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.

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Lifeline: Silent Night (3 Minute Games)

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 10.55.29 AMLifeline: Silent Night is a (very lightly) Christmas-themed sequel to the original Lifeline (though, mercifully, it has no important connection with the disappointing Lifeline 2). In it, Taylor, the gender-nonspecific protagonist of the original game, has gotten into trouble aboard the ship home after the events of Lifeline. (I have always thought of Taylor as female, so I refer to Taylor as she below, but your version of Taylor could well be “he” or “they” if you prefer.) There’s less mystery this time around, because we basically know the parameters of the kind of universe we’re inhabiting. Taylor still spouts pop culture references from Futurama and The Simpsons (and the conversation even lampshades this overtly). There are still long pauses where Taylor is “traveling” or “resting” – perhaps somewhat less plausibly now that she is not on a vast moon but are instead poking around what is described as a small spaceship, and during an emergency.

But Silent Night offers a couple of other tweaks on the formula of the original. There are fairly long stretches of non-interactive text in between choice points – sometimes a page or two of text messages on my iPad, more than I remember from the original Lifeline. This text-to-choice ratio wouldn’t seem that odd in, say, a Choice of Games piece, but it’s more noticeable when the text is formatted as text messages (where we’re used to a rapid back-and-forth) and when it’s printing on a delay.

There are structural changes, too. Taylor is no longer completely on her own. The ship is crewed, and Taylor’s connection renders their dialogue in contrasting colors so that you can see the conversation when we’re around them (which is not very often). These other characters are still out of the way for most of the duration of the game, perhaps because otherwise it’s hard to explain why Taylor would be taking our advice to the exclusion of theirs, and it’s also not quite obvious why we can hear them but they can’t hear or see the advice we’re giving back to Taylor. But we just have to accept that that’s how the communication link works.

Second, Silent Night comes with a schematic map of the ship, allowing you to pause during conversation and check out where Taylor is and what she’s doing. This is kind of cool, from a feelie perspective, and helps sell the idea of the ship as a particular place. I wouldn’t ever say that the map becomes necessary, though, and in fact it frequently felt to me as though it had been awkwardly appended to the game after the script was already complete.

For one thing, the game frequently has Taylor making long trips through solitary corridors. Empty corridors are a staple of television and movie spaceships, certainly; but they don’t appear anywhere on the schematic. On the schematic map, all the rooms are directly connected to one another, wasting no time with intervening space. (I couldn’t help thinking of Coloratura here, which also included feelies but felt like the ship had been rigorously researched and planned.)

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Brief Reviews from December

I didn’t post many reviews in December, partly because I was a bit burned out (thanks, IF Comp), partly because of paid workload, and partly because I was playing so many things, between IGF judging and working on the Kitschies list, that there wasn’t time to review all of it. But here are quick thoughts on a few December releases.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 11.54.09 AMLyreless, a Bruno Dias retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story for Sub-Q magazine. This version tells of a journey to the underworld in which we must shed one aspect of ourselves after another in order to pass through the gates of Hell and find our beloved again.

It is not a love story. Eurydice is essentially uncharacterized: who she is, or was, doesn’t matter as much as the quest, and specifically the question of how a quest changes us and our motivation for starting out on that quest in the first place. What happens when you are motivated by strong passions – pity, anger, a sense of justice – but those passions get in the way of what you are trying to accomplish? What if you have to give up some of your identity in order to become the sort of person who can do what a person-like-you would want to achieve?

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Recent IF for iOS

monstrMonstr (Laura Michet, Kent Sutherland, Meagan Trott, Emily So, Travis Ford DeCastro, Rachel Sala, and Rosstin Murphy) is a game in which you’re searching for the dating profile of a monster you saw at a bus stop. It’s made up primarily of spoof profiles and then short “chat” scripts that go horribly badly until you find the one monster who is right for you.

As far as I can tell, it’s largely a matter of luck when you will stumble on the correct monster, and the chats with wrong monsters usually go wrong because the protagonist is scripted to say something foolish or horrible. So it’s easy to build up a sense of the PC as a somewhat-awful being before you get through to a win condition.

On the other hand, the dating site satire is fun and some of the monsters seem rather sweet.

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Wonderland is a new audio IF game by veteran IF developer Jim Munroe. It’s a mystery puzzle centered on Munroe’s own neighborhood in Toronto, and it has a hangman-like mechanic of puzzles where you can unlock additional letters by walking around with your phone.

I’ve been enjoying it, as far as I’ve gotten — though I haven’t finished yet. I think this game would be ideal for someone who spent a lot of time on rambling strolls. Right now, that’s not really me: Oxford is pretty drippy and forbidding this time of year, so most of my exercise happens indoors. But the game has a pleasant radio drama quality and the voice acting is well done.

(Disclosure: I received a free copy of this game.)

