Uncle Buddy's Phantom FunhouseA reconstruction of the original interactive sci-fi/mystery puzzle game!

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StoryWhat is Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse?


Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse, created by science fiction writer John McDaid, is a hypermedia novel and game built on the HyperCard 2.0 platform and published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. in 1992/93. Unlike works of other hypertext literature the company released, Funhouse was distributed in a box containing five 3.5-inch floppy disks, two musical cassette tapes, page proofs of a short story written by Arthur Newkirk entitled “Tree,” and a letter from an editor of Vortex magazine to Buddy Newkirk about the page proofs. At the heart of the story is a mystery: All of these artifacts comprise what is left of the literary estate of Arthur “Buddy” Newkirk. You, the reader, are left to solve the mystery of who “Uncle Buddy” is and what happened to him––and you must sleuth through the digital funhouse on your computer screen and physical artifacts you hold in your hands to answer these questions.

An instant cult classic, Funhouse was reviewed in The Village Voice by Gavin Edwards, regular contributor to Rolling Stone and Spin. It was also mentioned by Robert Coover in his controversial “End of Books” front-page essay in the New York Times Book Review in 1993 and later was the subject of the critic’s longer account of the work in the Times. It was a favorite of noted media theorists including N. Katherine Hayles, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Jill Walker Rettberg, Astrid Ensslin, Loss Pequeno Glazier, Alvaro Seica, and Roberto Simanowski and was one of the four works discussed in Stuart Moulthrop and Dene Grigar’s Pathfinders project and their book, Traversals: The Use of Preservation for Early Electronic Writing for The MIT Press (2017).

Image of Arthur Newkirk from the Final Cuts room in the Funhouse
Image from the Final Cuts room in the Funhouse
Image of Characters Arthur Newkirk and Emily Keane
Image of the interface of the 1992/93 Edition of Funhouse

Why a Funhouse?

A funhouse, a traditional carnival attraction, features interactive and participatory elements like mirrors that distort images, rooms that spin or contain trap doors, mazes that confuse visitors, and other entertainments aimed to thrill and chill. McDaid’s funhouse is no different. Each of its 11 rooms offer a different experience that delights and inspires readers to solve the mystery of their missing uncle.

The word, “phantom,” in the title suggests the illusionary or dream-like quality of the experience of exploring the funhouse’s rooms. Upon entering the funhouse, there’s a feeling of something not quite right—like a rip in the space-time continuum or reality glitching.

This is Not a Game

Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse began to take shape a few years after the Apple Corporation released the first Macintosh personal computer. Challenged to write "a novel no 20th century novelist could write," McDaid produced sketches of the work as early as 1987. The medium for the work changed when McDaid took a writing/game design workshop where Rob Swigart, the author of the game Portal, and scify writer Vonda McIntyre collaborated with participants to create a hybrid game on the HyperCard 2.0 platform. While that work was never finished, it did spur McDaid to adopt the mantra—"this is not a game," a refrain that made its way into his own hybrid game, which was finished and released in 1993.

But before that fateful day when Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse made its way into the public's hands, McDaid talked about writing hypermedia at a talk attended by prominent hypertext theorist Nancy Kaplan. Through her he met another hypertext artist Stuart Moulthrop, who would eventually join other shining stars of experimental hypertext literature, Michael Joyce and J. Yellowlees Douglas, in the informal circle called TINAC. Depending on who you talked to, it stood for either "Textuality, Intertextuality, Narrative, and Computers"—or "This Is Never a Coincidence." Indeed.

Image of the Funhouse interface with a hand drawn image on the left and text on the right
From the Writer's Brain room in the funhouse
Image of Media Items
The original Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse media and packaging

A Hybrid Game Environment

Unique among all of the 48 titles hypertexts published by Eastgate Systems, Inc., McDaid's Funhouse is an example of a hybrid game. Readers need to load the contents of the five 3.5-floppy disks (or later the one CD-ROM) on to their Macintosh computers and launch the work by first accessing the "Read Me First" file, whereupon they trigger the start of the game. Clues to the potential whereabouts of the missing Uncle Buddy could be gleaned by experiencing the digital portion of the game but also by reading through or listening to the physical media found in the box.

The 2023 Web Edition of Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse recognizes the importance of the physical media to the experience of the game. Visitors will find them both reproduced in the gameplay and accessible here on this archival site.

