'The Art of Immersion'

From Frank Rose's Book on How Digital Generation Is Changing Our World

by Frank Rose

24 March 2011

"Immersion Enhanced" by
© Marco Catena used with permission. See more of Marco's work at Marco Catena.com 

This Is Not a Game

One of the video games Weisman was supervising at Microsoft was based on the upcoming Steven Spielberg movie Artificial Intelligence: AI. Originally developed by Stanley Kubrick in the 1970s, then taken over by Spielberg after Kubrick’s death, the film was meant to be a futuristic retelling of the Pinocchio legend, with an android in place of the wooden puppet that dreamed of becoming an actual boy. Personally, Weisman had his doubts about the appeal of a video game centered on a boy who longed for his mother’s love, even if the boy in question was a robot. But he also figured that the kind of deconstructed narrative he wanted to create could be used to establish a context for the game, and for the movie as well.

While overseeing development of the video game, Weisman worked closely with Spielberg and his producer, Kathleen Kennedy. One day he sat in Spielberg’s headquarters at Universal Studios, a grandly appointed “bungalow” just down the hill from Jurassic ParkThe Ride, and told them he wanted to explore a new way of telling stories.

For $9.99 a month, you could delve into the mystery of Anim-X and the government conspiracy it was said to have uncovered—a mystery that unfolded through an unpredictable sequence of faxes, phone calls, emails, and instant messages.

Much as the theme park ride was designed to give the sensation of being hurled headlong into Jurassic Park, Weisman wanted to create an experience of being plunged into the world of AI. But there the similarities stopped. The Jurassic Park ride was Hollywood’s idea of participatory entertainment: a five-and-a-half minute boat trip past some robotic dinosaurs, with a scream-inducing 85-foot drop at the end. It was an expensively produced theme park attraction that sought to match the public’s desire for more Jurassic Park entertainment with Universal’s desire for more Jurassic Park profits. Weisman’s idea was to use the Internet to go beyond the very personal narrative of Spielberg’s new film to tell the story of the world the movie was set in.

Weisman is a persuasive guy. At the end of the meeting, Kennedy called the head of marketing at Warner Bros., which was making the picture. As Weisman recalls it, she made an announcement: “I’m sending Jordan over. I want you to write him a very big check. And don’t ask what it’s for.”

“It’s good to be king,” Weisman remarked when the call was over.

“Yes,” she said, “it is.”

The experiment began in April 2001, 12 weeks before the release of the movie, when a credit for something called a “sentient machine therapist” appeared among the myriad other credits listed in trailers and posters for the film. The clue was so tiny you could easily miss it, but that was the point. Marketers were already encountering a growing problem: how to reach people so media saturated that they block any attempt to get through. “Your brain filters it out, because otherwise you’d go crazy,” Weisman told me. So he opted for the subdural approach: instead of shouting the message, hide it. “I figured that if the audience discovered something, they would share it, because we all need something to talk about.”

He was right. Within 24 hours, someone posted the discovery on the movie fan site Ain’t It Cool News. Googling the therapist’s name, people found a maze of bizarre Web sites about robot rights and a phone number that, when called, played a message from the therapist saying her friend’s husband had just died in a suspicious boating accident. Within days, a 24-year-old computer programmer in Oregon had organized an online discussion forum to investigate. More than 150 people joined the forum in its first 48 hours. By the time the movie came out in June, some 3 million people around the planet were involved at one level or another.

Whatever they were experiencing seemed to know no boundaries. Clues were liable to appear anywhere—on Web sites, on TV, in fake newspaper ads. Phone calls, faxes, and emails could come at any time, day or night. Almost the weirdest part was that no one announced or even acknowledged that anything unusual was going on.

One day a Warner Bros. marketing executive asked Elan Lee, who was essentially running the AI game, for a single line of text to go at the end of an AI movie trailer being made for TV. He needed it in 20 minutes. Lee was desperate. He wanted to make people feel good, or at least not silly, about responding to emails from a fictional character. So he came up with the line “This Is Not a Game.” It was flashed for a few seconds on TV. This cryptic missive quickly became a mantra among the players, a neat summation of the mystique generated by a game that refused to acknowledge its own existence. It was the closest Lee or Weisman or any of them ever came to speaking publicly about the experience as it was happening.

