On <em>unexceptional.net</em>

On unexceptional.net

2008-04-08

Robert Nideffer describes a multi-modal game in which the player will be more impressed with the number of media the game engages than with its (unexceptional) main character.

Overview

unexceptional.net is a mystical realist journey catalyzed by a series of interconnected events related to sexual infidelity, political conspiracy, and spiritual transformation, where you get to play a supporting role to the main character, Guy. Guy is a rather nondescript, fat, balding white dude with a shaved head and a goatee. He is anal-obsessive, overly sensitive, emotionally distant, unnecessarily pessimistic, morally righteous, and occasionally perverted. He is also an avid game player, an aspiring game designer and comic artist, and a fairly competent hacker. Guy has just recently found out that his long-time partner is having an affair. This discovery launches him upon a series of quests, which you participate in, in an effort to gain insight into the nature of his partner’s relationship.

The unexceptional.net project draws on the traditions of comics, graphic novels, and computer games to create an environment that crosses boundaries between pop culture, fine art, and social critique. It also blurs the borders between “real” space and “virtual” space. The game has been developed as a net-centric, multimodal, pervasive action-adventure RPG accessible via GPS-enabled phones, the Internet, and a 3D game client. The main gateway to the game is through a web portal designed by Guy, where he keeps a blog documenting his daily trials and tribulations. He links to his comics, web hacks, and games from the blog. Guy also provides running commentary on issues as his dramatic experience unfolds. Guy’s life is utterly out of control, and you attempt to help him regain a sense of stability.

For better or worse, Guy’s the kind of friend you like to have because he gives you and your other friends something to talk about. But unlike cults of personality built up around “live” celebrities where people must fantasize a personal connection to the star, Guy actually can reach people on a personal level. Moreover, he can do so on a nonhuman scale, because there’s nothing to prevent him from carrying on thousands of intimate relationships at once, since for all practical purposes he’s nothing but a highly scripted, automated, and dynamically updated interactive database.

The overall narrative arc entails:

1. An introduction to Guy as the crass, angry, resentful, cynical, and curmudgeonly fellow that he is by nature;

2. The catapulting of Guy into a period of crisis linked to discovery of his cheating partner Betty and her love for Dick in the midst of terrorism, war, and homeland insecurity;

3. Exposure to Betty and Dick’s disturbingly co-opted Eastern mysticism, deployed as a means for experimenting with mind and body control techniques that use Guy as an unsuspecting guinea pig; and.

4. Guy’s neurotic compulsion to achieve enlightenment … whatever that may mean. To attain enlightenment, Guy must be accompanied on a series of quests to find special objects that will help open all seven of his major “chakras” - according to Buddhist doctrine the energy centers of the body.

High-Level Goals

As of this writing, unexceptional.net is in active development. Key objectives of the project include:

1. Using unexceptional.net as a testbed for deploying custom-designed and freely distributed software that takes advantage of everyday communication technologies such as blogging, e-mail, 3D gaming, and mobile telephony in order to enable anywhere/anytime access to heterogenous game worlds;

2. Implementing the game infrastructure in such a way that it can either be easily modified or used as a template for alternative content development and deployment;

3. Facilitating ease of content creation through provision of a Web-based “world-building toolkit”;

4. Sharing the results in the public domain through Internet distribution, formal exhibition in fine art contexts, professional conferences and events, and publication; and

5. Exploring novel forms of single-player and multiplayer interaction.

Example Game Scenarios and Interfaces

Greta, a PC user, ends up at Guy’s web portal on her PC, reads a bit about his project, and decides to create an account in order to become a registered player. Account creation requires a player name, a valid e-mail address, a mobile phone number, and a password. Upon registration, she gets sent an e-mail from Guy, and is forwarded to his blog, which contains a single post providing context for the game about to unfold. The post also gives her the first quest, and provides a link for downloading Guy’s recently released mobile phone game, Dick Hunt. She activates the quest, and then downloads, installs, and launches the phone game.

When Greta starts the phone application, the entire game world - terrains, structures, characters, statistics, inventory, quest - gets built for her based on her geographic location. The game can now continue endlessly in every direction for Greta, due to an algorithmically generated grid-based game layout. Moreover, each grid has a simple coordinate that’s stored in memory and allows for identical path and object placement on return. The game also sends Greta’s physical location information to the game server, allowing her to be tracked by other players in real time. If Greta decides to play without a GPS-enabled phone, or to simply use the applet version of the game in Guy’s online portal, she can still advance by:

1. Exchanging inventory items with non-player characters in the applet;

2. Offering to sell goods to a shopkeeper accessible through the blog; or

3. Participating in an online trading network, also accessible through Guy’s blog, which allows her to post offers for goods to other players, who are alerted via e-mail as well as upon blog login.

After several minutes Greta enters a predefined “hot spot” that causes an automated call to be placed from Guy’s help-bot to Greta. Greta’s phone rings, interrupting the visual interface to Dick Hunt. She answers, and can now continue her quest in voice-only mode. Guy’s bot tells her she’s in the vicinity of a spot where Betty was rumored to have spent time with Dick, and goes on to list all the objects available for her to interact with, along with the actions that she can use to manipulate each object. Greta successfully “gets” some of the available objects, which get added to her inventory. She then unsuccessfully attempts to “use” one or two of them.

Greta continues walking and talking, as her voice commands are interpreted on the fly by the text-to-speech and speech-to-text system. Along the way, she enters a region where another player is active. At this point, Guy’s bot tells her that she may attempt to steal items from the inventory of the unsuspecting player. Greta does so, but unfortunately is unsuccessful and instead has something stolen from her!

The phone constantly updates the inventory and statistics kept in the database of both parties. Greta quits out of voice-mode and resumes playing the visual version of the Dick Hunt phone game. When she finally navigates both the in-game avatar as well as her physical body to the destination waypoint, she happily watches as a special key object descends from the heavens to be placed in her inventory.

Later Greta arrives back home and logs into Guy’s blog from her PC. She now sees her updated game-state information as well as a visual mapping of her movement in space and time. She also has a blog-based link to a Web page associated with the key object, which contains a key code that will allow her to gain access to critical game-related information. Once accessed, her initial quest is completed, her stats are updated, and a new blog post and quest are made available. Next time she thinks she may even want to try the 3D client. But for now, she’s had enough of Guy and his chaotic world.