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IMG_0210One Button Travel (The Coding Monkeys) is a Lifeline-genre game: you’re engaged in CYOA chat with one other character, and there are real-time delays spacing out your conversation. The app is skinned with a somewhat retro, Device 6-esque design.

Unlike Lifeline, its rather less successful sequel Lifeline 2, and its free-to-play imitator TimecrestOne Button Travel invents a premise in which, instead of aiding a mysterious stranger, you’re the person in danger (at least initially). Your correspondent is trying to assist you, though assisting you quickly involves them getting into trouble as well. They’re also able just occasionally to send you messages with photographs inside, which the Lifelines did not attempt.

So I was well-disposed when I started the game. However, the timing elements are really frustrating. There are a lot of pauses that run for 30-120 seconds, as far as I could tell. (I’m estimating: I didn’t keep a stopwatch on these.) Maybe the delays are meant to add to the realism of the situation, but they really annoyed me. They broke up the narrative just long enough that I put my iPad down and went to do something else, only to be interrupted with a notification just as I was settling into a different task — meaning that to make any significant progress on the game, I had to let this game fragment my attention and keep me from getting anything else done, even though it itself wasn’t keeping me continuously engaged. And it wasn’t necessarily signaled when my interlocutor was going to be gone for two minutes and when they were going to be gone for hours. Sometimes when I did respond to the notification, the result was another page of texts without any further choices for me to make at the end of it, so there was functionally no reason (other than perhaps a long-ago eroded sense of suspense?) not to have given me those additional messages right away.

Meanwhile, after the initial hook, I found myself increasingly detached from the story itself. Some of this is because that bitty, occasional level of interaction made it hard for me to connect. Some is because the world-building is so implausible — you are “helping” someone escape through, among other things, a really bizarre system of automated laundry handling that sounds like it was designed to be an amusement park ride. Some is down to lack of agency: it wasn’t until I’d been playing for something like a week of real time that I encountered a choice where it felt like that choice might have caused a significantly different outcome than if I’d picked the other option.

Anyway, I’m declaring bankruptcy on this one. I haven’t finished it, and I don’t plan to: it’s not giving me enough in exchange for my time.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.)

A Conversation with Ruber Eaglenest about ZFiles

zfiles

Z Files: Infection is a project currently being Kickstarted, an interactive comic book set in a zombie universe. I talked with Ruber Eaglenest, aka El Clerigo Urbatain, about the project, and how it works as an interactive comic, as interactive fiction, and in terms of how it portrays its protagonist.

Interactive comic

RUBER: There have been other games that have tried to this fusion, but they are most experiments, or resort to the “infinite canvas”.

EMILY: I think that is an interesting direction. I’ve seen a handful of pieces that do similar things, but I think there is probably a lot of additional room to explore it. IIRC, some of the Tin Man Games pieces do include some comic illustration elements; also a few other things I’ve covered.

RUBER: To be honest, sometimes I’m not at all satisfied about how I try to communicate how interesting is our project compared to other attempts to make interactive comic. I do not want to look as I disregard other attempts, especially when I can climb on his shoulders and improve from there.

We are going to stay inside the pages of a comic, and so, the challenge is to apply the tree structure of CYOA to the finite space of a comic book.

EMILY: What actual constraints do you have in mind here? For instance, are you trying to make all the pages be the same size, or have the same amount of visual space assigned to each node?

RUBER: You see, people and the press likes to praise the infinite canvas because we simply love to see common things applied to new technologies. But when one uses the infinite canvas in a digital or interactive comic, you lose some of the features and inherent properties of the comic format. For example, the ability to close a page narrative, or leave it open with a cliffhanger so that an important revelation occurs at the turn of the page. To play with the structure, with graphic symmetry, among other wonders you can do within the pages of a comic book. For example, in the following conference praising Watchmen, Kieron Gillen explained very well the capacity of traditional structures of comics raised to its maximum capacity of artistic expression.

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Wunderverse

IMG_0201

Wunderverse is not a game but an iPad adventure editor that lets you build your own stories. It comes with a few starter adventure chapters already written, though as far as I saw it didn’t look like any of them were finished stories. Of these, I completed the sample set in the paranormal world: a vaguely Sixth-Sense-y story that could have been more strongly written and that still had a couple of typos. But I have the feeling that the actual content is not what the app’s creators most care about; they’re looking at this primarily as a tool.

IMG_0208The good: the app looks pretty slick, and it features the ability to theme your stories and include sound effects and other elements.

Though it has a tap-only interface, the underlying world model feels more like parser IF than the models in most competing systems. You can create nodes and objects, and certain verbs remain available to the player at all times. The system also provides for player character stats and abilities, and for conversation. Nodes function sort of like rooms and sort of like narrative nodes, so you could take this either in a very map-based direction or in the direction of a more CYOA-style narrative. (Personally I feel a little bit itchy about conflating space and narrative state into the same thing, but I accept that it’s sometimes useful to do so.)

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