In 1916, a dispute broke out between James "Pa" Ferguson, governor of Texas, and William James Battle, president of The University of Texas (Burka, 2011; Gould, 1982; Hogg, 1917). Ferguson, concerned that the university's faculty was misusing taxpayer funds allotted to UT by using those funds to support political campaigns, vetoed the bill responsible for much of the university's funding. Battle, backed by the university's regents, denied any financial misdoings in a commencement speech entitled "Shall Texas Have a University?" (Gould, 1982; Hogg, 1917; "William James Battle"). In addition to the specific issues at hand, the dispute brought up larger issues about the role of universities in the state of Texas and democracies in general (Gould, 1982).
This controversy serves as historical background for Battle Lines, with William Battle’s name providing a titular pun. The game opens with its protagonist, a present-day UT history student named Amanda, noticing similarities between the educational policies of Ferguson and current Texas governor Rick Perry. She is in the midst of researching those similarities when her email account is hacked. For the student-players in Writing in Digital Environments, the entrance point into Battle Lines is a mysterious email containing a link to Amanda’s hacked account. From there, Amanda’s story unfolds as follows:
As she learns more about the controversy between Battle and Ferguson, Amanda gets in two heated exchanges—one with her brother, one with a friend named James—about Texas education policy. Both exchanges are unfolding via email when Amanda realizes her account has been hacked: Seemingly random letters and symbols begin appearing in the subject lines of messages sent between her, James, and her brother. Extracting and rearranging those letters and symbols leads to the website of the apparent hackers: a mysterious organization called the Friends of Texas.
The Friends of Texas’s website is awash in various esoteric symbols and slogans, so Amanda counters by hacking into the site’s code and making the various symbols function as links to a private wiki she sets up. On that wiki, she posts a brief message to potential collaborators and a mangled audio file pulled from the Friends of Texas’s site. On first listen, the file is a cacophonous mix of lines from Battle’s Shall Texas Have a University? speech, the Janis Joplin song "Me and Bobby McGee" (Kristofferson & Foster, 1969), and bursts of static. Beneath the static, however, is a series of clues leading Amanda and her collaborators to a Janis Joplin poster in a bar on UT’s campus.
The Joplin poster turns out to contain its own secrets: QR codes that lead to another page on the Friends of Texas site. Growing increasingly guarded and suspicious of anyone on her trail, Amanda hacks this page as well. Below a message noting that Joplin and famous architect Cass Gilbert both had ties to UT, Amanda adds a series of challenges that will eventually lead anyone serious about aiding her to a pair of books—one on Joplin and one on Gilbert—in UT’s libraries.
Amanda plants half a clue under each of the two library books and makes the whole clue lead collaborators back to a new Friends of Texas page she’s hacked. In the time the clue buys her, Amanda goes to a reference library in the basement of the Texas Capitol Building—located about a mile from UT—to investigate her situation with one of the Capitol’s librarians. She continues to uncover similarities between the Battle/Ferguson controversy and present-day political debates about UT. Unable to put all the pieces together in time, however, she flees the library, leaving behind flash drives with clips of speeches by William Powers, UT’s current president, and Rick Perry, Texas’s current governor. She is forced to leave unearthing further echoes of Battle and Ferguson to anyone still on her trail.
Amanda comes across a key to understanding the Friends of Texas and their activities, but refuses to reveal what she’s learned to anyone who can’t follow the trail she left at the Capitol library. But those who can and do learn the following: The Friends of Texas are a secret society dedicated to debating and guiding Texas education policy. Amanda’s interests in Battle and Ferguson led them not to attack her, but to offer a series of disguised challenges aimed at recruiting her for the organization. And now she in turn ventures out to recruit new members she deems worthy.
James, who has been searching for Amanda ever since her email account went silent after the original hacking, finally stumbles across her in Battle Hall, a library on UT’s campus named for William Battle. As he calls out to her, however, she disappears around a corner. James pursues to find only an empty hallway, a brief farewell letter Amanda has left behind, and a mysterious figure watching from the shadows behind him. Amanda has yet to be heard from again.