They made mistakes, of course. When he and Lee were planning the game, Weisman had argued that no puzzle would be too hard, no clue too obscure, because with so many people collaborating online, the players would have access to any conceivable skill that would be needed to solve it. Where he erred was in not following that argument to its logical conclusion.

“Not only do they have every skill set on the planet,” he told me, “but they have unlimited resources, unlimited time, and unlimited money. Not only can they solve anything—they can solve anything instantly.” He had dubbed his game The Beast because originally it had 666 items of content—Web pages to pore over, obscure puzzles to decipher. These were supposed to keep the players busy for three months; instead, the players burned through them in a single day. With people clamoring for more, the name took on a different connotation: Weisman had created a monster.

It’s little wonder that the game’s success took Weisman by surprise. Its mix of real-world and online interaction violated every notion of what futuristic digital entertainment was expected to be. For years, science-fiction novels like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash had conditioned readers to think the future would bring some swirling electronic phantasm so vivid that the real world could never compete. But Weisman didn’t do virtual reality; he trafficked in alternate reality. The Beast wasn’t about retreating into some digitally synthesized head space. It was about interacting with other humans in response to an alternate sequence of events.

The world in the spring of 2001 might have been trying to cope with the sudden deflation of the Internet bubble, but people caught up in the AI game had to deal not only with that issue but with the furor over civil rights for sentient machines in the year 2142. This was, if anything, more radical, and perhaps ultimately more in sync with the current direction of technology, than the gloves and goggles that kept popping up in the media’s breathless reports about virtual reality. “What we’re doing is a giant extrapolation of sitting in the kitchen playing Dungeons & Dragons with our friends,” Weisman told me as we sat at the table in his guesthouse, gazing out across the placid surface of the lake. “It’s just that now, our kitchen table holds three million people.”

In commercial terms, however, Weisman was years ahead of his time. Three million people engaging with The Beast was a lot for something that had never been tried before, but by Hollywood standards it was a negligible figure. The film itself was a dud—ticket sales in the US and Canada came to only $79 million, a fraction of the box office take for E.T. or Jurassic Park. Microsoft canceled the AI video game while it was still in development, so no one at his own company paid much attention to what Weisman was doing. Executives in Redmond were fixated on Halo, which quickly became the must-have title that gave traction to the Xbox.

Nonetheless, Weisman wasn’t the only person to try his hand at an immersive entertainment experience. Electronic Arts, the San Francisco Bay Area video game giant, had Majestic, an online computer game that likewise attempted to create an alternate reality experience. Developed by a 31-year-old EA production executive named Neil Young, it was introduced in July 2001, not long after the conclusion of The Beast. Players were thrust into a story that was described at the time as “interactive, immersive and invasive.” Five minutes into the tutorial, your computer would crash. Then your cell phone would ring with a cryptic missive regarding a fire at Anim-X, the fictional Oregon studio that had purportedly built the game. For $9.99 a month, you could continue to delve into the mystery of Anim-X and the government conspiracy it was said to have uncovered—a mystery that unfolded through an unpredictable sequence of faxes, phone calls, emails, and instant messages. “Whenever your phone rang,” Young says now, “I wanted the next thing in your head to be, Oh my God—is that part of the game?”

Even though Majestic had been highly anticipated before its release, it garnered only about 15,000 subscribers. Young sees several reasons why it didn’t gain traction. One is the linear structure of the story: “If you got interrupted, it became harder to get back into it. It would have been better to allow the users to consume episodes in any sequence, so they could explore the characters versus exploring the story.” There was another structural issue as well: the game designers installed brakes to keep players from running through the game’s content the way they had done with The Beast, but players complained about being forced to wait for the next step rather than being allowed to proceed at their own pace. And then there was timing: the game was put on hiatus for several weeks following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It never recovered. Eleven months after introducing it, EA pulled the plug, calling it “a noble experiment that failed.” It would be a long time before anyone tried something like this again.

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