One of the most novel games I've discovered this year is The Kraken Wakes, developed by Charisma Entertainment.
The game is an interactive adaptation of the sci-fi horror novel written by John Wyndham in the 1950s. But what makes the game unique is the fact you can actually converse directly with its characters. That's right, rather than selecting multiple choice responses, you can type your own responses or even speak them into a microphone! Charisma have developed an AI system that allows their NPCs (Non-Player Characters) to respond to whatever you say to them. Not only that, but what you say will have an impact on the characters and their relationship with you. If you are mean to them, they may become hurt and be less welcoming to you. They will also remember what you say to them and even quote it back at you.
I got to play it for about an hour at WASD, London. In that amount of time, I managed to develop a sacred bond with a veteran fisherman, start an office rivalry and embarrass myself in front of my editor!
I left WASD feeling I needed to know more about Charisma, how this kind of gameplay is possible and its wider applications.
I caught up with Charisma CEO, Guy Gadney, to talk about this innovative new approach to storytelling in games.
How Kraken's NPCs Operate
We started out by talking about the difference between the Charisma powered NPCs in The Kraken Wakes and chatbots such as Chat GPT and character.ai. For Guy, the key difference is that Charisma's NPCs acknowledge and use context. What that means is that they understand if you've met before, what your relationship is and, crucially, how to move the plot forward.
He joked that "bumping into a whole series of Alexa's would be catastrophic.” Charisma, on the other hand, is built with both creativity and gameplay in mind. When the AI responds to you it is able to do so within the context of the game's story and what you have said to it previously.
He spoke of the challenges of structuring a game with such divergence using the analogy of a skating rink. In this analogy, the core story runs along the bottom of the half pipe. Players can choose to divert from this line and go up the pipe, taking the story in new directions with them. Gravity will inevitably bring them back down to the core story but they can keep going up and down the half pipe, having all kinds of adventures as they go.
Designing The Kraken Wakes was in part a question of how much freedom to give the player to branch away throughout the story. Sometimes it was a case of grouping responses into particular categories to control the amount of pathways forwards. Other times, there were so many things that could happen they would have the AI be less constrained. This would mean more improvised responses, like having a conversation with Chat GPT.
The result is a game with such divergent storytelling that everyone is bound to have unique experiences and relationships.
The History Of Charisma
I felt that to better understand Charisma, I needed to understand its history.
Guy first came up with the concept while he was running a start up in Australia. At that time, he and his team were doing a lot of work with online multimedia platform, Second Life. Whilst designing characters and worlds, they decided to give one of their characters chatbot capabilities. The intention was that this character would be used to welcome players to their world. But it ended up becoming such a popular character, players would spend hours with them!
Realising just how engaging this kind of NPC could be, they wondered what they could do if they added a story to this kind of responsive character. Far from this pleasant welcome character, Guy and his team challenged themselves to create a scenario where you're face to face with a Hannibal Lecter style serial killer. In this scenario, the player would need to steer the conversation and complete objectives.
Guy was pleased with the results saying, "When you put a narrative on top of it... suddenly you have tension and you have pace associated with that interaction."
However, this required a lot more work than his previous chatbot character. To get this simulation to work, they used a mixture of IBM tech, Word, Excel and mindmapping software. It was a slow and painful process that ended up taking 18 months to complete.
It was clear that if they wanted to continue to make these kinds of characters and these kinds of games, there needed to be a system to do so. That system would become known as Charisma.
Wider Benefits Of Charisma
The Kraken Wakes was a great showcase for the use of Charisma AI in a fully fledged video game. But Charisma has been used in so many more ways than I had realised.
We discussed Charisma's surprising collaboration with theatre productions. These came about in 2020 when theatres were looking for Covid-compliant ways of engaging their audiences.
One such collaboration was an online performance of Alice in Wonderland. This featured a mixture of live performances and Charisma powered characters like the Cheshire Cat. He also spoke of Swamp Motel which give audience members the ability to speak with coma patients powered by Charisma.
We also spoke about Charisma's educational ventures. Working with Oxford University, they created a version of Romeo and Juliet adapted for modern audiences. With the University of Ulster, they produced a training program for parents of autistic children. These programs allow parents to practice difficult conversations in a safe environment. Guy also mentioned they were working with a publisher in the USA to create interactive versions of wellbeing books.
