Before television, before film, before books, stories were told by storytellers around campfires, in halls as theatre or simply as conversation between individuals. This ‘oral tradition’ had flexible stories that would be tailored to each audience, and perhaps even flexible enough to change based on interactions from heckling individual audience members. Before all the printed and filmed media that are mainstream nowadays, we had a much more flexible, more interactive way of telling stories. As technology came to the fore, it took away the old flexibility as we moved from narrowcast to broadcast, making audiences passive consumers.
Yet technology also brings with it opportunity. From the dawn of the written word, through to film and television, stories have evolved to fit their medium: books with chapters to break up large quantities of text, film evolving to make use of new technologies like sound, colour, digital, and television supporting live content and on-demand. With each of these media, it took time for creators to master their new tools and create new formats.
With the invention of the Internet and the Web, stories could be ‘meta’ linked for the first time — like an instant set of cross-references between books in a library. The first incarnations of these naturally focused on information rather than fiction stories because information is easier to link together than creative thought.
As we now become familiar with the Internet as a medium in its own right, more creative storytelling structures are emerging. The technology has opened up the opportunity to move from writing linear stories to connected non-linear stories, yet most experiments have been built on existing models rather than native new ones.
When we started to develop Charisma.ai as an interactive storytelling platform, we looked at the strengths of the Internet, and built from there. We also went back to the basics of storytelling to identify how recognized structures would best fit this new medium. We looked at how stories can be defined as a combination of story worlds, narrative and characters. Story worlds work well as places to explore, but are expensive to produce. Narrative, in interactive fiction, takes more of a back seat given the audience’s involvement in shaping it. Leaving us with characters and how to combine them with the strengths of the Internet — a medium that opens up the possibility of bringing characters to life through communication. With Charisma.ai this shifted the story from being a monologue from the author, to it being a dialogue between the character and the audience.
The premise that characters are central to a good story is age-old. Despite all the new technology, our experience with this is no different. We have found that interactive stories that are character-led engage audiences because they offer a unique experience.
Our experience on previous projects showed us that audiences love it when they can talk to their favourite characters. Rather than seeing the story unfold at arms length, audiences are immersed in the story, building relationships with the characters.
As so much of our own lives revolve around our online personas, and our primary sources of news and information is the Internet, it makes it easy for us to suspend disbelief in a fictional online story. When Sherlock turned to the audience in the show’s mobile app, he broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the audience through the screen: a common reaction to his words (“you smell”) was to blush. Proof not just of a connection but emotional engagement with the character!
This is the foundation on which Charisma.ai has been built. We believe that there is a powerful new form of storytelling emerging that is enabled by Internet technology and artificial intelligence. The baby steps can be seen by systems like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and the systems being used for customer call centres; but these miss three key elements: Context, Character and Conversation. Alexa does not change mood as a real character does. Google Home does not know its own context in the world, or even in your home. But, most importantly, they have all been built to support rapid question and answer scenarios — not to hold a conversation. These are fundamental limitations for these systems. Context, Character and Conversation are hardwired into the Charisma.ai platform ready to be embedded in the stories produced.
Charisma.ai was built to harness the power of new technology for storytelling to evolve and enable storytellers to unleash their imagination. The stories created on our platform can be used to engage audiences within interactive narrative games (a rapidly growing genre across all platforms), in VR, via mobile or as a simple online story.
As Charisma.ai and our community of writers grow, we expect to see new forms of narrative emerge — new entertainment experiences, new characters and new groundbreaking stories. Our vision is to provide the platform for these stories to emerge, and it is already exciting to see the directions in which writers are taking stories on the Charisma.ai platform.