Judy Malloy
At Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, California, beginning in 1993, I worked with words in LambdaMoo, a text based social virtual reality site, created at PARC by Pavel Curtis, that runs LambdaMoo code and is publicly accessible on the Internet. Investigating the narrative variety inherent in Moos, (MUD's object oriented) I created the exploratory new media narrative, Brown House Kitchen.


MUDs (Multi-user Dungeons) are text-based virtual communities, traditionally (but not always) set in imaginary environments. In these people-centered places, a wide variety of public literature can be created. Originating with a multi-user "adventuring" program written in 1979 by students at the University of Essex in England and expanded by the Social Virtual Reality project at Xerox PARC, headed by Pavel Curtis -- whose theatrical and computer science background merged fortuitously in MUD/MOO environments -- LambdaMOO and similar sites based on LambdaCode are malleable code- based structures. Although general MUD usage has centered on creative social interaction, the flexible programming system that Curtis created also has the potential for complex information delivery and for an infinite variety of narrative structures. MUD's were more central to Internet recreation in the pre-Web era. However, they continue to offer the potential to create complex narratives that can be explored simultaneously by many reader players.

Beginning in 1993, as part of my residency (as a writer and designer of experimental computer mediated narratives) at Xerox PARC, I worked in LambdaMOO, a MOO that uses an object oriented programming language (a cross between C++ and LISP) developed by Pavel Curtis. The term "LambdaMOO" refers both to this software and to the server Curtis ran at Xerox PARC that used this software and was open to the Internet public.

LambdaMoo was already a well defined richly embroidered virtual environment when I began to work on Brown House Kitchen. A user who opened the door to the closet (the standard entry way to this environment) entered a well defined room that was based on Pavel Curtis' real-life living room at that time:

"It is very bright, open, and airy here, with large plate-glass windows looking southward over the pool to the gardens beyond. On the north wall, there is a rough stonework fireplace. The east and west walls are almost completely covered with large, well-stocked bookcases."

When I began working in LambdaMoo at Xerox PARC in November 1993, I had a SPARC workstation and an office in the legendary Computer Science Lab (CSL) across from the office of Rich Gold, the Director of PARC Artists in Residence. (PAIR) I also had the LambdaMOO Programmer's Manual by Pavel Curtis and an informal LambdaMOO tutorial created by yudj Anderson. Soon I was spending my days on familiar territory - the Internet.

In November 1993, Pavel and I met to discuss what I would create in LambdaMOO. Also present was ethnographer Cynthia Duval who recorded and transcribed the conversation. I had envisioned the narrative as a kind of hypertext, but Pavel pointed out the three dimensional qualities of the medium and spoke about "creating a space that was itself literature in that by walking through the space and manipulating the objects that I might see there or taking different paths through the space encounter this work of literature." [1] Pavel also suggested that objects in this space could disclose text. Additionally we discussed the public art possibilities inherent in LambdaMOO.

During my residency I had been studying CSL research projects, discussing them with Rich Gold, talking with other researchers at lunch, and attending talks in the Bean Bag room. Then, in the course of a walk across the fields that bordered the PARC building, down Page Mill Road, past the Wall Street Journal, past Hewlett Packard, down to a Motel on El Camino Real (where I was staying with not much but a 286 IBM computer, a modem, a black cat, and a few items of clothing) I conceived of the basic structure for Brown House Kitchen.

Influenced by the ubiquitous computing research (the creation of an environment where many invisible to the user computers are available) being undertaken in CSL, [2] the kitchen was conceived of as a future communal eating space where interrelated devices integral to its functioning would record events in various ways. In Rashoman fashion, these devices would be capable of relating the details of things that occurred in a previous November in separate but related ways.

The story began -- for the participant who enters the environment -- in this way.

"An Early Ubicomp Era kitchen
The sun, coming through white lace curtains that frame
a small irregularly watered yard, falls invitingly on a
round oak table, surrounded by chairs. In the Northeast
corner, an old man sits in a bluegreen rocking chair,
reading a newspaper. He looks like your grandfather.
To your left, you see what appears to be a sculpture of
a kitchen drawer mounted on a pedestal. Near the
Northwest wall, there is a kitchen sink, decorated with
blue tiles. An orange cat stands on the edge of the
sink, drinking water from a slow faucet drip."