On top of that, Charisma is helping to break down barriers to participation in games. Guy mentioned that they were working with a London VR project called Story Features to create VR for the blind. At first this might sound like an impossibility. They achieved this through the use of audio and voice recording, cutting out the need for visual interfaces. Such technology could also allow people who struggle with literacy and fine motor control to engage with games.
Another fascinating feature of Charisma we explored was its potential to teach social skills. Referencing Jesse Shell, an American video game designer, he spoke of above and below the shoulder actions. Video games tend to focus on below the shoulder actions: things like running, jumping and punching. Meanwhile, Hollywood tends to focus on above the shoulder actions: things like language, laughter and emotional reasoning.
Charisma provides more of a space to engage in above the shoulder actions when dealing with NPCs. You really have to think about what you say as your words will have long and short term implications. Speaking about conversations between Charisma staff members after playing Kraken, he says "To me, it was wonderful because it was talking about empathy and talking about how you feel about characters rather than getting out a gun and shooting them."
I have to admit, whilst playing the game, I did get a little cheeky with the NPCs. Normally I'd be able to get away with stuff like this in other games. But here, the NPCs would remember that and feed that back to me, reminding me that the words I choose have consequences.
The AI Debate
We also spoke about the recent accelerated development in AI and the fears and opportunities surrounding it.
On the one hand, Guy welcomes the fact that AI is getting more and more recognised as a creative tool. But, he also recognises there is a lot of animosity about this new technology. With AI able to produce art and writing content quickly, there have been worries that it may start taking away jobs from artists and writers.
As he puts it "The whole principle behind Charisma was to be a tool for writers to create new forms of storytelling." Whilst developing Charisma, Guy and his team set up four different writers’ rooms (including the BBC and a few universities). The purpose of these were to establish Charisma as a tool to support creative professionals.
When responding to the fears about AI, he made the point that whilst AI is becoming a useful tool, it simply can't do what a good artist can do. He used the example of creating tension in writing. An AI would be very literal in its interpretation - most likely having a character tense up and say they're tense. But a good writer would use more subtle tools to convey tension, making use of subtext, in a way that is far more impactful. You may have heard other stories on the internet about AI's limitations and the gaffs caused because no one’s checked their work!
The trouble with using AI at the moment is that the debate is very binary. There are views that are widespread within creative industries and technology industries that aren't communicating with each other. Guy spoke about how he wishes that there was greater widespread education on the topic of AI. He cited Finland as a country that has striven to understand AI and has taken steps to educate everyone about it. For other countries, it seems a case of fearing what we don't understand.
What Charisma Can Do For Creatives
I was amazed to discover that despite being a complex system, Charisma has services that are free for anyone to use!
I got familiar with some of their story creating features on their website. If you feel like you want to create a game on their website, you can do so without any prior game-making experience! If you produce something you're proud of, you can then share it on their app. Or, if you want to play games others have made, they are all on the app free to use!
Guy referred to this public service as 2D sandbox mode.
I found this to be a great example of Charisma being a tool to help creatives, rather than something to replace us. Guy described Charisma as being the conduit of the story, one that takes away the weight and complexity he experienced in his early ventures!
We also spoke about what Guy referred to as the 3D projects. This refers to more large-scale projects for studios and developers that want to use Charisma for commercial ventures. It's exciting to think about what other games and creative ventures we might soon see that use Charisma AI.
The Future Of Charisma
Guy mentioned that Charisma currently has a lot of technological and commercial ventures in the works that they're excited about.
But he spoke about opportunities that aren't in the works yet. He feels that with more people discovering and striving to understand AI, so many possibilities are going to open up. With more people engaging with Charisma, he's also excited about the possibility of people using it in ways he hasn't even considered yet.
I'll leave you with a few parting words from Guy about where we're going with Charisma and AI:
"There are question marks, of course, as there are with any sort of new rapidly evolving change. But ultimately, I think you know, the creatives are still in the driving seat and that's what we want for storytellers, surely."
For anyone interested in checking out The Kraken Wakes, it is now available on Steam and you can access it using the link here.