The piece

Bad News is an award-winning installation work that combines novel AI technologies and live improvisational acting into an emotionally charged interactive experience whose story and setting is uniquely generated by a computer simulation. Each 45-minute performance is an original work of immersive theatre, produced for an audience of one.

In the summer of 1979, a resident in a computer-generated American small town has died alone at home, and a mortician's assistant—the player—is tasked with tracking down and notifying the next of kin.

To do this, the player navigates the richly simulated town to interact with its residents, who are each played live by a professional actor. Throughout gameplay, an unseen wizard listens in remotely to manage the unfolding experience via live coding and discreet communication with the actor.

Since its inception in 2015, Bad News has been mounted internationally, at venues including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Slamdance Film Festival, and IndieCade, where it won the 2016 Audience Choice award. Writing about Bad News for Rolling Stone, Steven T. Wright remarked, "This marvel of procedural performance can only be played by a lucky few, and that's a crying shame."

The Team

Bad News is a project of James Ryan, Ben Samuel, and Adam Summerville, who created the piece as PhD students in the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz, a cultural and technical research lab dedicated to exploring the artistic potential of artificial intelligence.

Adam Summerville, who is now an assistant professor in Computer Science at Cal Poly Pamona, serves as guide on the project: he assists the player in the lead-up to her performance and explains the piece to exhibition passersby. Adjacently to this project, Summerville is a rising scholar in the area of artificial intelligence for videogames, where his work has received attention from The Guardian and Slate. His PhD thesis Learning from Games for Generative Purposes explores the use of machine learning for generating and understanding videogame content.

Ben Samuel, now an assistant professor in Computer Science at the University of New Orleans, leverages over a decade of improvisational experience to serve as the project's sole actor. In this vein, his past work includes a starring role in Hulu's first original scripted series, Battleground, which earned him praise from the New York Times. His PhD thesis Crafting Stories Through Play centers on computational works in which humans and computers work together to co-create stories, an example of this being Bad News.

James Ryan, who is now a research scientist at the historic computing firm BBN Technologies, serves as wizard on the project—this entails managing each performance, behind the scenes, as it is unfolding. His work in expressive computer simulation has been featured in The GuardianVice, and on BBC Radio. At UC Santa Cruz, he earned the first PhD in Computational Media with his thesis Curating Simulated Storyworlds, a manifesto for emergent narrative in which Bad News features heavily.