A new project underway at Bossa Studios is looking to build games that will build themselves, including stories and characters, in the name of emergent storytelling and true player agency.
When Bossa Studios hired games writing royalty, Chet Faliszek, eyebrows were raised. Faliszek, whose decade and a bit at Valve means he has writing credits on the likes of the Portal, Half-Life and Left 4 Dead series, chose to join the relatively small British developer to work on a new game in which stories are told by AIs. Details were thin on the ground, and they still are, but having chatted to Faliszek a couple of months after his announcement, we’re starting to build a picture of what exactly a game written by machine learning might look like.
It’s a curious notion that a writer might want to make themselves redundant by teaching game characters to tell their own stories, but that’s ultimately what Faliszek’s team is attempting to do. “Well I’m a lazy writer,” he laughs. “So I’m trying to replace myself.”
This desire to explore autonomous narrative comes from a frustration with the limitations of writing traditional games. “You have to cover every single possibility of everything that can happen,” says Faliszek. “That means, in a lot of games, you are controlling everything that happens to the player because you’ve had to create the reactions for them. So in this game we want to expand that out so that the user can generate their stories, their actions, their activities, their world. Independent of what we’ve limited them to.”
This is an extrapolation of the emergent stories phenomenon that is exploding as open world, systemic games are becoming more and more popular. Faliszek thinks back to his work on Left 4 Dead and the way he wanted players to think of the unfolding events as being their own tales. “In Left 4 Dead I wrote that way to give breadth and space for players, so they could talk about it. I didn’t want you to talk about saving Zoey, I wanted you to talk about the time when I saved you.
I joked originally to Imre that if the only thing the AIs do is change the five things they want you to kill, then we’ve failed.
Chet Faliszek, Bossa Studios
“We see the sort of emergent stories you get from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The example I use is Imre [Jele, creator-in-chief at Bossa]. The first time I played with him was the first time he’d ever played. He found a car and the first thing he did was drive over me. Those are great stories and I compare it to me sitting down with my nephew when he was five, and he re-told me the story of Star Wars. That was not so interesting. When things happen to you they’re way more interesting.
“So how could we do that, where you have that emergent storytelling, and traditionally that happens in multiplayer games, right? Like DayZ. There’s a million great stories out of there, but how do you do that with NPCs where it’s not just PVP?
“I’m not saying that other games are bad, because that’s always scary when you’re talking about something new. I play all those other games, and I like them! If you look at something like Gone Home, where you discover this story. That is not an emergent story, at all, and I totally love that game.”
The best way to give players the most opportunities for these emergent stories to unfold is to give them complete control over their actions. Something the games industry was once preoccupied with back in the late 90s and early 00s, before realising that true player agency was still out of reach. Faliszek is betting on the advancements in AI to finally make it a reality.
“I joked originally to Imre that if the only thing the AIs do is change the five things they want you to kill, then we’ve failed,” Faliszek says. “Hopefully it’s more complex than that.”
With NPCs controlled by AIs that learn and adapt, the game can change according to players’ actions and relationships can evolve from there. But where does the ‘designed’ character end and the AI being? How much initial input is required to create an entity whose personality can grow?
“Some people have said that AIs have written Emily Dickinson,” Faliszek says. “No it hasn’t. It’s aped Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson had to exist first. A lot of AIs you see in the world now, like the AI that’s all witty in interviews, they got the questions ahead of time. Essentially it’s just look up. It’s like Alexa and Siri. They’re AIs and they’re incredible pieces of technology, but they’re not figuring this stuff out. What they’re doing is looking up, matching, and then responding to you.
“So writers aren’t redundant in the sense of creating the characters and creating the personalities and seeing how much of that do we need to do. How much can the computer do? Can I do fifty of these and then the computer can learn to do more? We’ll see, and that’s probably the most interesting thing for me right now. Every game I’ve ever worked on, the tools to make that game changed from the writing side of it. That affected how we wrote and what we wrote. And that’ll be the same here.”
None of this has been attempted before in games, and so there are no guarantees about how any of it will work. Faliszek has concerns that the strength of personalities may not match up to players’ expectations, especially those used to strong games writing.
I’m so used to concept art, modeller, paintover, animator, adds voice. It’s a very set structure. And so if you don’t have that, what does it look like?
Chet Faliszek, Bossa Studios
“I worry that one of the reasons why people react and enjoy some of this stuff is because of the characterisation and personality that’s in there,” he says. “And if we can’t bring that into the game using the AIs I will worry about that. So what that ends up manifesting as, we’ll see. Because it’s not just the writing, it’s the animation, it’s the art, and so on. The goal is to have this personality, this thing that you want to connect with or like. Or something that you hate and you want to stomp out. How we do that doesn’t have to be words, it can be a bunch of things. But you know, I like writing words. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Speaking of animation and art, how will that pipeline work? Where does the AI stop and the human asset creation begin?
“That will be interesting,” Faliszek says. “It is a different pipeline. Not to get into what the world is, but some of the things in them are going to be… also generated. And so you want to be able to have those options of some of that being from the machine learning and so when that’s true, what is animating it? What is connecting it? So it is definitely a different looking pipeline than normal. I’m so used to concept art, modeller, paintover, animator, adds voice. It’s a very set structure. And so if you don’t have that, what does it look like?”
With even character voices being computer generated, NPCs really are going to be developing their own personalities, for better or worse. “That is, for me, one of the scariest things, because as a writer, voice actors make everything I do better,” Faliszek says. “In Left 4 Dead, for instance, we met with the voice actors four or five times. The first time you meet is the first time you’ve written. It’s just you. And you get them to record it and you realise they have tendencies to go this way, or they have this personality or they really are good at this. If you look at Left 4 Dead 2, Ellis is really good at being naive, but not stupid. So everything else you write after that is based towards that actor, so without that actor there giving that influence, what is that going to be like and will it be as good? We will see.”