Michael Mateas is a co-director of UC Santa Cruz’s Expressive Intelligence Studio, which explores the balance between storytelling authored by humans and possibility spaces generated by AI technologies. The program emphasizes creating gaming experiences like Bad News and Prom Week which integrate cutting-edge AI technologies. The experiences that come out of the Expressive Intelligence Studio are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in interactive storytelling and indie gaming, and they show early signs of the future of immersive and interactive entertainment.
Mateas was inspired by Star Trek’s Holodeck vision of interactive entertainment, which he boils down to the following three characteristics:
- Autonomous characters with personality and emotion
- Story arc that changes and evolves over time
- The ability to interact with characters with natural language
Mateas met Andrew Stern at a conference about modeling subjective experiences of characters, which led to their collaboration on an ambitious gaming experience called Façade that attempted to implement all three of these design principles. Amazingly, they were able to create an interactive game with a model of subjective characters with zero-sum treatment of affinities, the player’s small decisions aggregated in ways to change the outcome of the story without explicit branch points, and they took natural language input as the primary mode of interaction with the experience.
Released in 2005, Façade is still one of the most ambitious and ground-breaking, AI-driven interactive narratives that’s a benchmark for interactive storytelling (listen to an interview that I did with co-creator Andrew Stern on the Voices of VR podcast.) It’s recently found a new resonance with YouTuber gamers who play through the brief experience while LARPing as a wide range of different personalities and strategies. Because the game takes natural language as an input, it’s a marvel when the reaction matches the intention behind the words, it’s funny when it doesn’t, and there are countless ways for finding creative ways to troll the main characters of Grace and Tripp. It’s a brief experience, but you may only experience 10-15% of all of the dialog sequences in a single play through, and so there is a lot of replayability to the experience trying to trigger all of the five different outcomes.
In laying out the landscape of interactive stories, Mateas says that he sees a number of types of stories including:
- Generative Stories where AI helps create a probability space for high-agency interactions
- Choose Your Own Adventure type of experiences with explicit choice points
- Traditional Authored stories with traditional character-driven story and plot
- Environmental Stories where the trace of the story is discovered through a non-linear open world adventure
In this podcast, I talk with Mateas about his journey into interactive storytelling, some of his early AI-driven experiments before Façade, and some of his latest work in modeling and simulate the subjective experiences of non-player characters.