How the Mixed Reality Game 'Bad News' Brings Towns Like 'Twin Peaks' to Life

How the Mixed Reality Game 'Bad News' Brings Towns Like 'Twin Peaks' to Life

'Bad News,' created by a group of PhD students at UC Santa Cruz, is described as '...a game deliberately about the splendor of everyday life' Glixel

Game experiment/art project uses improv, 'Choose Your Own Adventure,' and a hefty computer simulation to paint poignant pictures of small town USA

Game experiment/art project uses improv, 'Choose Your Own Adventure,' and a hefty computer simulation to paint poignant pictures of small town USA

The iPad in my grasp blinks twice – I have arrived. I've been entrusted with a matter of grave importance. I need to find a woman of a certain physical description – let's call her Rebecca – and I'm pretty sure she's in this diner.

I step inside and scour the scene. A dozen customers mill about, sipping coffee and discussing the state of their dismal lives. I see a couple: the woman matches Rebecca's description. I approach them. A set of black curtains spool back. Rebecca faces me, and she wants to know what the fuck I want. I ask her to sit down – even though she's already sitting. I tell her that her son has died. She asks me a thousand questions, then begins to cry. Eventually, the curtain shuts. I have won the game; I have delivered the Bad News.

I didn't actually stroll around a packed, dingy diner. The iPad merely told me I did. In fact, in real life, there was just the two of us in a makeshift room about the size of a small closet, constructed entirely of black curtains. We were inside a sprawling exhibition hall at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where a trio of PhD students from the University of California, Santa Cruz are showing off their project, Bad News – an interactive experience that, much like a play, incorporates aspects of real-world performance. An actor named Ben Samuel sat just behind the curtain, emerging on cue to play one of a dozen or so roles in my quest to find Rebecca, which lasted about an hour.

Its creators call it a "mixed-reality experience," but, to the uninitiated, it's best understood as an exploration-focused adventure game where the only mechanic is conversing with denizens of a tiny American town. To complicate matters, however, those characters and the world they inhabit is freshly generated by a computer simulation every time the game is played. The diner, Rebecca, and all the other people in it were totally unique to my "playthrough" of Bad News – once I finished, the database flushes them out of existence, to be replaced with an entirely new hamlet for the next player.

When I first stroll into the exhibition hall, one of the trio, Adam Summerville, is already waiting for me. An imposing sheath of black fabric stands behind him, arranged in a thin rectangle, with a sign reading "Bad News."

As we step into artificial privacy, Summerville – the "guide" of the experience – welcomes me to the game, and explains the basic premise. I am a mortician's assistant in Small Town, USA in the '70s, and just as my boss is jetting off to an important business meeting, a body is discovered in an empty house. It's up to me, armed with my ace investigative skills and a six-week correspondence-course, to ID the body, find the next of kin, and – yes – deliver the bad news. Summerville points to a helpful infographic that explains the tiers of kinhood – first spouse, then parent, then sibling, and so on. If you can't find one of these people, you move onto the next link in the chain, until you arrive at an extant relative. Once you tell a family member of the victim's unfortunate demise, the game ends.

He hands me an iPad with the game's stark logo on its screen. This is my interface with the gameworld – it tells me where I am, where I can go, and who I can see. There are no three-dimensional models or intricate blueprints here, just a list of destinations and addresses. I can travel to any of them as I see fit, knocking on doors, hammering on apartment buzzer systems, or hopping from bar to bar. Summerville points to another, brighter curtain at the back – I can see the shadow of a person behind it. As I encounter the townspeople, who are listed by their physical characteristics, I can choose to speak to them. When that happens, the curtain slides back, and the actor behind it – Ben Samuel – embodies that character. A screen reveals their vital information to Samuel, like beliefs, personality, or familial relations. It's all completely random – the result of a jumbled, complex simulation – which he then incorporates into his improvised performance. It's up to me to pump them for information to assist me on my quest. When our conversation ends, so does his performance; the curtain goes back, and he waits for my next move.

After making sure I don't have any more questions, Summerville steals away, to explain all that again to a growing crowd. As Summerville goes, Samuel moves the fabric back to give me a window into his curtain cocoon. He's playing the first character of the game: my mortician boss. He's affable, but stern – about what you'd expect from such a character. He explains that he has to be out of town for a while, but that the body of a young boy was just found at such-and-such address and it's up to me to Bad News it up. However, because people love to gossip in small-town America, I can't go around and just start asking questions as a mortician's assistant – instead, he wants me to come up with a calculated cover story, right here, right now, on the spot. After a number of sputtering attempts, I finally come up with a plausible one: I'm a lawyer with a lead on a substantial cash settlement for the family, and I need to speak with them as soon as possible. Satisfied, Samuel pulls the curtain back, and the iPad in my hand tells me that I've happened upon the unidentified corpse of a teenage boy in an empty house.