At the core of the work was a series of text disclosing objects based on PARC research at the time. Players who entered Brown House Kitchen unfolded the story in various (unpredictable) ways by examining the things they found in the environment. Although the command and response language of LambdaMoo is somewhat similar to that of Interactive Fiction, (IF) Brown House Kitchen differed from traditional IF in that the objects were deeply programmed. For instance, the narranoter disclosed pseudo-randomly generated text using the UNIX date and was based on the authoring system I used to create Terminals, File III of Uncle Roger. Two of the other devices, Ralph Will Clean Up After You and GoodFood were time-based in a somewhat different manner. The information they disclosed varied according to the day of the month and the time of day that the reader entered the story. Additionally, there was a garden outside the kitchen where text was disclosed in a polyphonic way using "fork". (a feature of LambdaMOO code that allows time delays in the production of text)

The group nature of the experience meant that many players could be in the same "room" at the same time, and in some cases what they were doing was visible to the other players. Thus the guessing game experience of IF was augmented in this work by readers being able to see (in real time) what other readers in the virtual environment were doing. Some of the devices I created (simulated video, simulated audio) disclosed information that was seen (when activated) by everyone in the room. Other devices (electronic book, diary) disclosed text visible only to the player who activated them. I used this strategy based on what the player would see in a real situation -- ie you would hear a radio or a TV that someone else turned on, but you probably would not see what a person in the same room was reading.

In summary, the devices were a mobile, audio equipped robot, (Ralph Will Clean Up After You) a database food dispensing table, (GoodFood), a pre-narrative video device, (Barbie-Q) and two electronic books. (Sarah's Diary and the narranoter) The social nature of LambdaMoo was also incorporated into Brown House Kitchen. Players could sit at the table, order meals, and as is usual in LambdaMOO, talk with other players.

In addition to five programmed text disclosing devices, the environment included hypertextual "tiny scenery". (descriptions activated by the word "look".

As a whole, Brown House Kitchen, was structured with parallel intersecting data streams that were contained in and disclosed by this collection of objects. The idea of parallel data streams was one that I had worked with in Wasting Time -- a narrative data structure where the words and thoughts of three characters are treated as parallel intertwining data streams. [3] Brown House Kitchen, a work that exists in a time warp in virtual space, is a more complex narrative. It not only challenges readers to discover less obvious streams of text but also locates them within the story.

To structure the work, I used food as an integrating device and started by writing the menus for the 93 meals that were to be served by GoodFood over the course of a month. The chart integrated what was eaten at the meals with what the video device recorded, what the gossip Ralph disclosed, and the words written in the narranoter.

As noted, Brown House Kitchen integrates narrative disclosing devices that both relate to each other and respond interactively to investigation. It is communal in that it works best when several people are in the room. In November 1994, I invited Tim Collin's and Reiko Goto's Carnegie Mellon "Art Systems" class to virtually enter the work. Sitting at separate terminals in the computer room, the students jointly explored Brown House Kitchen. Although the narrative is difficult to comprehend if only one person is exploring it in a solitary manner, as I had envisioned, the environment worked very well in this group situation. Its rich detail was apparent, and the students were enthusiastic.

The work I did to create Brown House Kitchen would not have been possible without the presence of Pavel Curtis and other knowledgeable, helpful CSL researchers including Rich Gold, Ron Frederick, Berry Kercheval and David Nichols.

Notes and References

1. Cynthia Duval, "The Use of Artifacts as Tools for Thinking: a Sociocultural Study of Creative Work," unpublished manuscript, 1996.

2. Mark Weisner, "Some Computer Science Issues in Ubiquitous Computing," Communications of the ACM July 1993 36:7 75-84

3. Judy Malloy, "Wasting Time, A Narrative Data Structure" In: After The Book (Perforations 3) summer, 1992.