[ISEA2006] Artist Talk: Robert Nideffer – The unexceptional.net

Artist Statement

A mystical realist journey catalyzed by a series of interconnected events related to sexual infidelity, political conspiracy, and spiritual transformation. The project draws on the traditions of comics, graphic novels and computer games in order to create an environment that crosses boundaries between pop culture, fine art, and social critique. unexceptional.net incorporates an extensive database infrastructure for storing and delivering game-state data via Weblogs, GPS enabled mobile phones, and a 3D game clients.

Abstract

unexceptional.net is a mystical realist journey catalyzed by a series of interconnected events related to sexual infidelity, political conspiracy, and spiritual transformation. The project draws on the traditions of comics, graphic novels and computer games in order to create an environment that crosses boundaries between pop culture, fine art, and social critique.

The central character of unexceptional.net is named “Guy.” Guy is a frustrated comic artist, game designer, hacker who’s recently found out that his long-time partner is having an affair. This discovery launches him upon a series of quests, that you participate in, in effort to gain insight into the nature of his partner’s relationship. Guy’s experience is infused with a disturbingly co-opted and corrupted eastern philosophy and spirituality that dictates the nature of the quests, and the ultimate goal, his search for “enlightenment.” To achieve enlightenment you must follow Guy on a series of Web and GPS-based quests to find special key objects that will help unlock and open all seven of his major “Chakras,” the energetic centers of the body according to Buddhist doctrine.

The project involves an extensive database infrastructure for storing and delivering game-state data via the Web, GPS enabled mobile phones, and a 3D game client. The Blog is used for providing the player information about what’s going on in Guy’s life, and the current game state, player locations, and quest progress. The Blog also provides access to an administrative framework enabling game designers to alter the game and have it immediately reflected in the various game clients through a series of user-friendly Web pages.

One of the key innovations of unexceptional.net is the way we procedurally generate the game world on the phone. All terrain and structure data used in the game is location specific and sent to the phone from the game server during game-play. The game world is thus aesthetically representative of the physical environment it’s played in. If one is in the desert one sees an abstracted representation of the desert, if one is in the middle of the ocean one sees water, and if one is in a city one sees urban space. This makes the game world extremely extensible, since the small memory footprint and screen size of the phone are no longer a liability in terms of more complex and emergent game-play. It also allows for game customization, so that quests can be linked to specific locales.

In addition to using the screen of the phone to display the game, we also allow players to use their voice to advance quests. This has been done by integrating telephony software called “Asterisk,” that incorporates automated call routing. We have hooked a speech-to-text and text-to-speech system called “Sphinx” (developed at Carnegie Mellon University) into Asterisk. This enables players to receive calls based on where they are in physical space, so that they can continue quests in voice mode, using the phone in ways that are more native to the device.

Finally, we are incorporating a 3D client into unexceptional.net using the Torque Game Engine. The initial goal is to make the 3D client mirror how the GPS phone client works. In other words, to algorithmically generate the 3D game world, and to allow ease of content creation and modification to a far greater degree than is currently common in networked 3D gaming environments.

As game play ensues, game state is continually fed to the server via the different client interfaces, and broadcast back out to those interfaces. If while playing the mobile phone game the player logs back in to the Blog, the impact of game play via the phone will be reflected. As the player continues to do things via the Blog, the phone and the 3D clients will be affected. Players can see all of these interactions in a Flash based “Transaction Visualizer” that we have developed. The Transaction Visualizer displays visually and sonically, all player and database activity in real-time. These are just several of the innovative methods we have been able to explore by using a combination of freely or cheaply available software, while exploiting the network protocols that support this type of interoperability. A main goal of unexeceptional.net is to push at these boundaries, and to develop capabilities that can be made easily available to people for their own creative experimentation.

Key objectives of the project include:

  1. using unexceptional.net as a test bed for deploying custom designed and freely distributed software that takes advantage of everyday communication technologies such as Blogging, email, 3D gaming, and mobile telephony in order to enable anywhere anytime access to heterogenous game worlds
  2. implementing the game infrastructure in such a way that it can be used for alternative content development and deployment
  3. facilitating ease of content creation through provision of Web-based tools for game modding
  4. sharing the results in the public domain through Internet distribution, formal exhibition in fine art contexts, professional conferences and events, and publication and
  5. exploring novel forms of individual and community interaction.
  • Robert Nideffer, US.┬áResearcher, teacher, author, holds an MFA in Computer Arts and a Ph.D. in Sociology, Associate Professor, Affiliated Faculty and Co-Director for the Art, Computation and Engineering (ACE) Program at UC Irvine, directing the UC Irvine Game Culture & Technology Lab and an academic Specialization in Game Culture and Technology.