"I wander in an endless perspective where I seem to be the vanishing point," typed the chatbot. I watched the dancing ellipses bouncing up and down on the bot's message bubble until it sent another message, another piece of the short story it was telling me. It popped up: "My observation is that the closer I get to the horizon, the further I am from myself."
If you're confused by those lines, it's because they were pulled from a short story about an existential exploration, that was told to me by a chatbot on Facebook Messenger. The bot didn't make up the story, though. A real live author did. The bot merely relayed it to me, occasionally asking me questions to keep me engaged as we went along. I was trying out LOST, the new and first-of-its-kind short story bot.
The bot, made by Copenhagen-based startup Synesthesia EXP, is an attempt to twist the perception of how literature should be consumed—making the process of reading a story interactive, a conversation even, between the reader and the storyteller. While very simple and rudimentary at this point in its development, LOST reveals an intriguing new way to tell a narrative that could conceivably combine multiple media in future iterations like games, music, and even video.
LOST was written by the French author Samuel Petit, and edited by Sylvain Souklaye, founder of Synesthesia EXP. The story follows a main character named John Deadle who stumbles into a metaphysical and existential black hole and struggles to get out. The narrative form pulls its inspiration from "choose your own adventure" books and requires the reader to help Deadle navigate his own mind safely without losing his sanity.
The story bot messages you lines of text and occasionally prompts the reader to make a decision. Will you remain stoic and not give into the fear of the unknown (i.e. why are we here?) that's creeping out of the recesses of Deadle's mind, or will you run in terror from them and send his brain spinning out like the Mad Hatter's thoughts? It's a pretty wild story. An existential acid trip of a short that Camus and Sartre would've had an afternoon espresso chat over.
For how heady the story itself is, the flow of it is easy to follow. "If you want to have a complex narrative, you need to have a simple system," Souklaye told me. It's true. If there were any more controls or commands required of the reader than simply answering a couple questions it would've gotten pretty convoluted. "It was baby steps for LOST, because we didn't want to lose people in the process," he said.
It's in its primitive stages, for sure, but you can tell the short story is more of an introduction to a new format. A toe dip in the waters of a new art form that might prove worthwhile or not. Souklaye envisions video, sounds or music, and games all eventually coalescing in this bot storytelling mode.
"I don't know where things will be in five years with bots, AR, virtual reality and narratives but I think that when people are part of the process and they're not just watching, it's really interesting." he said. "Because it's not just about entertainment, it's about creating a memory."
"Maybe you could even make a new kind of artificial intelligence. That can adapt to users. If it could create a unique narrative for one user that would be insane."
If a storytelling bot could personalize stories for you, then I might have to stay away from the existential ones, lest I end up in wonderland.
Purist fans of literature likely won't be fond of this new exploration of storytelling, but then again, how we tell our stories—even literature-wise—has changed over the millennia. Once upon a time, all our literature was spoken orally. Still is in some places. So in a way this seems like just another evolution of how we tell stories.
The bot is currently free on Facebook Messenger and will see some updates coming this spring.