A Disruptive Demo

Experimenting with Machine Learning & Story Games
by Chris Foster

Hi! I’m Chris, the Game Director at Hidden Door, and I wanted to share some work we recently presented at TechCrunch Disrupt late last year.

During the conference, we had the opportunity to chat with TechCrunch and walk them — and hundreds of others! — through a demo of some current story game concepts. It’s just a snapshot of a bunch of exciting work in progress, but I thought people might appreciate hearing some of context around the demo. Also, as the person who assembled the video and a former film studies major, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to provide “director’s commentary.”

Here's a link to the video. I'll refer to different sections using time codes.

Hidden Door demo video

NOTE: You may notice the video is silent. Our game does have music and sound effects, but no one can hear those when showing a demo in an expo hall 😉. Removing audio makes it easier to edit for pacing and assemble elements from different builds as necessary.

Conjuring a Story (0:00 - 0:26)

First we demonstrate our current concept for building stories — an experiment where you “conjure” a story out of a collection of cards.

The cards represent our approach to deconstructing a given work of fiction - here, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - into a set of composable elements.

  • Characters, locations, and plot and thematic elements are presented as a deck of cards you can “deal” into a tray to compose a story.
  • As you deal cards into the tray, the AI proposes a story premise that would involve those concepts, letting you decide what mix of cards provides a story you want to experience.

That idea of moving creation away from “think of something to type” to “playfully manipulate story concepts” is something you’ll see throughout the video. An interface can make a game joyful to interact with, or it can make it feel like work. We’re always looking for new ways to apply a playful approach to co-creation.

This is an initial set of cards we’re using to drive our first Oz story tests, and there are additional uses of the card concept that we intend to explore in the future:

  • Cards are containers for interesting story content. With some of them—such as for a character—you should be able to examine them to learn more about that character, and learn facts that show how they might influence any story into which they’re conjured.
  • Just as people play the same tabletop campaign with friends for months, if not years, we want to make it rewarding to enrich your world by telling story after story. If a world is a “deck” of these cards, then we want you to be collecting and evolving these cards after every story, to build a more interesting world. That loop of using cards to tell stories to earn more cards - not to mention sharing those cards with others - is a “deckbuilding” experience we want to explore.

Creating a Character (0:27 - 0:53)

As in any role-playing game, each player needs to take on a persona or player character within the world. Here again, we’re looking for fun ways to play with language, and the sort of “magnetic poetry” controls here are a fundamental interface for both creating characters and driving the story.

The promise of “you can choose whatever you want” is exciting in theory but can be paralyzing in practice. Part of our approach is to serve up contextually relevant choices for players, and provide optional ways to dig deeper into the possibilities we provide.

As with conjuring, we’re demonstrating another variation on co-creating with the platform: the player makes choices, and the AI elaborates on them in an improvisational way. Here you choose a role, and the AI generates a brief bio for your character, as well as an avatar. The demo distills the creation experience to the fewest possible steps; we’ll be adding features to let you influence and refine the character creation process, and to help you understand the capabilities of the characters it offers.

Fun Fact: This demo was recorded when our game had a mix of assets appropriate to Oz as well as some older, superhero-centric gear. That’s where the visor and mask come from. It also featured clown makeup that just loved to be applied to non-clown characters, which I edited around but will share here:

On an Adventure (0:54 - 1:42)

This section demonstrates an approach to presenting stories by mixing text and graphics into a sort of interactive graphic novel. The start of a story or scene is an important place to set the stage for the story to come, and this is an early take on how we can use minimal text, your characters, and some evocative imagery to create that effect. This is super early in development, and our approach is evolving daily!

At the end of the video, we give a taste of how players might interact with story. Again, we’re using word-tiles as a playful interface to serve up interesting choices for players. Then, we let the AI both transform the words you provide into a statement of intent and also seek interesting paths for the story to follow as a result of your choices.

You can see a prototype element: a simple spinner indicating that an intent may or may not succeed. In the full game we intend to connect that challenge interface to a given character’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the current story context. We don’t want to turn this into a crunchy game of numbers, but we do want aspects of your character to provide interesting constraints during a story, as constraints are a great way to fuel creative thinking!

What's Next

This demo video gives you just a taste of what we’re building, and is very much a snapshot of our progress at a particular point in time. Expect many changes and additions as we continue to build and test; we look forward to sharing more with you in the future! Last but not least, I want to give many thanks to the entire team at Hidden Door, who built everything on display here.

If you'd like to learn more, and be the first to know about early access, please do sign up and join our Discord community!