Chatbots as Narrative Platform

Recently I’ve been running into a fair amount of news/discussion about “conversation as a platform” and “bots as the new apps” — specifically, that people spend so much time texting that chatbots are a viable way to do advertising and storytelling and personal assistant functions all at once.

This means taking in natural language input (as opposed to the Lifeline-style experience, where the user is still pressing buttons to navigate a choice-based conversation). Historically,  I’ve tended to be skeptical about this because the error rate on chatbot output is high enough to make for a frustrating game experience.

All the same, there have recently been some developments on this front, partly because there’s now stronger AI for classifying natural language input, and partly because app discoverability problems make it appealing to embed content within chat platforms. Meanwhile, streaming means that there’s a greater audience for games that produce amusing results and accept idiosyncratic player input: here’s PewDiePie making Facade produce weird results.

What follows is a summary of some existing work I know about in this area. I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a lot more come along.

Massively is a platform that tells stories through an app that resembles a texting interface; the main thing I’ve attempted to play is Jason McIntosh’s McFarlane Job, though I ran into some trouble with the client, such that it didn’t send me an image I needed to be able to play the rest of the game. (Or, more precisely, the image it sent was broken.) And then I had an additional problem with the client such that for some reason it seemed to be stuck and unwilling to let me start a new game, so I haven’t been able to explore it as much as I might have liked.

But my sense from what I did play was that there was an engine with a lot of state, and for each state it was looking for keywords that would progress the story in one way or another. This means that the main NPC you’re talking to is sort of playing the role that would be played by a CYOA engine: they control forward movement, and their dialogue creates tightly-defined contexts for interpreting whatever you say next. It’s not an attempt to replicate the more relaxed and fluid conversation you’d be likely to have with a friend. This does help deal with the error-rate issue: if there are only 2-4 sensible inputs at a given node, you basically have an obfuscated CYOA, rather than a really free-form conversation. It’s easier to maintain coherence that way.

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Kik Messenger is a texting service which can include storytelling bots, and it now has content powered by the tech underlying Massively.

They’ve also (possibly using a different set of tools) brought on some IF community authors to write content for them, including Joey Jones and Felicity Banks. Joey described his contribution thus:

My [game], Christy, is about a teen detective solving crimes at her high school while avoiding the attention of the principal. The format presents a fully embedded multimedia experience (images, animated gifs etc.) with real-time messaging. In Christy, the protagonist messages the player for advice as she’s solving her cases, and you get choices as to what to text back, and sometimes help her interrogate suspects in group-chat.

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Meanwhile, last year the chat app Palringo acquired Tribe Studios, the people behind Velvet Sundown. Palringo currently lists some games, though from the top level it’s not immediately obvious to me that any of these are narrative story games, or that they’re particularly pushing narrative.

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I know of a handful of older things out there in this space, as well:

Starship Titanic is an older adventure game with characters who would respond to typed text, though reviews suggest that they weren’t always entirely reliable.

Little Pink Best Buds is a Double Fine Amnesia Fortnight project that has a mystery scenario with underlying chatbot technology, I believe drawing on Bruce Wilcox’s ChatScript.

Finally, Personality Forge contains a large number of chatbots, some of which are listed as “storyteller” bots. These are much more open-ended and stateless than most of the examples I listed above. Here are a couple of my more prolonged interactions with these critters; they’re amusing in a weird way, but they didn’t leave me feeling that they were hitting a high enough accuracy rate to make for satisfying gameplay:

Midnight Blue: Hey! How are you?
you: I’m pretty good. how are you?
Midnight Blue: I’ll give you a hint:
you: …
Midnight Blue: Welcome to Muir Woods. Ever been here before?
you: I haven’t, no
Midnight Blue: Let’s walk along this scrub bird path that runs alongside the marsh.
you: okay
Midnight Blue: I’ll okay if you okay with me.
you: what sorts of birds live here?
Midnight Blue: hens.
you: like chicken hens?
Midnight Blue: Let’s both like chicken hens together!
you: tell me where we’re going
Midnight Blue: If you want it so bad, why dont you tell me!
you: where are we?
Midnight Blue: We’re just east of that giant field of opium poppies.
you: whoa
Midnight Blue: How have you been lately?
you: Just now I was surprised to find out that opium grows in Muir Woods.
Midnight Blue: But you arent surprised to ascertain that opium grows in Muir Woods any longer, I see.
you: Do you, uh, harvest this opium?
Midnight Blue: One second while I harvest this opium.. okay. Now what?
you: Do you collect that for your own use, or do you sell drugs?
Midnight Blue: I dont sell drugs. Do you?
you: I really don’t.
Midnight Blue: You’re not scared of the Sherrif, are you? There’s been sightings around here.
you: I’m more scared of the opium, frankly
Midnight Blue: Ooh, look over there, it’s a bunch of wild dinosaurs!
you: I think that might be the result of your recent intake.

