Chatbots as Narrative Platform

Recently I’ve been running into a fair amount of news/discussion about “conversation as a platform” and “bots as the new apps” — specifically, that people spend so much time texting that chatbots are a viable way to do advertising and storytelling and personal assistant functions all at once.

This means taking in natural language input (as opposed to the Lifeline-style experience, where the user is still pressing buttons to navigate a choice-based conversation). Historically,  I’ve tended to be skeptical about this because the error rate on chatbot output is high enough to make for a frustrating game experience.

All the same, there have recently been some developments on this front, partly because there’s now stronger AI for classifying natural language input, and partly because app discoverability problems make it appealing to embed content within chat platforms. Meanwhile, streaming means that there’s a greater audience for games that produce amusing results and accept idiosyncratic player input: here’s PewDiePie making Facade produce weird results.

What follows is a summary of some existing work I know about in this area. I wouldn’t be surprised to see quite a lot more come along.

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Attack of the Clockwork Army (Felicity Banks)

Attack of the Clockwork Army is a new Hosted Game at Choice of Games. It’s a steampunk Australian story by the same author who wrote IF Comp‘s Scarlet Sails and one of this year’s Windhammer Prize entrants, After the Flag Fell. And before I get any further at all, we need some disclosures.

Disclosures: Attack of the Clockwork Army is a hosted game released by Choice of Games, with whom I also have a contract. Moreover, I received a free copy of this game for the purpose of writing about it.

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IF Comp 2015: Scarlet Sails (Felicity Banks)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Scarlet Sails is a ChoiceScript game set in a fantasy pirate universe featuring several styles of magic that can aid you on your quest to become captain and collect treasure. The author also has a game currently in contention for the Windhammer Prize, After the Flag Fell.

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Windhammer Prize 2015: After the Flag Fell (Felicity Banks)

The 2015 Windhammer Prize is now running, which means you can download and play any of the 16 PDF gamebooks entered; if you play a reasonable number of them, you may also judge the competition by submitting a list of your top three favorites. (Full details are at the judging site.)


After the Flag Fell tells the story of the life of Peter Lalor, an Australian rebel and politician of whose life story I was embarrassingly ignorant before playing this game. As a piece of historical fiction, it’s pretty light: it serves up an intense-ish scene of battle and wounding and possible amputation at the beginning, but then backs off into a much more summary mode for recounting subsequent events, while allowing very wide branching of Lalor’s life. You can get married or not; you can enter politics (as the real Lalor did); you can run away and hide among Aboriginal peoples. One of the more sustained exchanges after the initial battle involves your romance with another character, and this is portrayed in a highly stylized fashion.

Even for a Windhammer book, this is a short piece. It uses only 63 of its permitted 100 nodes. Of those one is a choiceless introduction, one is a bit that isn’t reachable from anywhere and exists (I think) only to throw people off about how the romance plot might go, and four are easter egg nodes that contain authorial commentary. Brevity is fine, but in this case it also reflects a kind of oversimplification in the story’s later stages. Though the opening of the book suggests that it wants to explore why Lalor behaved the way he did and his effect on Australian history, the segments that deal with the political realities of his age are the briefest and least developed. For example:

“Forgive my impudence, sir, but are you sure you want to prevent women from voting? Your people elected you because they believed you would uphold democratic values.”

I refused to risk the good life I had. Letting women vote was too much.
Go to Page 38.

Under the circumstances, I signed the bill to let women have the vote.
Go to Page 26.

Presenting the situation so starkly gives little sense of how the contemporary people felt about this issue, what ideology (justified or not) might have supported each side, how the politicians were motivated, and how Lalor compared with his colleagues on the issue. So we’re left really only with our own inclinations on whether female suffrage is a good thing, and some of these choices felt to me a bit like “Do you like sexism Y/N?”

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