How to Play
It is the summer of 1979, and an unidentified resident of a small American town has died alone at home. The county mortician is responsible for identifying the body and notifying the next of kin, but a matter in a different part of the county demands his presence. Being occupied in this way, the mortician is forced to delegate this important task to his newly appointed assistant, the player. To carry out the task, the player must navigate the town and converse with its residents in order to obtain three crucial pieces of information, each of which can only be discovered by knowing the preceding piece: the identity of the deceased, given only the person's physical appearance and home; the identity of the next of kin, given the identity of the deceased and an explicit notion of a next of kin (which we provide); and the current location of the next of kin, given his or her identity and any other relevant information that the player has gathered. Finally, upon locating the next of kin, the player must notify that person of the death. Throughout, he or she should remain discreet, so as to respect the privacy of the family.
To begin, the player is led by a guide to a quiet room, where he or she sits on one side of a constructed model theatre; on a raised surface with black tablecloth lies a tablet computer, a notebook, and a pen. A live actor sits across from the player, hidden by the theatre's adjustable curtain; behind a permanent lower curtain, a hidden screen displays a special actor interface and a concealed microphone captures sound. Out of sight, a wizard listens to the audio feed; prior to starting, he generated the unique town that the playthrough will take place in (see below). Gameplay always begins at the death scene, where the actor reveals himself to play the mortician, who explains what has happened and what the player must now do. This happens diegetically and occurs as embodied face-to-face conversation; the purpose of this scene is to subtly tutorialize and to gently ease the player into both the gameworld and the live-action role-playing that the experience requires. Crucially, the mortician and the player collaborate to construct a believable backstory that the player can rely on when talking with residents in the town—after all, it would not be discreet to openly parade as the mortician's assistant. At this point, the mortician disappears by deploying the curtain, and the player is left with the tablet computer, which displays a player interface that initially describes her current location (including the body).
From here, the player proceeds by speaking commands aloud; the wizard executes these throughout gameplay by live coding modifications to the simulation in real time. Permissible commands include moving about the town (in a direction, or to an address), viewing a residential or business directory, approaching a character to engage in conversation, and more. As the player navigates the town, her interface updates to describe her current location. When a player approaches a town resident, the hidden actor interface updates to display details about that character's personality, life history, and subjective beliefs. After spending a few moments preparing for the role, the actor pulls back the curtain to play that character live. As the subject of conversation shifts between residents of the town, the wizard crucially updates the actor interface to display the character's beliefs about that particular resident. Meanwhile, the wizard queries the simulation for narrative intrigue (again by live coding), which he can deliver to the actor directly through a live chat session (e.g., "you went to high school with the subject"). In performing a given town resident, the actor must adhere to that character's generated personality, life history, and subjective beliefs. Gameplay ends once the player notifies the next of kin of the death. A typical session lasts roughly 45 minutes, though the wizard and actor can coordinate in real time to control this. For more details, see our recent academic paper on the project.
Why to Play
Winner of the IndieCade 2016 Audience Choice Award, Bad News is appealing as a novel, AI-driven, and tender experience.
While mixed reality is a growing and fairly active research area, there are surprisingly few media works that specifically combine computation and live improvisation—though interest is growing. Incidentally, another such work, Séance, features our same actor, Ben Samuel, who appears to be the world's expert in improvisational acting under computational constraints. Watching him perform in myriad roles is a core appeal of the experience.
Beyond its novelty, Bad News is a deeply AI-driven game. Each Bad News town is procedurally generated using the Talk of the Town AI framework. Employing a method inspired by Dwarf Fortress's world-generation procedure, each town is simulated from its founding in 1839 up to the summer of 1979, when gameplay takes place. Over the course of this simulation, hundreds of generated town residents live out their lives, embedding themselves in rich social networks and forming subjective (often false) beliefs about the town. This provides an abundance of narrative material and dramatic intrigue—family feuds, love triangles, struggling businesses—that exceeds the capacities of a 45-minute playthrough and that could not have tractably been hand-authored. Several players have reported feeling like they were transported to the generated towns that they visited.
Finally, Bad News is a tender experience. As a game about death notification, it compels the player to be sincere and tactful—many have commented on the emotional intensity of their notification scenes. Set in run-of-the-mill American small towns, we strive in each playthrough to showcase the humor, drama, and tragedy of everyday life.
Where to Play
Bad News is an installation-based game: because the actor and wizard must both be present, it can only be played in person at scheduled performances. Though we have accommodated private requests (send us an email if you have an inquiry), it is primarily intended as an exhibition piece. A list of past and upcoming performances of Bad News is available here.