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'Hello Chatbot, Can We Play a Game?'

Chatbots are getting a little better at delivering story and character in games.

by Alex Meehan
Nov 30 2016, 6:00pm

As I send the obligatory "Hi" in Facebook messenger, the chatbot's reply is instantaneous. With a suitably quirky response (embarrassing emoji included), they ask how they can help me. Before I can reply, I'm inundated with various images of jackets, shoes and dresses.

Trying to get a word in edgeways with most chatbots is an ongoing battle that, more often than not, ends in frustration. The majority of currently contactable "AI" are not the type to go to for riveting conversation. Most of them are more interested in selling you something than engaging in any meaningful conversation.

Contemporary examples make the future of chatbots—and conversational AI in general—look decidedly dull, nothing nearly as exciting (or dangerous) as System Shock's Shodan.

But there is some hope on the horizon.

The big name companies like H&M aren't interested in creating anything other than glorified shopping assistants, whose only purpose is to wave shiny things in your face. But exploring outside the retail market promises something much more compelling.

Video game designers are harnessing the ideas and the technology behind chatbots in order to develop their own unique 'AI' creations.

The concept of communicating with an AI isn't entirely novel. Games have been toying with the idea ever since developers have had the tools and motivation to construct stories.  But making it a central mechanic—the act of talking with a bot—is a little more unusual.

Header and all Event[0] screens courtesy of Ocelot Society

The origins of such a mechanic can be traced back to classic text adventures released as early as the 1970's. Influential titles such as The Colossal Cave Adventure or Zork, used Basic Code to establish their core gameplay features. The only ways to interact with these worlds were through their respective "narrators."

But this didn't restrict either game's ability to build character. Both titles are recognized for their unique identities and cheesy humor, which is entirely conveyed via the game's narrators.  Despite the genre's notoriety for frustrating puzzles and bizarre logic, text adventures helped path the way for another 30 years of PC gaming history.

Their influence can be seen in several fairly recent indie titles currently circulating on both Steam and Apple's iOS store.

Event[0] 

One of these is Event [0], an explorative adventure game developed by Ocelot Society, released mid-September of this year. The game's premise revolves around the player being trapped in a space-station, seemingly alone, except for an AI called Kaizen-85.

Event [0] appears, at least from the outset, to follow the traditional "untrustworthy AI with far too much intelligence is untrustworthy" story arc. What really sets it apart is the way the player interacts with said AI.

Rather than remaining silent, or selecting from a choice of replies, Event [0] allows the player to type their out their responses, in an interface that looks a bit like a retro-futuristic chat client. With the ability to procedurally generate over two million lines of dialogue, Event [0]'s Kaizen is one impressive chatbot.  

According to one of the game's designers; Sergy Mohov, all these lines were necessary in order to create what felt like a continuously changing AI. In an interview with Verge, Mohov explained how Kaizen's personality was developed to be "like a sponge"; capable of absorbing the player's information and appropriately adapting its character.

This serves to provide a surprising believable communication experience, almost chillingly so. Without Kaizen, Event [0] may have ended up just being a straightforward puzzle, exploration adventure. But with it, the game becomes a sometimes disturbing, and mostly engaging, story of someone trapped with an unpredictable AI in space.

KOMRAD screen courtesy of Sentient Play

Sentient Play's KOMRAD, is rather simpler, but arguably works in a more immersive fashion. The iOS game actually uses a messenger format not unlike what you probably have on your phone, rather than Event [0]'s vintage desktop screens. Rather than including any explorative elements, KOMRAD just sticks to the conversation between you and the bot.  

The game's visual and audio language lends itself to the chatbot formula in a more convincing manner. As you boot up the game, you're contacted by a mysterious individual asking you to convince an ancient Russian AI to give you some codes.

Interaction with KOMRAD is restricted to dialogue options, which does limit the experience quite a bit. But the AI itself has enough character to make up for the otherwise stripped-back gameplay. The communist computer's devotion to the now long-dead soviet regime is equally amusing and unsettling.

Chatbot titles that put eccentric characters at their core seem to be the main driving force behind the genre.  This also holds true for the ever-growing chatbot development scene.

Chatbot creators Massively AI are one such developer. Their adventure title; Arterra, is a prime example of the kind of chatbot games currently being made. Unlike both Event [0] and KOMRAD, Arterra actually plays within a messenger platform, rather than simply simulating one.

The game works in very much the same way as classic "choose your own adventure" books. The player lands on an alien planet with the hopes of finding their long lost sibling, before being pushed into a variety of situations, where they're given a selection of choices. These choices help propel the story along, with events framing themselves around interactions with the game's cast of characters.

Russ Ward, president of Massively, explained how the team wanted to give their audience "a chance to participate and react" to what was going on in Arterra's narrative.  Telling a story is all fine and dandy, but Ward and his team were interested in giving the player more than that.

In particular, Massively wanted to harness the platform's unique ability to simulate conversation between the player and the game's characters.

Early on in the adventure, the player meets a robot named BX-416, which they're able to name and talk to outside of the main game. According to Ward, the character was designed to fulfil a variety of roles; "(BX-416) added an element of personalization […] but it was also a way for users to keep an inventory".

When asked about whether chatbots could inspire a revival of text adventures, Ward said: "There's a lot that that genre had to offer that's still relevant today". When asked about encouraging player imagination, Ward admitted that: "I think that's a very powerful thing that text-based experiences can provide".

Ward and his team use Kik; an independent messaging platform designed to allow users to talk to, and make, unique bots.

Open development platforms—like Kik and Massively AI—are providing the tools necessary for ordinary talent to make bots. It's an exciting prospect—imagine what talented narrative designers can do with a more interactive way to tell stories—although, as with anything, expect as many duds as there are games like Arterra.

Event[0]

With chatbots slowly become a more legitimate form of interactive storytelling, here's hoping that there'll be more opportunities for involving gameplay. Chatbot creators could even take inspiration from a number of excellent and unusual modern adventure games.

I can quite easily imagine a game like 2005's Façade as a chatbot experience; it already has elements of AI character interaction, and situations like a troubled marriage could be tackled with a chatbot in interesting ways. Or decision-driven games like Deconstructeam's God's Will Be Watching; whose simple controls and morally challenging scenarios could work well in a chatbot environment.

It's early days yet, but the increasing complexity and expanding possibilities of chatbots could spell a new wave for game narratives. Just ask Kaiden.

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