The Seven Fables project I covered a week or so ago is now successfully Kickstarted and then some. With more resources available than they initially expected, the authors are thinking about how they might add conversational characters to the project, using some chatbot technology they’ve worked with in the past.
Here Mark Stephen Meadows and I talk through some of the design and tech issues involved.
ES: Why are you looking at adding chatbot technology to this piece?
MSM: Stories are almost always about people. Narrative’s core is about personalities: people, interactions, society, desire, fear, love, weakness. These are the building blocks of narrative and without people in a story it becomes more an exploration of architecture than a drama or adventure. That’s what IF is often about. Sure, it’s fun to poke around in a dungeon and discover doors that open and close. But I find that hearts that open and close are far more interesting.
Gollum? Princess Leia? Kung Fu Panda? Brothers Karamazov? Even great adventures like that are about the people, and what drives and limits them.
ES: Tell me what excites you about the chatbot technology you’re planning to use.
MSM: The problem with most chatbots these days is not the technology. Even simple systems like AIML have enough hooks and gears to work in a piece of IF as a believable character. The problem is design.
Usually chatbots lack context. They’re like abandoned people, homeless wanderers, that awkwardly roam the streets, looking for conversation. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” a chatbot might say. I dont want to talk with these chatbots. They’re drek, informational bums. Just like a person walking up to you on the street saying the same thing. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” I would do my best to politely brush him off and just keep walking down the street. But if there’s a design and narrative component to this then it starts to get interesting. If, for example, I see a small green man with dragonfly wings sitting on a post office box, asking me to open it because his faerie-wife is trapped inside, then I’m far more inclined to talk with him than the guy named Bob. Chat is not interesting simply because it is chat. It has to have a context. Chatbots are boring largely because they lack that context. NPCs / NPGs and chatbots should be given a context that allows them to serve a function. Give the bums a job.
This kind of design is, like writing, as much about psychology as anything else.
Once upon a time, in 2007, my company HeadCase had developed some technology that showed how a personality could be distilled from a conversation. We did it with Arnold Schwarzenegger. We were using ‘scrapers’ – an automated system that would traverse websites, search for first-person interviews, drag those back into a
database, snap off chunks of the interviews that were relevant to similar topics, ideas, and categories, and then rank that stuff according to frequency. Then we asked the system a question. So, for example, we asked the Arnold Schwarzenegger system, “What do you think of gay marriage?” and it answered, “Gay marriage should be between a man and a woman, and if you ask me again I’ll make you do 500 push-ups.”
It was Arnold. Like a photo, it was his likeness. This was, really, an authoring technique for NPCs. The goal was to take interviews and be able to generate NPCs from them.