Where is the simulacra?

What is and what isn’t reality? That’s a question that is not new at all. Stories have taken people off to “other places” since the very first time they were told. Until recently, the tools and the generation of the narratives have all been in the hands of human actors. But that is going to change. Likely sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, Spark ran a story about the power of storytelling in games. Putting a movie into a game has been done before, but this time, the idea is a little different. Rather than taking the easy route of doing a shooter, they made this game into a horror based game that can be experienced uniquely for each player. The branching narrative that allows the player to choose their own adventure isn’t new either (some of you might remember those old CYOA books). This ability to make choice leads to a significant level of empathy (PBS Thank You for Playing, Psychology Today) is what motivated the creation of the game.

Outside of the content and the presentation, the Apocalypse Now game doesn’t really break new ground, especially when you consider what it refers to as source material (Heart of Darkness, and The Odyssey). But this is where the jump from human agency to Artificial Intelligence can occur.

To create a game like this, artificially, one would need a narrative. Teaching AI to do this, the models from Vonnegut are the place to start. Without a strong narrative, the story is going to be a dud. Thankfully (perhaps) for AI, iteration to improve itself is par for the course, so it can make a convincing story with an almost endless number of branches and terminations. With enough compute cycles the iteration and improvement is going to get things perfect (perhaps too perfect). With the bones of the story in place, AI can then create the visual representation, if needed, similar to this world that was created randomly.

With these basic elements, we know that we have the tools to allow non human agents to create stories. What we need to be able to do now is look at those stories objectively and identify ways to create ones that can deliver an objective. That objective for my interest, would be to teach something, and in so doing looking to see if the checkpoints of laughter and truth are passed by. If they are, it would suggest that these two elements are vital (perhaps among others), to using stories to teach.

Those other things may come from elements that are identified in this TED Talk with Shonda Rhimes. She makes a comment on the CYOA stories and how they may not be as satisfying:

I’m watching a movie, I know for a fact that a story is not as good when I have control over exactly what’s going to happen to somebody else’s character. You know, if I could tell you exactly what I wanted to happen to Walter White, that’s great, but the story is not the same, and it’s not as powerful. You know, if I’m in charge of how “The Sopranos” ends, then that’s lovely and I have an ending that’s nice and satisfying, but it’s not the same story and it’s not the same emotional impact.

So if we are looking at fabricating stories for specific ends, the task becomes “easier”. The story creation system no longer needs to perfect an infinite number of endings. It only needs one that is going to create that impact.

You know, if you could decide that, you know, in “Jaws,” the shark wins or something, it doesn’t do what it needs to do for you. The story is the story that is told, and you can walk away angry and you can walk away debating and you can walk away arguing, but that’s why it works. That is why it’s art. Otherwise, it’s just a game, and games can be art, but in a very different way.

I’m always excited when new technology comes out and I’m always the first one to want to try it. The possibilities feel endless and exciting right now, which is what excites me. We’re in this sort of Wild West period, to me, it feels like, because nobody knows what we’re going to settle on. You can put stories anywhere right now and that’s cool to me, and it feels like once we figure out how to get the technology and the creativity of storytelling to meet, the possibilities are endless.

So it looks like I’m not the only one who is thinking about this and what stories can do, or be made to do for us and society.


Also published on Medium.