[Storybricks] Storytelling with an emotive AI

storybricksThe chaps from Namaste are very keen on NPCs with emotions. I had a chance recently to speak with them about the Storybricks toolset, which allows player creators to program AI into NPCs.

One of the features which is clearer in use than on some of the slides is that many of the Storybricks verbs allow for an adverb to be added. So, for example, an NPC could be programmed to do something cheerfully or sneakily. But what does that mean in terms of creating stories? Phil Carlisle, AI CTO, discusses in a blog post how he might describe some truly memorable characters using storybricks in this way. I’m sure all Red Dwarf fans will remember Talkie the Toaster, one of his examples.

Namaste are working on an unannounced game platform to make use of the Storybricks and in the demo, the character emotions were shown by physical emotes and hand gestures. The implication is that the NPCs emotions matter, and that it matters for players to be able to identify them. This is also a theme in recent RPGs such as the emotion tech in LA Noir, where the player is asked to work out if someone is lying by watching their face.

Of course, emotions matter in standard MMOs too. It’s just that players usually buy their way to being beloved (ie. high rep) by killing monsters and collecting tokens. But a toolset built around NPCs having emotions implies a different type of storytelling altogether, you could use it to build a classic RPG where NPC’s regard depends on doing quests for them, or you could be exploring a classic Agatha Christie style murder mystery where knowing that one NPC hates another could be a key clue as to motives. Unsurprisingly, Namaste’s demos at Gencon went down very well with the roleplaying crowd whose first consideration tended to be, “Could I set up my favourite scenario using Storybricks?”

Storybricks is still in an early form and there are details to be ironed out – if you are interested in being involved in the testing you can sign up on their website. But the question of how toolsets encourage different styles of storytelling is an interesting one. A toolset about NPC AI is going to encourage character-driven stories about NPCs and their feelings about stuff/ each other. A toolset like the City of Heroes Mission Architect encourages a style of mission based storytelling with a quest giver and an instanced dungeon. A toolset like the Final Fantasy 12 gambit system allows you to set up all sorts of complex NPC combat interactions, but only covers combat and isn’t meant for stories at all (unless they are stories about how the NPC bravely healed the idiot player). And of course, a fiendishly complex toolset will drive away any casual player who just wants to play with creating characters and stories.

Also, an NPC system which assigns emotions would allow for player characters with supernatural methods to detect feelings: for example psychic abilities or spells. This is a far cry from the typical fireball type of magic user, and just emphasises the possibilities in a storytelling system which isn’t totally focussed on combat. Ultimately the devil will be in the implementation details, but a game built around an emotive AI has the potential for a very different style of story.