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Machinima. Without Video.

By Eli James, editor

Oct 2, 2009: Caveat: Alice and Kev isn’t strictly Web Fiction. It’s an experiment in storytelling, part Machinima, part web comic, held together loosely by the kind of blog-prose you find in picture-heavy commentary blogs.

The premise, from the blog:

This is an experiment in playing a homeless family in The Sims 3. I created two Sims, moved them in to a place made to look like an abandoned park, removed all of their remaining money, and then attempted to help them survive without taking any job promotions or easy cash routes. It’s based on the old ‘poverty challenge’ idea from The Sims 2, but it turned out to be a lot more interesting with The Sims 3’s living neighborhood features.

What he means by ‘The Sims 3’s neighborhood features’ is that game characters get to roam off their own lots (i.e.: their own homes) and off and out and into other Sims’s homes.

The story so far has been gripping.

Think about how weird it is to say that: I am talking about a story that has no pretensions about how and why it was done (for the record, it was done . . . ‘for fun’). We know, from the get-go, that we’re reading about two fictional characters – fictional twice removed, in that a) they’re game characters, with behaviours defined by 1s and 0s, and that b) it’s likely that their creator would have shaped some of the stories himself. We know that the situation they’re put in (homeless bums) is concocted by this benevolent creator, and we know that their ideas of love and pride and honour are nothing more than abstract ideas assigned by an computer algorithm, visible only in simulated expressions and hugs and in-game kisses. We know, most importantly, that all this is simply not real. This is meta-storytelling, a frame inside a frame, and we watch this story unfold as a passive fourth-party audience: we watch Robin watch the lives of Alice and Kev.

And yet, instead of being emotionally distant through this second frame, I found myself hooked. I felt for both Alice and Kev. I couldn’t stop reading episodes. Quickly the tensions established themselves: Alice is a child and Kev, her father, is an asshole. They’re frequently out of money. They can’t bathe, and therefore they are sidelined by everyone around them. (In The Sims 3, smell, apparently, matters a lot – people don’t want to talk to you if you have BO, which is expressed visually as green vapours rising from your body). Alice wants love, which Kev can’t give to her. Kev just likes to annoy people. And as Alice grows up, they begin to fight, and she begins to pull away from him. How would this end? Would Kev finally learn to change? Would Alice find the happiness she longs for? We don’t know, and it would appear (though this may be a fiction itself, part of the meta-storytelling premise) that the creator does not know either.

It’s this last point that’s a curiosity. Sometimes we get the feeling that Robin is nothing but the watchful eye, the game player through which we’re seeing the story of two Sims unfold. And yet, with the series on hiatus because of ‘planning issues’ we become aware that Robin does play a part in determining what happens to Alice and Kev. The series is updating again now, and the story is quite obviously going ahead with whatever Robin has in mind as a logical ending for the story.

As I write this review I remember this Discovery-channel-ish tv series about the lives of critters (they could’ve be prairie dogs, I can’t remember). The show was a hit – every week, thousands would tune in to watch the strangely captivating adventures of a family of critters in the wild, expressed only as critters could express themselves. And it had all the elements of a good drama in it – a scheming uncle, a battered matriarch, kids that grow up and attempt to take over the family structure, or get killed trying. The grief from those deaths. It didn’t matter that those were animals – people still tuned in to watch anyway, and they wrote in to the producers, expressing clear emotional connections with each of those animals, each one as distinct personalities.

Alice and Kev are like that. You know that both are caricatures of what a human being should be. You know, too, that they aren’t real. But you can’t stop feeling for them, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. 4.5 stars.

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