Conversational experiences: testing free-text entry with Charisma.ai
Charisma.ai is an interactive storytelling platform that powers a different way of constructing stories. Creators can author experiences and characters that adapt and change depending on what the user says, using its free text entry and ‘memory’ and ‘mood’ functionalities. You can read more about the tool itself here.
We licensed Charisma.ai in 2018, as we wanted to continue our previous work exploring the possibilities and challenges of interactive storytelling and putting the control of the story in the hands of the audience. With Charisma.ai specifically, we wanted to see if its functionalities appeal to the audience more – do people engage in the same way because of the memory function? Is there an element of surprise of having things you’ve said repeated back to you?
While Charisma.ai’s simple node-based interface makes it easy to create a simple interactive experience, compelling and engaging stories still require strong characters and narratives. We soon realised what we really needed to effectively test this tool: professional writers! Therefore, for this project we partnered with BBC Writersroom to trial the tool with some of their writers. We held a couple of workshops to introduce them to the tool technically, but also to introduce them to writing for interaction. We chose two stories to develop into full prototypes, ‘Catfish’ and ‘The Act’, which you can try for yourself over on BBC Taster.
Writing in this way is still relatively novel for a number of creators and a far cry from creating a linear experience. Neither of the writers we worked with had experience of writing interactive narratives, so we were really interested to see how they found the process, as well as learning how to use a new piece of technology.
When creating interactive content there are a few key things to consider. The audience needs to have agency to feel that they are in control of what they are doing and why they are doing it. These choices also need to be meaningful and have purpose. Feedback is also crucial in keeping the user engaged. A combination of these three elements will make the interactions an enjoyable, exciting experience and not feel like work. A free-text entry tool like Charisma.ai offers huge possibilities to achieve these aims. The user has full control and agency to write whatever they like and the character will respond, or feedback, accordingly, driving the narrative in the direction that’s been chosen.
However, this in itself presents a hurdle. As the user can write literally anything they like, the task of the creator also includes trying to anticipate a list or selection of choices that the user might make, which in theory could be infinite. If the narrative is too open users can get ‘lost’ or confuse the AI as it doesn’t recognise what has been said. If it’s too controlled the user will lose their sense of control and feel as though they are being lead down a particular path. It’s a delicate balance to find and can be quite a learning curve. As one of our writer’s put ‘using Charisma AI has given me a fantastic opportunity to explore a different form and discover that, ultimately, the player has as much of a part to play as the writer as I do.’ (Alys has written a blog post about her whole experience, which you can read here. )
Taking Alys’ comment into account, trialling, developing, play-testing, and publishing two experiences created with Charisma.ai., has highlighted how experiences of this type are never fully ‘finished’. Charisma.ai’s analytics system allows the author to see the choices the user has made, which outcome they reached or did not reach, how many times they played etc.. This allows them to constantly improve and iterate on their work as a living organism, which is quite a unique way of creating a piece of published content.
This leads on to some of the challenges that were unearthed throughout this process, specifically from a production or commissioning perspective. The world of authors and screenwriters has not quite caught up with the digital world in terms of business models. For example, where a writer would traditionally be paid per word or by the length of the TV programme, negotiating this for a piece of content that can be a whole variety of lengths and levels of depth is new territory.
We’re continuing to trial interactive narratives in BBC R&D through a few different tools on BBC MakerBox. While there is a lot to learn and experiment with when it comes to making these types of experiences, done well, the results can be incredibly powerful and rewarding for both the user and the creator.