Reading in the future: interactive fiction and chatbots


I’ve recently been reading the work of interactive fiction writer Emily Short and discovered her story Galatea. I was happy to find that the story was powered by a chatbot engine and I wondered if this was a whole genre within interactive fiction. To my initial surprise, I discovered that there seem to be very few stories that rely on the use of chatbot technology. But once I thought about it, I decided that given the volatility of a lot of chatbot responses, it isn’t surprising that they haven’t been more widely used in interactive storytelling.

Before Siri, chatbots weren’t widely known. And Apple don’t call Siri a chatbot, so the term might still be unfamiliar. But Siri does what chatbots do. She understands questions and remarks put to her on a pre-defined range of topics and can respond with appropriate information. When she’s asked something outside what she’s been programmed to know about, she can give an intelligent response though it’s also generally going to be one that doesn’t answer the question.

Siri is a tightly controlled chatbot. Apple don’t want her to give unpredictable responses. But there are other chatbots that can speak to a much wider range of subjects. They do this by learning from what people say to them. While this improves their subject knowledge, it can also make them quite random in what they say and how they respond. An example of this type of bot is Cleverbot.

While I’ve been in Sydney, I’ve done a lot of work for a company that makes chatbots. And the types I’ve worked on are mostly the tightly controlled ones. It is possible to make these bots have a very large knowledge area but it requires copious amounts of time and effort. And then plenty of ongoing maintenance.

The company I’ve been working for has a proprietary platform and I’m not familiar with all the options available for people looking to create their own chatbots. I can understand that the looser types of bots would destroy anything that a creator might be trying to do within an interactive fiction.

So I’m unsure what the programming is behind Emily Short’s Galatea. But it’s sophisticated and given that she wrote this interactive fiction back in 2000, I think she was far ahead of her time.

The background to her story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book Ten, Pygmalion carves a statue of a woman and falls in love with her. On the feast day of the goddess Venus, he goes to her shrine and prays for a real-life woman who will look just like his statue. When he returns home, he kisses the statue and discovers that she comes to life. The statue made flesh is unnamed in the poem but in later retellings of the story she was called Galatea.

When Emily Short’s interactive fiction begins, we find that we are at an exhibition and Galatea is on a pedestal in front of us. To progress the story we must speak to her. And the things that we think we can assume e.g. that the exhibition we’re at is an art exhibit, aren’t necessarily so.

I have spent a number of hours talking to Galatea and I am fascinated by her complexity. Depending on what you say to her, her mood changes from bored to sad to happy to hostile and these moods affect the answers she gives you. She also has a sympathy level towards you that changes as the conversation progresses.

Emily Short has provided a number of walkthroughs. They show the astonishing depth to this character and the vastly different endings it’s possible to trigger. The only flaw I can see in the work is that a number of questions have only one answer. It would be great if some of the most common questions you can ask Galatea had alternate answers set to trigger randomly. That would vary the experience I had through many of the opening gambits. Though, this was only a problem to me when I doggedly went through every walkthrough. But I highly recommend that you don’t do any walkthroughs until you have exhausted every single thing you can think to ask Galatea.

There are two other stories that I’m aware of that have used chatbot technology. One of them is Façade, created by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas in 2005. Façade functions something like a video game in which you can interact with the characters in a free-form way. In the story, you go to visit two friends who are having marital troubles. Beyond that, I don’t know very much as the developers are no longer updating the game and it won’t play on my computer.

The other is something that Christy Dena spoke about when I was at the Story+ conference in September. She wrote a coming-of-age transmedia story a number of years ago called The Villager Girl and the Teenbot that took the reader from the page to interacting with a chatbot and then back to the page again. Unfortunately, it’s not available online at the moment.

Clearly, I’ve not presented an exhaustive list of chatbots used in interactive fiction. But I’m at the limits of my research and so would be very interested to hear about any other stories that have relied in some way on the use of chatbot engines.

I began by saying that after some consideration, I can understand why chatbots haven’t been used more often in interactive stories. But conversely, Galatea all by itself shows the richness and complexity available to writers who choose to use this technology. Perhaps all that is missing at the moment is the right platform.

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