Bad News and Bleed

Bad News is a fascinating game because, despite being procedurally generated, it still greatly relies on those running it to create a cohesive narrative.  When the world is simulated, all of the information regarding the interactions of inhabitants in the town is stored in around 400 variables (according the the developer).  This info is then displayed to the singular actor as they portray all characters is limited.  It contains the demographic information of the character, as well as various personality measures which give the actor vague boundaries to act within.  However, what it does not contain is the details of that person’s life prior to the present, and the interactions they have had with all the inhabitants of the town.  This information is all relatively baseline, with the true narrative being pulled manually from other aspects of the code.

For this, the developers live code and find snippets of information which lead to the creation of a story.  The game is focused around the interactions of these simulated townsfolk, including their interpersonal relationships and business ventures.  In the case of the play through we were watching, the coder noticed and proceeded to focus on the fact that the deceased woman was in love with the principal of the school in which she worked.  The code does not say anything about whether this love was acted upon, but the developer’s created the rule that they will treat it as such if both characters are found to have an affinity for one another, which was the case here.  As such the story turned into one about love triangle, with the deceased’s husband being the one left out in the cold.   The amount of time he spent at a local bar was taken to mean that he was depressed and drinking his life away, when it came to the way the actor portrayed him in the entire scene.  Though we never met the woman or the person she was supposedly having an affair with, this information colored every interaction the player had with the actor.  The actor, as other members of the town, consistently hinted that the relationship between the deceased and her husband was not well, playing into the narrative of unrequited love in the face of an untimely death.

The use of a singular actor throughout the experience meant that there is a good degree of bleed which occurs within the game.  As discussed in the Bowman reading, this is when “experience moments where their real life feelings, thoughts, relationships, and physical states spill over into their characters’ and vice versa.” However, I contend that in this case, there are two types of bleed at play in the case of Bad News.  The first is as she defined, and occurs due to the knowledge which the actor possesses about the overarching narrative.  They are consciously aware of the game narrative from the perspective of the game runner as well as that of the actor.  For instance, the actor indicated knowledge of an affair as a character who was not in close proximity with the situation because this is the information which was conveyed to him. 

The other sort of bleed is that the way in which the actor portrayed previous characters affected the way in which he performed as others within the context of the same game.  The actor is improvising based on such limited material, with plot details being hastily conveyed over skype as questions are asked by the player.  This leaves the actor with little information to occupy their primary mental faculties other than the previous interaction and increases the likelihood that certain traits or topics might be carried across.  For instance, if the actor already had an in-character discussion regarding the affair of the deceased then they might be more likely to discuss it when playing another character

This sort of bleed also arises from the fact that the game is a prime example of a problem-seeking activity, as laid out within Sawyer’s Improvisation and the Creative Process.  Such behaviors focus on the active engagement of the artist with the work during the process of creation itself, seeking innovative and new ways of taking its direction rather than acting in accordance with a pre-set plan.  The way in which the narrative emerges from the code is a prime example of this, as the game begins with a simulation.  Only through active engagement and dialogue with the code interface do the developers, spectators and, hence, the player become aware of anything within the story.  It is not told to anyone, it is discovered through what is effectively an ongoing question-and-answer session with a computer.  While the actor is improvising the way in which the information is communicated to the player, the coder is also improvising in the way in which they retrieve said information in the first place.

The game of Bad News is effectively an extended conversation between a coder and a simulation, with the gleamed details being communicated to the player via the improvisational actions of a single person.  Hence the game is an example of emergent narrative, with no pre-set course of which any of the participants are aware prior to the experience’s start.  What results is fascinating, because it is both a result of computer systems and procedural generation and the product of active guiding via human inputs.  Though the world is randomly created the story is not, and it is told just as much through what the coder chooses to search as it is the way in which the actor chooses to convey the characters.

Bad News- M. Antohi

            Something that really struck me after the Bad News gameplay session was James Ryan’s comment that, to him at least, the lives of all the people in the computer-generated “towns” used in each session of Bad News were real lives. Tiny computer lives, but real lives all the same. This made me wonder what a valid definition of “real” would consist of, especially in the context of attributing this quality to a life. To Ryan, and the other people running Bad News, it seemed that the lives of the computer characters in their game possessed the characteristics necessary for them to qualify as “real” lives.

            Thinking about what might qualify these computer lives as “real”, I tried to think of all the qualities that these computer lives have in common with the lives of real people. For one thing, it seemed that the lives of the characters created by the town generator were just as if not more complicated than the lives led by real people. The tens of extremely detailed variables that the town generator set for every single character included variables about the appearance, relationships, and occupations of each character. Of course, these aspects of the lives of the computer characters were much better documented than they would be in real life, as a real person’s private information, such as their love interests and the degree of strength of their relationships with given friends, would not be accessible by anyone except for the person themselves, and probably would not be as well defined by even that person as they were in the gameplay session.

            Another important quality of the computer character lives was the impact that they had on the audience, including myself. As the gameplay session went on, I found myself becoming more and more invested and caught up in the lives of the people in the fictional town and the connections between them, including their friendships, work relationships, and love interests. Hearing the delivery of the bad news seemed to impact the audience to a greater degree than I would have expected at the beginning of the session. Seeing the townspeople and their history be created and then destroyed before our eyes, and learning the details about the realistically intricate lives of the characters, helped us all develop a sense of intimacy and empathy with the characters. Perhaps the emotion that we felt upon hearing the delivery of the bad news is also a testament to the “realness” of the lives of the computer-generated characters.

            With regard to two of the theorists from past readings, I believe that this gameplay session incorporated elements of gamification of traditionally nongame events, as well as elements of games designed for prosocial causes. As discussed in “Worlding through Play: Alternate Reality Games, Large-Scale Learning, and The Source” by Patrick Jagoda, Melissa Gilliam, Peter McDonald, and Chris Russel, “gamification—the use of game mechanics in traditionally nongame activities—has come to influence areas as diverse as business, personal leisure, and social life” (75). Bad News brings an aspect of gamification to a situation of trauma which is not playful, even within the game. However, I believe that this gamification helps the audience learn about how to act in this sort of situation, and develop their social awareness by making them adopt new perspectives as they watch and attempt to help the single player navigate the imaginary town. In relation to games designed for prosocial causes, the Bad News gameplay session forced the players and audience to think about ways in which to delicately navigate the aftermath of a traumatic event, and to consider how best to deliver the titular bad news to a person who will most likely be very affected by it. I believe that Bad News therefore helped us develop our readiness to interact with people who have been affected in the aftermath of trauma, as Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan discussed in “A Psychologically ‘Embedded’ Approach to Designing Games for Prosocial Causes”, using “a direct, explicit approach to engage players with serious real-life scenarios and present information about key societal issues.”

** reference and apply at least two of the theorists from the readings