Shakespeare in Simlish? Responsive Systems and Literary Language

Abstract (in English): 

There is a moment that can happen when reading/playing an interactive fiction. The system just presented some text, perhaps quite engaging or even beautiful. And then one tries to reply, using some of the same language, only to receive an error. The underlying system doesn't can't hear the language with which it speaks. The language it displays is written ahead of time, while the language it receives must be parsed and acted upon at runtime.

There is something uneasy about this disjuncture, and one response is to try to avoid all such problems. Will Wright's Sims speak only in gibberish sounds and visual icons, so that the surface representation of language matches the very simple internal representation of what they can discuss. Chris Crawford currently plans for his new storytelling system to avoid the construction of English-like sentences found in Storytron — instead moving to an icon language intended to help players better understand the internal representations (much more complex than those in The Sims) on which his story system will operate.

But surely there must be alternatives. Much of the power of writing is in the construction of natural language — not simply the conveyance of plot structures, characters, and other things such an icon language might help convey. Can't our field pursue both?

One alternative is to remove language from what a responsive system acts upon. In node-link hypertext, the system operates on nodes and the (potentially evolving) connections between them, with text displayed as a function of the current node. In systems such as Text Rain (or my Screen collaboration) the system operates on physical objects with text mapped upon them. These can create powerful experiences, and are perhaps the most artistically successful options at the moment, but they also seem like sidestepping the problem.

So what might a responsive language alternative look like? I think there are two. One is to find ways to engage interactively with language itself, language that somehow follows linguistic rules, rather than language that operates like physical objects. I've been involved in some collaborations in this direction.But what if we want language in systems that operate according to the logics of their fictions? What if we want language to work with a system that doesn't just operate thematically in a manner in concert with the fiction, but perhaps allows interactions with characters or shaping of plots?

I am currently involved in two projects exploring this direction. One, Prom Week, is discussed in detail in a separate proposal from Aaron Reed. It uses a template-driven language system. Another, Character Creator (a collaboration with Marilyn Walker and others) is a project attempting to make deep natural language generation (NLG) technologies useful for writers, enabling them to have characters respond to a much wider variety of potential situations than it would be possible to write dialogue variations for by hand. I hope to present some of our current results and then talk about some of my intuitions for the future — including my belief that successful NLG for writers may look something like successful procedural animation for visual artists.

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

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Eric Dean Rasmussen