When I was searching for Rebecca, it never entered my mind that there had to be someone "driving" the experience: triggering the screens on the iPad, giving character notes to Samuel, or combing through the database for information. This role, largely invisible to the player – the self-proclaimed "wizard" – belongs to James Ryan, who authored the database that the game runs on.

"During the period where we were trying to figure out what the game actually was, my wife, who's a hospice nurse, kept telling me about all these really brutal cases she was having," says Ryan. "She deals with death every day. And that's when we realized that we had this opportunity to treat death in a way that not many games do. As an emotional, mundane event that happens every day."

Since each town is unknown, even to actor Samuel – essentially a list of a hundred possible roles with almost no character notes – it's up to Ryan to delve into the database in real-time to uncover the connective tissue that gives the town its depth. Ryan doesn't hide the workings – instead, he live-codes in full view of the spectators. He may not be an actor, but his role is also performative, with spectators watching as he hammers away commands at his laptop, wrangling the code, typing out messages to Samuel, trying to get a sense of the town that he himself has generated. I only got a full sense of his importance at the end of the game, when he ran a command in the code that showed me the ultimate fates of all the characters I interacted with.

Though it might seem like Bad News was designed from its novel premise on-up, the intricate simulation part came first. The addition of Samuel as both interface and live actor was supposed to be temporary – a choice forced by indecision and impending deadlines – and the death-notification-as-play concept was suggested by an academic advisor. To Ryan, the recurring generation of new town after new town is still the main attraction, with the size and scope of its ambition spiraling ever-higher. He downplays the importance of the core investigation mechanic, dubbing it a "scaffold" that merely entices players to explore the virtual town. It's a fair point – the sheer complexity of it is staggering, perhaps even unprecedented. It separately models every day for every resident of the town for over a hundred years. They go to work, they marry, they change jobs, they have kids, they die. They form opinions about their neighbors that can "degrade" over time. Samuel might tell you to talk to Bob Chesterton, when you really should be talking to Chester Bobbington. It all comes together to allow for a kind of emergent storytelling – a narrative birthed from the computer, perhaps not fully-formed, but stout-enough for Samuel and Ryan to play off. It makes for some memorable encounters between the player and the computer.

In particular, Samuel's favorite Bad News moment came when a certain player came up with an ingenious cover story: he claimed to a restaurateur trying to start a cabaret show that required an actor that matches the deceased's exact physical description. Inspired by the player's creativity, Ryan looked at the restaurants in the town and discovered that there had been a family restaurant that operated for more than a hundred years before failing under the management of a certain nephew. As a result, everybody in the town hated him. Since this nephew happened to be the next-of-kin's cousin, the player essentially had to encounter him in order to finish the game.

"Eventually, the player finds this guy," Samuel recalls. "And he tells him 'I'm trying to start up this restaurant, and I hear you have a lot of experience in the business.' He even said that he wanted to call it The Phoenix. It would be a fresh start for the nephew. And, of course, it's all a lie – it's just an excuse to get to the next-of-kin. It worked wonderfully. But, for a moment, this player had a profound effect on that virtual character's life. The player even told me he felt guilty about it. That lasting impression, coming from the computer. That's what Bad News is all about."

As far as future plans, the trio is rather uncertain. Though they will continue to bring Bad News to select events in and around California, their primary research at the Expressive Intelligence Studio continues to consume the majority of their time. (Samuel graduated in late 2016, though he continues to contribute his time to the project.) For now, Ryan is focused on increasing the fidelity of the simulation even further, a pursuit that he describes as an obsession. While they have discussed what a "home version" of Bad News would look like, they all agree on one thing – it's probably a long way off. For now, this marvel of procedural performance can only be played by a lucky few, and that's a crying shame. For the technology, though, Bad News is really just the beginning.

"Bad News is a game deliberately about the splendor of everyday life," says Ryan. "But, eventually, who knows what it might be? You could add inventory mechanics. Anything you think of that could work in this simulation, we could eventually make it work. If you want to make Twin Peaks, you can. It really is up to the imagination."