Quantum Authoring for "Prom Week": What We Learned Writing Six Thousand Lines of Procedurally-Driven Dialogue

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Abstract (in English): 

"Prom Week" is an innovative new social simulation game from the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz. Unlike other social games like The Sims, Prom Week's goal (as with its spiritual and technological predecessor, Fa├žade) is to merge rich character specificity with a highly dynamic story space: a playable system with a coherent narrative. When I was brought on board as the lead author a year before release, I had no idea the scale of work I was getting myself into: overseeing a team of (at times) eight writers to create over eight hundred hand-authored scenes tightly integrated with pre- and post-conditions, inline variation, and animation choreography. Each scene had to be specific enough to be narratively satisfying but broad enough to cover as wide a possibility space as possible, putting severe limitations on how dialogue could be written. As the project progressed, we developed a number of survival strategies for sharing authorship with algorithms, managing complexity (and coherency) in process-intensive fiction, and working with programmers to produce and refine the tools we needed to do this "quantum authoring." The result was a huge win for interactive storytelling: emergent character behavior and reactive stories from our cast of characters. In this talk I'll share key insights along with demonstrations of our custom authoring tool and unique gameplay moments.

Each Prom Week scene narrates a specific change in the underlying social simulation, which recreates (in painful accuracy) the last week before senior prom for a cast of eighteen high school students. Each type of social change--such as two characters breaking off a relationship, or one impressing another with his coolness--needs a pool of hand-authored scenes that instantiate this change dramatically. The most specific scene for a given situation is chosen, so in addition to a generic break-up conversation, authors could create more specific scenes (a break-up between two shy characters, or for a jilted boyfriend). Scenes are often dynamically personalized further through character-specific vocabulary and references to recent events. Characters are not authored directly, but instead given a set of permanent traits (clumsy, sex magnet), temporary statuses (popular, sad), and starting relationships with and feelings towards other characters. This bundle of definitions helps the system select an appropriate scene for each character to perform in a given situation. As writers, it was tremendously exciting to see the system start performing our characters correctly, without having to hand-tag scenes as being appropriate for specific characters. I'll show some examples of this happening in my presentation.

At ELO 2010 in Providence, we presented our initial thoughts on what authoring for Prom Week might be like ("Authoring Game-based Interactive Narrative using Social Games and Comme il Faut," Mike Treanor). We're excited to come full circle and share our post-mortem results with the electronic literature community.

(Source: Author's abstract, 2012 ELO Conference site)

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Eric Dean Rasmussen