Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hamlet on the Holodeck - Welcome, Captain Janeway

I've just finished reading Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (as you can probably see in my shiny new "Recently Finished Reading" column on the right) and I have one important thing to say:

Goodness, but Ms. Murray can turn a phrase.

Many of her chapters are peppered with the most delightful, wondrous and wonderful sentences that I have ever read in a non-fiction book.  She leads exquisitely from point to point to final culmination that, at times, feels like choosing stepping stones across a too-fast river, but always results in the warm glow of a friendly campfire at the far end.  She gets carried away in her writing, and takes you with her, until you reach what seems should have been the only logical conclusion all along.  I found myself often smiling as she made use of simile, and the last line of her second-last chapter (arguably the last chapter, since the last chapter is, in truth, more of a summary) almost - and I'm somewhat ashamed to say this - brought tears to my eyes, before I remembered I was in a public library, and I was reading a book about hypertext narrative.

But enough of a fangirl moment from me - despite the fact it took me almost a month to read, between work and other commitments, what Ms. Murray presents has become a little forlorn in its predictions for the future, as does any speculative work when faced with the truths of technology.  Ms. Murray is fascinated by alternate realities in which the active participant has a say, from screens that register the interactor as part of a pre-devised scene to her idea of a Babylon 5 MMO where players could  be any of a number of races and interact to take part in plots running parallel - in real-time - to those happening in the show.  "What happens when the TV screen goes blank?" she seems to ask.  "That's where the internet should step in."

Her vision of an idealised future is so strong that, really, what more brought me to tears than either having finished the book, suffering from that anxiety we all face when something wonderful comes to an end, or a particularly beautiful sentence, is this simple fact : none of if came true.

Like reading a fairytale in which Cinderella remains a maid, or Sleeping Beauty never wakes up, I'm left with a sense of disenchantment with the  future - the now - that I live in.  It's been 13 years.  Where did all this technology go?

Watching some SIGGRAPH lectures recently, I was excited by some of the developments in cognitive/behavioural psychology that had yielded results that could be applied to AI.  What Ms. Murray reminds us is that we had ELIZA in the 60s, and have barely pioneered since then a realm that was not carefully constructed.  She goes into some delightful detail regarding Julia, the MUD-based chatter-bot, and Lyotard, the cat-like cat, but I ask the world the same question as Dr. Wilson - Where's My Jetpack?  Where's my emergent AI?

I remember the most exciting aspect of Oblivion, for me, in the previews of their AI system, was the endless possibilities.  They had a guard who got hungry while on patrol, so he shot a deer.  Shooting deer in the forest is illegal, so the other guards chased him.  Since all of the guards were gone from the town, people started looting.  The playtester returned to an entirely different town than the one they'd left, and all because of a bug. A simple bug, that made the guard act like a real person, and which was subsequently stamped out.

I know why they did it.  It''s unstable, it makes the game harder to play - though no more than every guard everywhere knowing that you've stolen something 200 miles away - and, to be honest, that was probably only one coherent example of many things that occurred.  But it, too, held such promise that, playing the final game, I was disappointed.  Had I never read of this ridiculous exchange, I probably would have been mightily impressed.

And this, I believe, is what Ms. Murray is asking us.  Yes, we've made amazing things, yes we've got a way to go - but why aren't we going there?  From what I can tell, research into AP (artificial personalities) has been usurped by the desire to make things prettier.  I'm not a programmer, but what Ms. Murray identifies is one of my dreams - to create a personality that acts based on its own inner desires and needs, and responds to the player in a meaningful way.  Why aren't we there yet?  Where did we lose the path?  There are so many possibilities.  What about an in-game help guide, as Julia was, but for World of Warcraft, or Aion?  Why must games be difficuult?  Why aren't we allowed to delight, any longer, in interacting with robots?  We seem to have lost a lot of our flexibility when we  moved away from text-based input.  Robots in choose-your-own-adventure-style conversations aren't nearly as entertaining.  The old chatter-bots might not have been convincing, but they were a lot of fun.

When did games become such serious business?

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