Monday, September 7, 2009

Asymmetric Narrative

Engineering computers to perform creative acts is a concepts known as procedural generation. The field is most active in the realm of computer games, but there are also examples in music composition and art. In the video game realm, Spore creates and animates unique creatures based on human input, and Left 4 Dead (a zombie survival game) had an AI director who controlled the pace and difficulty of the game for the players.

This is a topic I'm hugely interested in. The intersection of creativity and computers is a rich and intriguing ones. The strategies for approaching the problem, and the social implications are worthy of many more blog posts. Basically, though, I think the coolest thing about procedural generation is the potential for personalized entertainment. We each have unique preferences in movies. Over time, a procedural generation system could tailor its creations to maximize your enjoyment. Imagine if every movie you watched was well made, if the forms of humor you find cringe-worthy never occurred, if the length was always exactly what you had time for. And in video games, the player is suddenly advanced to the role of an active participant. Instead of following a pre-laid track of levels, you can suddenly make meaningful decisions that completely change the narrative.

The thought that prompted this post, though, is a limitation of procedural generation. I recently caught up on the series Lost. I've noticed that its one of the shows where fans are eager to discuss the events together. We'll compare opinions on plot arcs and deceased characters. We'll speculate on the mysteries of the show and exchange theories. Besides being an entertaining show, its a social experience. The same is true of music, where a commonly liked band can be a bridge into conversation. But if each person were enjoying a personalized story, that sense of belonging with the world would be severed.

Or would it (and here's where the title comes in)? A personalized narrative doesn't need to be independent of other tales. Its not a prerequisite, but imagine if your personal video game has access to your facebook network. Now the same story arc you're experiencing can be shared with your friends. One person might be experiencing it as a tragedy, another as a crime-scene drama. The key is that its still a tale you've both shared. You can discuss the characters and events, even if you've seen it differently. And as a bonus, each tale would necessarily focus on different aspects. By discussing you'd be learning little details that had been hidden from you. Instead of locking us into introverted worlds, procedural generation could encourage us to share our entertainment experiences with friends.

The point, ultimately, is that this would be a different form of narrative then what we've seen. Its interactive, either directly with the software or in the context of our social groups. And I think that's why I'm so enamored with the idea. Its not that regular human created content isn't wonderful, its that with a computer behind the design, you can try things you never could have before. And that's the part of technology I love, the exploratory rush of moving the impossible into the actual.

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