Tales from the Cultural Wilderness - Journal

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2001-12-05 Entry: "AI (Not Kubrick)"

Having jotted down the outline of a short Christmas IF game yesterday, I spent some of last night fleshing out the details a bit better, giving me a good idea of where to start.

However, as it appears to be rather NPC (non-player-character) heavy, it does sort of mesh with the current discussions on rec.arts.int-fiction, which center around the possible conversation interfaces available to Interactive Fiction.

The two main contenders are the Ask/Tell system, and a menu-driven alternative.

Ask/Tell is usually a mild extension of the old "Ask Dwarf about phoenix" paradigm, where the player can "ask x about y" and "tell x about y." This is extended to allow "x, do y" or more simply "x, y" for simple orders. Some small changes in this system have been seen, whereby the conversation can be guided either by setting the mood of the characters statements (re. Varicella), or by specifying a particular topic to talk about.

Menu-driven conversations seem to be the current trend - they're good for plot driven games where the conversation needs to be tightly scripted. Basically, the player initiates a conversation, and then is presented with a list of possible statements to make to that character. This is much like the conversations that the LucasArts games used.

Unfortunately, the menu-driven solution tends to be seen as less interactive (and this seems to be the wrong direction when talking about interactive fiction). Done well, the Ask/Tell system can provide as much characterization as the menu, but if done in a puzzle heavy game (where the sole purpose of the conversation is get some snippet of information to solve the next puzzle) it can lead to a frustrating "guess the noun" situation, where the player tries to determine what item he should ask about next.

Ask/Tell works very well in Galatea, where the sole objective is to talk to Galatea herself, but doesn't gain this depth of implementation in any other work (where it may end up being distracting to the plot).

The game I'm toying with would fit the menu-driven solution better (as, it's really a puzzle romp that the NPCs are in the middle of), but my personal preference is for Ask/Tell. I could of course implement both (and have the user select at the start?), but it probably won't be very Christmas-ey if released in July...

Anyway, I guess that's enough of a ramble about the current lack of artificial intelligence in interactive fiction - although it's AI relevance is only slight, and it's probably better to worry about the illusion of intelligence rather than actual implementation of same - as long as the guy behind the curtain is suitably hidden...

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