In the poky, half-flooded offices of the English Broadcasting Company, a red telephone is ringing. You answer it. A woman’s voice asks anxiously, “Is anyone there?”
In any other game, you would expect her question to be followed by a series of dialogue lines for you to choose from, pre-written approximations of different approaches your character might take. “I’m here to help,” perhaps or, for the more abrasive, “What’s it to you?” But in The Kraken Wakes the text box is empty, waiting to be filled by you either through a headset or a keyboard.
An adventure game adapted from the 1953 John Wyndham novel of the same name, The Kraken Wakes is the latest beneficiary of Charisma’s revolutionary AI dialogue software. The British company has developed a platform capable of interpreting players’ custom contributions — however unpredictable or outlandish — and cleverly weaving them into the narrative in a way designed to feel natural.
And just as your input is entirely up to you, the responses you receive in return are dynamic too: some will pick up on keywords to deliver a range of scripted responses, but others harness OpenAI’s GPT-4 in order to fashion entirely original ones. It’s the first time the language model has been implemented in a game in this way, and it opens the medium up to a level of autonomy that was until now too time-consuming to tackle. ChatGPT may already be helping to secure undergraduate degrees around the world, but for game developers the technology’s full potential remains to be seen.
As a fledgling reporter for the EBC, you spend much of the game interviewing people (and I thought games were supposed to be escapist). When asked by an editor what I liked to read, I replied: “Detective stories”. “Oh, mysterious. Perhaps you’re to become our in-house investigative reporter,” came the response. Several minutes later, I heard the editor reference my choice to another character.
“I often talk about Charisma not as a dialogue engine but as a listening engine,” explains co-founder Guy Gadney. “Our strength is the ability to listen and understand what you’ve said and then respond to that.”
This freedom on both sides of the conversation marks a significant step forward, whether from pre-written cutscenes that play without input from the player (think Grand Theft Auto) or the kind of illusion-of-choice conversation trees that feature in Mass Effect and Disco Elysium. And while some text-based games have included parsers to interpret user input, none have been able to respond as dynamically and uniquely as The Kraken Wakes.
Even something as simple as hearing your name choice — I opted for Millicent — spoken aloud by characters makes a difference. When Fallout 4 was first released, the game’s robot butler Codsworth was capable of an impressive 922 spoken names; for anything outside his repertoire, however, he would default to “Sir” or “Ma’am”.
This level of immersion is accompanied by a sense of responsibility: things you say may affect characters’ moods or perceptions of you — things that may affect the story further down the line. So you must temper the desire to try and break the dialogue system too often in case it comes back to bite you later on. Or not. “Everyone tries to break it,” says Gadney. “Writing around that, knowing that it’s going to happen, is really good fun.”
Charisma is not designed to replace the writer, of course. Gadney likens it to a half-pipe along the bottom of which players must travel, but whose slopes offer latitude in terms of approach. Ultimately, a human is still needed to create that world, carve out a structure and account for the decisions your character might take.
I first encountered Charisma’s technology in Saint Jude, an immersive theatrical experience that uses the software to allow the audience to participate in the performance, conversing with a comatose character through a computer interface. There, as in The Kraken Wakes, the software isn’t perfect. The fluency of the dialogue, generated via text-to-speech, sounds stilted compared with pre-recorded lines. And if your response is garbled or indecipherable, the game will eventually default to lines that try to move the plot along regardless. But, as often as this leads to frustration, it creates memorable moments, ones that feel unique to your experience.
The Kraken Wakes itself veers between charming and clumsy, but as a proof of concept, it could prove revolutionary. Forget finishing the main quest and moving on to the next game: what about relationships and responsibilities that could last weeks, months even? “There is no printing press,” says Gadney. “Stories are now unlocked and can breathe and can grow in ways that will be the challenge for the next generation of storytellers.”
‘The Kraken Wakes’ is available now on PC