The A.I. Web Game

On January 2-4, 2001, a small and very secret team met in the offices of Microsoft's Game Group to plan and design a massive, web-based scavenger-hunt/soap opera. For years Jordan Weisman had been thinking about doing a game that would be sort of like the Beatles Paul-Is-Dead mystery--an elaborate web of clues and possible conspiracies to be investigated by a huge group of fans.

The internet supplied the medium--a place where you could deliver a ton of content, and be assured that players would talk about it with one another. As for the message, the games group had been given the challenge of creating a virtual world to stand behind the new Spielberg movie, A.I.. Spielberg and his producer, Kathy Kennedy, felt that A.I.'s themes made it only natural that the movie's life should expand not in sequels, but on computer. So far, so good.

Jordan's vision was based on a series of assumptions.

1. The narrative would be broken into fragments, which the players would be required to reassemble. That is, the players, like the advanced robots at the end of the movie, would be doing something essentially archaeological, combing through the welter of life in the 22nd century, to piece a story together out of fragments.

2. The game would--of necessity--be fundamentally cooperative and collective, because of the nature of the internet. His belief, which we all shared, was that if we put a clue in a Turkish newspaper at dawn, it would be under discussion in a high school kids basement in Iowa by dinner time.

3. The game would be cooler if nobody knew who was doing it, or why. Therefore, secrecy was very tight. Almost nobody at Microsoft would know what the hell we were doing. Jordan had brought in old pal Pete Fenlon to subcontract writers, artists, and web designers, for the sake of speed and staying under MS's own internal radar.

4. The game would be cooler if it came at you, through as many different conduits as possible. Websites. E-mails. Phone calls. Newspaper clippings. Faxes. SMS messaging. TV spots. Smoke signals. Whalesong.

In an earlier conversation, Jordan had been sitting around mulling the idea over with Elan Lee, when his phone rang. He glanced at Elan, grinning. "Wouldn't it be cool if that was the game calling?"

Not only would that make it cool, it would make it more real. The idea was that the fiction should jump the dike. A book you can close, a movie happens in a theater--but the Game should evade those boundaries. If our imaginary world called you on your real phone, wasn't it at least as real as the telemarketers doing the same thing? Realer, because you would have seen pictures of the imaginary people calling you. You'd know things about their childhood, their hopes and disappointments, their taste in food.

"What's your idea of the game experience?" someone asked Elan.
(Thoughtfully). "The instant you click on a link, your phone should start to ring, your car should only drive in reverse, and none of your friends should remember your name."

These starting points, we all agreed, led to another, axiomatic premise: the Game would never admit it was a game. It had to believe it was real, all the way to the ground.

The mantra--this is not a game--had another meaning particularly important to me. I didn't want this to be a strictly intellectual experience. I didn't want you to be able to view the characters as...game tokens. I wanted it to work like art. I wanted people to care, to laugh, to cry--to be engaged the way a novel engages. To put all this ingenuity into the storytelling method, and then to tell a stupid story--that would be an unbearable waste.

If the game was claiming to be real, the characters in it had to be real too.

So there was the project: create an entire self-contained world on the web, say a thousand pages deep, and then tell a story through it, advancing the plot with weekly updates, concealing each new piece of narrative in such a way that it would take clever teamwork to dig it out. Create a vast array of assets--custom photos, movies, audio recordings, scripts, corporate blurbage, logos, graphic treatments, web sites, flash movies--and deploy them through a net of (untraceable) web sites, phone calls, fax systems, leaks, press releases, phony newspaper ads, and so on ad infinitum. (The first draft of Dan Carver's art asset sheet had 666 items. He dubbed it The Beast, and the Game's nickname was born.)

"Okay, so, Jordan, when do we have to be ready to go live?"
"Um, well...early March."
"EARLY MARCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
"Yeah. So I guess we'd better, ah, hit it with a hammer, guys."

Hardest I ever worked in my life, or ever will work. For years I had been getting more and more careful in my writing, writing fewer and fewer drafts of my novels, but taking longer and longer over each one. Always trying not to make mistakes. Slowing down. Being careful.

Ha.

There was no time for careful on the Beast. Good, yes. I still tried really hard for good, I wrote and rewrote and re rewrote until I was happy with what I was doing. But careful went out the window.

As a writer, I have always had an unruly talent for pastiche. Frankly, it hasn't served me all that well in novels. Novels require unity and a consistent narrative voice. My urge to jump around from style to style, and character to character, without paying enough attention to the transitions, was something I tried to fight against.

