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Can AI create compelling video game stories? Writers have their doubts

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

There can be hundreds of characters in a video game, and human writers script everything they say. Now tech companies and game publishers say artificial intelligence can write that dialogue instead and make video game characters more dynamic and interactive. But as NPR's Vincent Acovino reports, some video game writers are skeptical.

VINCENT ACOVINO, BYLINE: The tech company Nvidia recently showed off how all this might work. In a demo video, a real-life human player navigates his way through a cyberpunk-themed bar. He walks up to an AI-driven character named Nova and says hi through his microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SETH SCHNEIDER: (As Kai) Hey, Nova. It's good to see you. How are things?

ACOVINO: The character Nova then responds using generative AI.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AI-GENERATED VOICE #1: (As Nova) Things are fantastic. Just secured a juicy contract with Zenith and Sons.

SCHMITZ: So the human player turns then to the bartender with a request.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHNEIDER: (As Kai) Hey, Jin. You hear that? Nova just landed a big contract. Let's break out the good stuff.

AI-GENERATED VOICE #2: (As Jin) Ah. You got it, Kai. Nova's success calls for the top-shelf celebration.

ACOVINO: The AI bartender reaches into the fridge and sets a bottle on the bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHNEIDER: (As Kai) Ah. Thanks, Jin.

ACOVINO: Kylan Gibbs says tech like this, where players can interact with virtual characters in real time through conversation, could create a whole new genre of video game. He builds similar tools at his company Inworld AI.

KYLAN GIBBS: I think this kind of, like, changes what it ultimately means to be a consumer of media and kind of shifts that from being a consumer to a co-creator.

ACOVINO: So the promise is a writer would, for example, build the world, the setting, and the players' conversations with AI would enrich and deepen that story.

GIBBS: It means that every person ends up with something that is still, while being kind of beheld to the story and the core narrative and lore of the world - they're able to kind of look at it from different angles.

ACOVINO: A new survey of more than 3,000 video game developers says nearly a third use generative AI at their jobs, and Gibbs says he expects to see some new AI-powered games at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next week. But many writers are still hesitant about the lofty promises being made about the technology.

JOSH SAWYER: A lot of the demos, they - I'm not going to lie. Like, they seem impressive for a chat bot. And that's not nothing.

ACOVINO: Josh Sawyer is the studio design director at Obsidian Entertainment. It's a studio that has made narratively acclaimed games like Fallout: New Vegas, which takes place after a nuclear apocalypse.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS")

RON PERLMAN: When atomic fire consumed the earth, those who survived did so in great underground vaults.

ACOVINO: The game has hundreds of small characters that help create this big world, like this incompetent research scientist.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS")

ARI RUBIN: (As Fantastic) They asked me how well I understood theoretical physics. I said I had a theoretical degree in physics.

ACOVINO: Sawyer says the magic of his games is that the writing is, well, intentional.

SAWYER: The appeal for our players is that the characters feel very specific. The replies your character can give feel very specific. I'm not looking to make a lot of - I hate to say it, but generic dialogue.

ACOVINO: Joon Sung Park, an AI researcher at Stanford, says he doesn't think generative AI will take the place of human writers who come up with high-concept, compelling storylines. Instead, he sees AI making a game's many small characters and moments more complex, more dynamic.

JOON SUNG PARK: Where these agents are good at are in basically creating these believable, like, micro-moments. But they're likely not going to be used to create individual, like, really fun stories.

ACOVINO: Still, today it's human writers who craft a lot of the one-liners and the small talk that side characters say in a video game. And if AI does that instead, it might put some junior writers out of work. That's according to Xalavier Nelson Jr., who heads the indie game studio Strange Scaffold.

XALAVIER NELSON: When we eliminate positions for juniors, then that means that they don't become mid-level, which means they don't become seniors, which means they don't become the vibrant, creative voices and directors of tomorrow.

ACOVINO: That's why, for some, it's not whether AI can write a good story. It's more a question of, should it? Here's Eric Barone, who wrote and developed the farming game Stardew Valley.

ERIC BARONE: You know, 10 years from now, the AI might become so good at what it does that it's indistinguishable from the best, you know, human writers. I feel like we have to turn to almost, like, a spiritual element here, where we're like, you know, I want to play games made by human beings. Like, I don't want to play games made by soulless machines.

ACOVINO: It's an ethical question writers are confronting now, but players will face soon, and they'll have to decide whether games written by artificial intelligence are the games they want to play. Vincent Acovino, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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