Digital Bonsai: Hands-Free Storytelling

A game designer introduces three examples of computer-generated storytelling, one with a sardonic Thanet twist.

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© 2016 Epytome / Used With Permission

Making a branching story in a program like Twine is an efficient way to sketch out ideas for larger projects and explore settings which would otherwise require a lot of expensive artwork.

I like making Interactive Fiction – or IF – but I don’t consider myself a writer by any stretch. The next 600 words will review some of my forays into procedural storytelling through IF and Twitter Bots – and if either of those terms are meaningless to you, hopefully they won’t be by the time we’re done.

We’re All In This Together reluctantly became a piece of Interactive Fiction in early 2015, and the final version was uploaded in October. Created in a popular program called Twine, WAITT tasks you with investigating the outbreak of a hallucinatory disease in a near-future London. Having never felt that confident in writing prose, I avoided the standard choose-your-own-adventure-book model. Instead, the story unfolds primarily through e-mail correspondence, as well as the use of “NeuroWare”; a convenient bit of cyberpunk gubbins which enables users to re-live the memories of others through snippets of text. Memory fragments are shuffled into haikus, and the aim is to use these to discern which patients require quarantine.

The result is a 30-minute exploration of paranoia and social anxiety – or perhaps just an excuse for the author to shuffle together needlessly gross phrases like a pound shop William Burroughs.

Whether or not the end product is really any good, the enjoyable thing about this sort of project is that it continues to throw out unexpected combinations long after you’re done with it. You vaguely remember feeding in the words, but unexpected combinations can be disarmingly disturbing or touching. You can play it at here.

More recently I’ve developed a love for Twitter bots – more specifically prose bots. These can be produced with very little programming knowledge using a wonderful site called cheapbotsdonequick. Prose bots are the less interactive, yet more sociable cousin of IF. Mine are made by feeding grammatical structures and content lists into the site, which uses these to generate tweets at regular intervals. They’re not particularly fancy, and whether or not they’re successful is really a matter of how much care you give them after they’re launched out into the wild.

A Strange Voyage is an “endless nautical story generator” which set sail in February of 2016. It tells the story of refugees in a water-world inhabited by bizarre animals and clanking machines. The engine for these little vignettes has no real memory – the passages aren’t connected in any way, but still the bot’s followers seem to rejoice with the voyagers whenever they catch a particularly tasty batch of eels, or narrowly avoid a run-in with an imperial battleship.

Although the bot has been going for a few months now, I regularly log in to add or remove content. A few weeks ago, Strange Voyage was given a concept of treasure, of ornamental weapons or, as in one tweet; “black pearls, cut to resemble crabs”. Maintaining a prose bot is a process of feeding and pruning – a little digital bonsai tree, forever imperfect and unfinished but out in the open and ready to be enjoyed by anyone. The more it grows, the more different concepts are able to cross-pollinate. A new type of metal becomes a descriptor for the moon, or for the scales of fish. Synonyms for “angry” initially meant to describe a person can be fed into passages describing weather, and so on.

Thanet Guide follows a similar format but speaks from the perspective of a survivor in a post-apocalyptic Thanet. The nameless protagonist recounts nights in barricaded Job Centres, run-ins with mutated wildlife, and encounters with other scavengers. The tone is obviously darker than Strange Voyage, but also more slapstick. The survivors of Thanet, now cut-off from the mainland, build ominous shrines to Terry Wogan, decorate themselves with archaic branding, and will bludgeon you to death for a Caramel Freddo.

Someone has remarked that Thanet Guide reminds them of J. G. Ballard, and the bot has decided to take that as a complement. Come and join us on our voyages and see what you think.

A game developer and researcher from Ramsgate. Joe enjoys making games and music, and having bad opinions on things.

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