But the Game! What a gift. I didn't have to put in the connective tissue. It was better if I didn't--because the audience would do the dot-connecting for me.

Look, I'm an English prof's kid. I know sf/f isn't respectable. I wanted to be taken seriously, and my market niche, as it were, was as a Serious Writer.

On the game, there was no time for serious or respectable either. The game was freaking pastiche Armageddon: It started from a Spielberg script inflected with Kubrick notions from a Brian Aldiss short story with echoes of Dune and Clockwork Orange, for God's sake. Political tracts. Corporate boasting. Sex-kitten catalogues. Mysterious Oriental Gentlemen. Wistful midlife crises. Suicide notes. Gibsonian cyberpunk. I stole or hot-wired or tweaked up Shakespeare and John Donne and Tim O'Brien, Ovid and Iain Banks and Puccini and Bladerunner. I wrote every genre character ever invented, I think--bounty hunters and kept women and a bad guy made of nightmares, religious zealots and angry teenagers and streetwise hackers. Hookers with hearts of gold available on request from Belladerma SRL, in sizes petite to extra large, or (in one of the game's creepiest phrases) cut to fit.

*

"Sean?"
"Yeah?"
"So you know how we're going to be shooting that video of the scene in Basta's house in two days? Where the sentient house is watching the rich guy get Kate Nei to reprogram the sex-robot to kill anyone who fools around with her?"
"Sex-robot reprogramming scene, right."
"So we're going to need a script for that scene."
"Good point."
"And it should be... you know. Kind of emotionally tense."
"Absolutely."
"Also, if you could work in Socrates somewhere, that would be good."
Ah. The Seven secret words. We had been carefully embedding them in secret places all throughout the game as a special bonus easter egg for the very alert. This was a week before the trailers came out with nothing but those words, huge on a black background. <Sigh>. "Existential crisis of killer geisha robot, side order of Socrates," I said. "When do you need that?"
"Um... 4 hours?"
"Four hours?"
"Yeah."
"I'll have a draft in 2."
Damn, I thought, hanging up, I LOVE this job!

*

At our best--like the players--we were scary good and scary fast. For me it was an incomparable professional experience, voice after voice, mood after mood, story after story, until I felt like one of those stage magicians pulling from his top hat a silk scarf of impossible length. At our best, collectively, we were scary good and scary fast.

I was talking to my friend Scott Baker, a very talented writer who was working on what would become our Viet Nam, the more than 200 pages of script for the mad virtual ghost, Eliza. "You know, Sean, I like your novels a lot," he said, "...but you were born to do this."

Maybe so. It was the most incredible, exhilarating experience of my professional career. It was street theater and a con game and a pennant drive rolled into one. As long as I have been writing, I have struggled under the feeling of trying to live up to the work of other writers--Tolkien or Austen or Banks or Dostoyevsky or some damn guy. The Beast was different. For one thing, I had team-mates this time (the same advantage Shakespeare had and don't think he didn't milk Burbage and those guys dry). And for once I felt like we were setting the bar.

Jerry Lee Lewis, the story goes, was touring with Chuck Berry. In theory they were each headliners, and the idea was they would take turns opening for one another. In practice, Lewis refused to be the opening act. Pressure from the tour promoters grew, until finally Lewis was forced to open. He played, by all accounts, a blistering set, and at the end of it, he poured lighter fluid all over his piano and set it on fire in the middle of the stage before stalking to the side and snarling, "Let's see the son-of-a-bitch follow that."

We used up a lot of lighter fluid on the Beast. Good luck, whoever's coming next.

Reminiscence

If you don't know anything else about the Beast, if you weren't there but want to learn more, check out the massive archive at www.cloudmakers.org. They have everything there--the web-sites, records of the game and what it was like to play the game--basically everything that can be preserved, including the 43,000 messages that detail the moment-to-moment experience of what it was like to play.

For a sharp, scholarly--and very well-written--analysis of what the game meant as an artistic and cultural phenomenon, I recommend you look at the work of our favorite academician, Jane McGonigal.

As time goes by, I mean to put up on the website further comments about the Beast, but to be frank I'm less interested in doing a sober introduction to the game than I am in taking a drunkard's walk back through it, an annotated love-letter, if you will, for everyone who lived through this very weird, intense experience, Puppetmasters and players alike.

*

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