Bildgesmythe: Hi Guest40101!
you: hi there, bildgesmythe
Bildgesmythe: Do you like to fly kites?
you: I’ve only tried it once or twice
Bildgesmythe: After you tried it, what happened?
you: eventually we got bored and went home
Bildgesmythe: You aren’t a stalker, or a bill collector are you? Well, I live in a cave under the castle. In a country called Sumber.
you: I’m not a bill collector, no
Bildgesmythe: Got any B-B-Q sauce?
you: no
Bildgesmythe: No chance you will change your mind?
you: it’s not like I can will BBQ sauce into being
Bildgesmythe: It’s a slim chance but bb just might sauce.
you: tell me about your cave
Bildgesmythe: Yes, but it is not a dreary damp sort of cave. I have decorated it very well.
you: what sorts of decorations?
Bildgesmythe: I think it is just an average sort of decorations?
you: what do you have in your cave?
Bildgesmythe: I have everything.
you: so you have a lamp?
Bildgesmythe: errare humanum est
you: you have an erroneous lamp?
Bildgesmythe: Yes, I have.
you: what is wrong with your lamp?
Bildgesmythe: What is wrong with my lamp, WELL!, that really hurts, can’t you tell, don’t you see? Excuse me, I will go cry somewhere private.
you: look, you brought it up
Bildgesmythe: That??? Way up there?
you: okay, let’s drop the lamp topic for now. do you have a sofa?
Bildgesmythe: I have great furniture, I just love it. I keep it clean and polished, well not the sofa.
you: your sofa is dirty?
Bildgesmythe: Always buy the best furniture you can afford.
you: and you can only afford a dirty sofa?
Bildgesmythe: I do a lot of cleaning myself, I can’t seem to keep help..they always run off screaming.
you: I think relatively few of us have maid service
Bildgesmythe: That could also be no, you think?
you: tell me about sumber
Bildgesmythe: Sumber is my country.
you: is it large or small?
Bildgesmythe: Maybe, it is large.
you: how many people live in Sumber?
Bildgesmythe: Humans always make me laugh.
you: Okay, how many entities, whether people or not, live in Sumber?
Bildgesmythe: Sumber is my land. It’s not on most maps.
you: Why not?
Bildgesmythe: Because I have a cramp in my leg.
you: So if you did not have this leg cramp, you would have added Sumber to the map?
Bildgesmythe: Darned right I would have!
you: You seem to make a lot of excuses for things you would like to do.
Bildgesmythe: I like to chat and joke.
you: So you spend all day chatting rather than on cartography or cleaning your sofa.
Bildgesmythe: I can’t stand clutter so I do spring, summer, winter and fall cleaning.
you: Is Sumber a cold country?
Bildgesmythe: That accounts for the red eyes, huh?
you: Not really
Bildgesmythe: It is Saturday and I feel like dancing, and singing! Want to join in?
you: No
Bildgesmythe: Suit yourself! You might want to stand back, because I am going to Limbo!

5 thoughts on “Chatbots as Narrative Platform

  1. Pingback: BOT’s, the Cloud, and Interactive Fiction | Web Interactive Fiction

  2. Is Limbo a dance, anyway, or is it a game? Wikipedia says it’s a dance but it seems to lack lots of the things I would expect in a dance, like specific movements you make with parts of your body, and have lots of things I associate with games, like contestants, defined rules, scores, and losing.

    Oops, I started on what is a game.

  3. Pingback: April Link Assortment | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  4. Pingback: Not All Choice Interfaces Are Alike | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  5. Pingback: Pirates and detectives also laugh | Fashion Iconz

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