SAE Oxford students immerse themselves in interactive storytelling with Charisma.ai CEO Guy Gadney

11 Feb 2020

Guy Gadney is the CEO/Founder of Charisma.ai, which sits under the ‘To Play For’ umbrella. On 28 January, he visited SAE Oxford to talk about the platform’s applications to interactive storytelling.  

Charisma.ai’s goal is for people to stop and talk to characters - and there’s clearly an appeal for this sort of entertainment, evinced by the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend chatbot they created, where the average session lasted 30 minutes, with some users spending up to six hours doing text-based chat alone. What happens when you add other layers of interactivity to a chatbot, such as audiovisual content?  

Game Art Animation lecturer Aidan Coughlan said: “Guy gave us a great insight into how AI is being leveraged to further help to engage audiences with story-oriented content.”

To begin with, Guy ran the students through some of the common mistakes and pitfalls people make when launching a business. He emphasised the importance of the planning stage and said you should always think about an audience of one and an audience of one million - what happens when you scale your project? You need to run hypotheticals 24/7. Guy also talked about the importance of watching the cash flow at all times, and never assume anything because this is “the mother of all f**k ups”. 

Next, Guy explained the rationale behind the Charisma.ai service, explaining how a story is typically made up of a story world, a narrative, and the characters. He said there is immense potential in characters when you start to create interactivity. Charisma.ai uses AI (natural language processing) to create a responsive experience, where players’ personal reactions to scripted character speech guide the gameplay. 

He explained how the platform uses a similar note-based story system to Twine, with slider-based mood managers, and structural use of character, with subplots branching out from the main story spine (but remaining focused on the key plot). 

Game Art Animation student Andrew Walsh said: “I thought that the dialogue tree used in the program had an awful lot of potential to be used really effectively in a game scenario and did not seem too intimidating for someone who is new to game coding to use.” 

Guy noted how the company has vastly different aims to traditional voice control devices such as Alexa or Siri - as the parent companies of these devices (Amazon and Apple) want to get people into a retail marketplace as soon as possible, whereas game developers want people to spend as much time interacting with what they’ve created as possible. 

Guy talked about Netflix’s Bandersnatch, and how the Black Mirror episode provoked the entertainment industry to start thinking more about interactive story-telling. He reflected on the need for the user to feel like they are in control of the game (which many users expressed feeling a lack of after playing Bandersnatch). He explained to students that with Charisma.ai, the base story is the spine and subplots are the vertebrae, and it’s important that any interactions keep moving the plot forward. 

Guy talked about how his previous company worked with Hartswood Films to create an interactive game revolving around Sherlock. The central story is that Mrs Watson goes missing and you need to help Sherlock find her over the course of 10 mini-episodes. Charisma.ai shot video snippets with the cast, as they wanted the characters to be dynamic, with Benedict Cumberbatch and the other actors responding to what the user is doing. He said that the challenge creatively was that everyone brought their own personal expectations, having watched the TV show. 

He ran the students through some of the projects his team has been working on, including a psychopath character who you interact with in The Suspect. Guy did a live demo of the game, showing that the Charisma.ai platform has the functionality to use geo-location to import real-time weather to make conversations more believable. The render time is 1.5 - 2 seconds regardless of whether you use short or long sentences, making it feel almost exactly like a face-to-face conversation. 

There is a huge amount of psychology involved in a game of this kind e.g. the opening line “I bet you’re wondering why you’re here” draws on the Barnum effect, where individuals give high accuracy ratings to statements that are supposedly tailored specifically to them, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people (it’s a concept predominantly applied to star signs). 

Guy said when natural language processing and the underlying story structure works well, a character should never have to say ‘I don’t understand’ - they should always be able to guide the player back to a relevant subject matter. There’s also the expectation that a character should respond appropriately e.g. if you asked a psychopath what their favourite fruit is, they would probably tell you to f**k off! 

Game Art Animation student Alex Harper said: “I found Guy’s talk very insightful regarding the future of AI technology and how it can be used to create interactive and responsive storytelling.” 

   
 

"I FOUND GUY'S TALK VERY INSIGHTFUL REGARDING THE FUTURE OF AI TECHNOLOGY AND HOW IT CAN BE USED TO CREATE INTERACTIVE AND RESPONSIVE STORYTELLING."

- ALEX HARPER, GAME ART ANIMATION STUDENT

   

 

Charisma.ai is also working to turn a graphic novel into an interactive experience. For this, the company researched the three countries renowned for their graphic novels (America, Japan and France). Since graphic novels are all about speech bubbles and rely on the reader being able to take in a page in its entirety before ‘zooming in’ to read the text, Charisma.ai have had to educate an entire industry of writers about how to approach this medium, hosting writer’s workshops with people from a range of different backgrounds - from Film, TV and theatre, to the games industry. 

Guy also spoke about the company’s work on Bulletproof Interactive, which is going to be released in March 2020. This was a collaboration with Sky UK and Vertigo Film to create a game based on the Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters TV show.  

Recently, the company even took part in a discussion between prominent comedians and scientists - trying to figure out whether AI can be used to generate comedy. Guy explained that the technology can’t do this yet, particularly because comedy works on surprise e.g. Jimmy Carr gets more laughs when he makes himself vulnerable to the audience. He said that surprise in any medium is fundamentally very human, as to surprise someone requires huge amounts of knowledge/context. 

Ultimately, the purpose of Charisma.ai is to let people use the storytelling mechanism however they want, which is why the company is working towards making it compatible with Unreal/Unity. Guy would also love to be able to pitch to the Nolan brothers and use the technology to bring Westworld to life.  

But making the platform available for people to use as they see fit comes with a certain level of corporate responsibility. Guy has written extensively about AI and its ethical implications and said to SAE Oxford students that ultimately Charisma.ai is a tool which does have the potential to do harm - especially since deepfake capabilities are rapidly advancing. The company is wary of this and has adopted the PIIE framework (purpose/intent/impact/experience) put forward in the AI ethics It Speaks report, which was commissioned by Canadian games innovation organisation ReFig.ca. 

Overall, Guy’s talk was a very thought-provoking and stimulating presentation from a company that evidently has the potential to transform the entertainment landscape.  

Game Art Animation student Aidan Whiting said: “The talk was really interesting and gave an insight into what it's like to be involved in a smaller developing company in the games industry. I also found the section about the AI technology intriguing to imagine ways in which it can be implemented into games in the future.” 

Fellow student Emma Watts said: "I enjoyed the talk we had from Guy Gadney, as the technology he showed us was very similar to software I have used before to create interactive stories, except even more smooth lined and in-depth! I signed up immediately to follow as it is updated." 

We hope to see Guy at SAE again soon, and look forward to following the company’s projects in 2020.  

Find out more about Charisma.ai here.

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