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.)