The HyperCard Platform

Thanks to artists and scientists like Jorge Luis Borges, Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Doug Engelbart, and others, the idea of linking bits of text to other text had been in the air decades before hypertext authoring systems were available to the public. Apple’s HyperCard emerged as a popular platform for storytelling after its release in 1988 because of its user-friendly interface and ease of scripting. In fact, artists who did not know how to work with computer programming languages could create robust hypermedia projects with this GUI software program.

Funhouse, built on HyperCard 2.0, is only one of two works that Eastgate Systems, Inc. published on the HyperCard platform, the other being Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs also released in 1993. Like many hypertextual environments of the period, HyperCard envisioned the presentation of data and space metaphorically—in this case, as a stack of cards. For McDaid, the stack became a funhouse whose cards were reconceptualized as 11 rooms, each offering a unique visitor experience.

Image of Hypercard
The HyperCard interface
Image of Original Macintosh Computer
Image of McDaid’s office, circa 1992, featuring the Macintosh Plus on which he created Funhouse

The Original Macintosh Computer Used for Creating the Funhouse

Funhouse was created on McDaid’s Macintosh 512Ke, computer released by the Apple Corporation in April 1986. This expanded version of the 512K increased the disk drive to a whopping whopping 512 kB of RAM that McDaid upgraded to 1 Mb with an aftermarket product called MacSnap in a hair-raising procedure that required cracking open the case and physically jamming the device onto the motherboard. McDaid’s Macintosh 512Ke was purchased in 1987 and, so, resembles the Macintosh Plus since, by that time, the Apple Corporation had moved to match the design of the two computers in color and style. This computer would have set McDaid back $2000 at the time, which today amounts to about $5250, not counting the upgrades.

Bundled with software programs, MacPaint and MacDraw, the Macintosh Plus made it possible for artists to combine words with computer graphics seamlessly. By 1987, the computer was also sold with HyperCard, which further expanded its use for writers to create stories that included visual elements, like McDaid’s Funhouse.

The State of Funhouse in 2022

Upon publication in 1992-93, Funhouse was so robust that it had to be released on five 3.5-inch floppy disks, each with 1.44MB capability. Readers were required to make a folder on the computer desktop and, then, save the contents of the five disks in the folder before accessing the story. Later in 1993 Funhouse was re-released on a single CD-ROM, making the game easier to experience. The floppy disk edition, Version 1.0, and CD-ROM edition, Version 2.0, were sold simultaneously until the Apple Corporation released the G3 iMac in 1998, which eliminated the floppy disk drive. By 2013 the CD-ROM drive was also phased out of Macintosh computers, thus rendering all versions of Funhouse inaccessible to the public. That same year Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop documented Funhouse for their Pathfinders project, a methodology that involved a formal playthrough by the author and readers of the work they call a “Traversal.” An emulation of the game posted at the Internet Archive has been available since January 2018 but lacks all of the contextualizing physical media and music that comprises the two editions published by Eastgate Systems, Inc.

Hardware has been but one challenge for those wanting to read Funhouse; another is software. Built on the Classic operating system, McDaid’s hypermedia work became inaccessible to readers who purchased Macintosh computers beginning 2002 when the Apple Corporation ceased to offer computers with the Classic operating system. This means that for over 20 years only readers who held on to their legacy computers and software could enjoy the full experience of Funhouse.

McDaid using a computer to view the Funhouse
John McDaid during his Traversal of Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse in 2013.
John McDaid points at a projector screen of the pitch proposal
John McDaid talking to students in the 2022 fall Senior Seminar class about Funhouse

Current Development of Funhouse

During the summer of 2022 McDaid reached out to Dene Grigar, Director of the Electronic Literature Lab (ELL) and the Creative Media & Digital Culture (CMDC) at Washington State University Vancouver, to see if she would be interested in working with him to create an archival version of Funhouse playable on the Web for a contemporary audience. ELL had just completed new Web editions of Richard Holeton’s Figurski at Findhorn on Acid and Moulthrop’s Victory Garden—both also published by Eastgate Systems, Inc.—and, so, was keen to reconstruct Funhouse, one of Grigar’s favorite hypertexts and one of the four she and Moulthrop featured in their Pathfinders project (2015) and Traversals book (The MIT Press, 2017).

The lab brought the 28 fall graduates of The CMDC’s Senior Seminar course that Grigar taught in fall 2022 to the project. Steeped in digital media theory and history, as well as trained in media production, these students were primed to take on the challenge of making a version of Funhouse for the Web. By the end of the fall semester, the students completed all but Emily’s Haunthouse of the Funhouse environment, a level that the lab will complete in the spring for McDaid.