Let the Stories Tell Themselves

I came across this article on Polygon describing some of the awesome tech behind the new and improved Storybricks Engine, which purportedly can generate stories from scratch. I was intrigued. The Storybricks team (currently working with the Everquest Next folks), seem to be taking sort of a simulation approach. The rationale is that if every NPC in the world had a complex model of emotions, personality, motivations, goals, desires, and capabilities, then they’d naturally start creating conflict with one another, so quests and stories would (hopefully) write themselves. A player who takes a stroll through the world will have a different experience every time, because the NPCs are constantly fighting and changing relationships.

This is the biggest step to making truly interactive stories I have ever seen. Storybricks is finally taking all that stored-up knowledge in academia about generating narratives and applying it. Yet I’m not convinced that great stories can ever be “simulated”, no matter how complex the simulation. Think of it this way:

“If an NPC dies in a forest, and no players are around to see it, does it matter?”

The problem with a simulation, in my opinion, is that it focuses on making NPC relationships as realistic and as varied as possible, and then hoping that all players are getting cohesive, enjoyable stories out of it whenever they happen to walk by. The issue is that players are never going to get a connected, cohesive story out of these bricks. The focus is on building good NPC stories centered on the lives of NPCs (of which players can stumble upon), rather than a good story centered around each player. While cool stories happening to NPCs is great for lore and exploration, I’d much rather that cool stories happen to me, with my character as an important (rather than incidental or supplemental) element of the plot.




2 thoughts on “Let the Stories Tell Themselves

  1. Maybe this is an intermediate step, but I would look for a situation where the designer/storyteller put the major story elements into place but then let the player work out the resolution of the conflict.

    The designers seed the story with the evil sorcerer and the kidnapped princess and the aging knight and we can see that these three are on directly conflicting trajectories. Then the devs drop in the aspiring farm boy, and the lawless rogue, and a band of traitorous outlaws, each with their own motivations. And finally we step back and see what happens.

    The key is the conflicting seeds that must clash at some point. The players work on the other story elements to influence the pathways of the seeds. But without the externally established conflict, no story will emerge.

    Theoretically, if we unlock this simple model, we can proliferate the number of conflicts to choose from. I just don’t know if having multiple conflicts work themselves out simultaneously actually makes a good story.

    • I like the idea of designers seeding major story elements to ensure that the resulting ‘simulated’ stories are engaging and cohesive. Perhaps devs can provide major high-level plot points, but let the AI fill in the gaps?

      One thing I liked about the Storybricks tech demo from the AI conference was that their examples only kept track of the relevant attributes. Human authors only keep track of relevant info (for example, there are only really 10 named characters in James Cameron’s Avatar). In the Romeo and Juliet example, the demo kept track of who loved who, but the Game of Thrones example didn’t.

      Unfortunately, in the Storybricks model, the MMO version actually does need to keep track of every attribute, desire, goal, opinion, belief, and motivation for every NPC in order to work properly and have emergent stories arise from the simulation. I’m interested to see how their simulation works at a large scale, and if they’ll have to simplify down their vision to things like nation vs. nation warfare simulation.

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