truman Show type structures. (btw, Wright’s comments about “story parsing [...]

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    [...] e’re hoping some players will forgive some imperfection in order to gain glimmers of experiencing true interactive drama in digital games, and be willing to pay for it.)

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