Monday, December 01, 2008

ICIDS08: interactive digital stories

I am very pleased to have attended the ICIDS08 conference in Erfurt, Germany. The conference brings together writers of interactive stories with the computational AI (Artificial Intelligence) scientists of story engines and applications. For more then 20 years there has been research in the domain of interactive storytelling. One side of this domain is the AI; Artificial Intelligence domain. Here the goal is (and I am using a liberal explanation here) to dissect stories into abstract units that can ideally and intelligently create stories as systems. Progress has been difficult, due to the reality that stories are probably too human to be generated by computers. There is a lot of pre-conceived implicit knowledge at the level of the writer, (knowledge of the world, knowledge of people, creative human exploration) which is hard to dissect into abstract units.

But what is very interesting in my opinion, is that we can use elements of this large body of work to generate interactive story elements and events, that for instance can scale over large audiences, simultaneously. That is making diverse interactive story levels possible on a mass media scale, playing out different story branches that can be emerging simultaneously. Main problem was, is and will be coherence in the story lines as they branche out and start “living” an (artificial) life of their own.

Recent work at the Artificial Intelligence side is into story-generating mechanisms. The issue here is to postpone the creation of story (world, events, motives, goals and elements) as much as possible until it is needed through the interactive story emergence that takes place between the system and the user; this is called ‘delayed authoring’ and it forms the Greenfield in interactive storytelling systems.

Shortly said, the aim is to have a system that can adjust on the fly as much as possible to the course of the emerging (interactive) story. What do you need in the storyworld (elements), as prop attributes to the characters (be it either NPC or players) or the input of goals (and maybe motives) to foster progress during the generation of the interactive story?
At the time you need to fill in ‘the gap’ during the emergence of the interactive story, the system generates what is required on the fly..

So what fields is interactive digital storytelling tested in? Well, for me,.. here is the good news, although the work starts out from different platforms…:
- Augmented Reality (mobile urban drama)
- Alternated Reality (Second Life as testbed)
- Gameworlds (singular or MMOPG; -mods-)
- Interactive television
- The use of new techniques for immersion in film (stereoscopic vision and 3Dsound)
- Webbased interfaces

There, fortunately, is not a lot of debate about which media platform is “the best” for interactive digital storytelling (as can be encountered in industry environments so often), because off course all of them are in some way, more or less depending on the context of the user. The focus is more on matching user/performer/player expectations with what is evolving in the interactive story.

The need for finding solutions for this is shared ACROSS platforms. Main fields of interest are:

- How to generate an intelligent, coherent, fascinating story through the use of (AI) systems (playing out to several platforms if applicable)?

- What is the need of the user entering a story world (or maybe even prior to that, in a user wanting to (co)-create a story world)?

- How to immerse the user into the experience? What can we do to create interest from the user? Using flashbacks, foreshadowing; making stories player specific; creating believable story characters (NPC’s), the use of stereoscopic vision and 3D audio, and what are first results of the tests?

The good news is that by now the two formerly divided fields of storytellers and computer scientists are trying to come together to foster more progress. Maybe the next innovative ‘thing’ (as in next big thing) will not be a game, but an interactive story? Because the game industry has become very conservative; to much money, to much risk, playing it safe, re-doing the same format over and over again.. Game companies become “moguls” and the risk aversion is setting in which, as always leaves little room for innovation.

So.. Let's see..