Chat Bots and Game Plots
In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time.
If you’ve been online this past winter, chances are you’ve heard something about the rise of AI art. Whether you’re talking about ChatGPT for writing or Stable Diffusion for visual art, algorithmically-generated works have become more commonplace than ever. Since the video game industry contains both writers and visual artists, the rapidly-increasing viability of AI art has more than a few people nervous. Add in the numerous ethical concerns about the origins of the training samples, ownership, and attribution, and you’ve got a recipe for some touchy subject matter.
Much ink has already been spilled about the morality of AI art in the game industry, so I’m not too interested in retreading old ground here. What I am interested in is how viable the current tools are for generating potential game stories. This may seem like an odd position for a writer to take, given that AI threatens my work as much as any other artist’s, but I believe there’s merit in learning how tools work even if you don’t intend to use them. To paraphrase Sun Tzu: ‘Know thy enemy and know thyself, and against a hundred chatbots you will never be defeated.‘
Given the amount of time I spent on roleplaying game Chained Echoes (Matthias Linda, 2022), and the time I’m spending on Tactics Ogre Reborn (Square Enix, 2022), I decided to test ChatGPT by asking it to write the plot of an original RPG. ‘RPG’ is a vast category, however, so I narrowed down my request.
Prompt: Write a short plot summary for a new Japanese roleplaying game inspired by Final Fantasy.
ChatGPT: In “Echoes of the Crystal,” players take on the role of a young hero on a quest to save the world from an ancient evil. The game is set in a fantasy world filled with magic and mythical creatures. The hero starts off in a small village, but soon embarks on a journey to explore new lands and battle powerful enemies. Along the way, they will encounter a diverse cast of characters, each with their own unique abilities and stories. As the hero progresses through the game, they will learn new spells and abilities, and gain access to powerful equipment. Eventually, the hero will confront the main villain and discover the truth behind the ancient evil threatening the world. The game combines turn-based battles with a deep leveling system and a rich world to explore.
At a glance, this isn’t so much a plot as it is a generic template for almost every JRPG ever written. It’s also the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and a million other stories that follow a hero’s journey. Does that make it bad? Well, it depends. If your goal was to hit a button and get a perfect game plot, then yes, this plot is ‘bad.’ However, I’d argue that dismissing this template outright would be a waste, because we can learn from it if we play with it. After all, even the best writers aren’t producing perfect first drafts, so why should an AI?
When ChatGPT presented me with this plot—and I use the term ‘plot’ loosely here—the first thing I did was take stock of what was missing. Right away, the lack of a real protagonist jumped out at me. It’s not enough to have a ‘young hero’; they’ve got to have an identity and some motivations. So what are there?
Prompt: Give the young hero a name and a character motivation.
ChatGPT: The young hero’s name is “Aria.” Aria’s motivation is to uncover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of her parents, who were renowned scholars and researchers in ancient artifacts. Her parents were investigating a powerful ancient artifact that was said to have the power to control time and space. Aria believes that the artifact is connected to the ancient evil that is threatening the world. She sets out on a journey to find the artifact and uncover the truth about her parents’ disappearance, hoping to find clues that will lead her to the truth. Along the way, Aria discovers that her parents’ work was more important than she ever imagined, and that the fate of the entire world rests in her hands.
This character backstory is both horrifyingly cliched and annoyingly vague, but it’s got a few concrete details that we can work with. We’ve got a name (Aria), a history (missing researcher parents), and a motivation (find out what happened to the parents). The specifics will probably need to be changed at some point, because it’s hard to say anything new about missing parents in this particular genre, but it’s fine as a jumping-off point until we iron out the rest of the plot. And to do that, we’ll need a real antagonist.
Prompt: Tell me more about the ancient evil.
ChatGPT: The ancient evil in “Echoes of the Crystal” is known as “Chronos,” an entity that has existed for eons and has the power to manipulate time and space…Chronos is an ancient god-like being who was sealed away by powerful sages in the distant past, but now it has reawakened from its slumber and it seeks to destroy the world, as it is bent on destroying the timeline and creating a new one that would be under its control.
Here, you can really see the influences from other games in the genre coming into play. The name ‘Chronos’ and its variants might as well be banned from the genre based on how many times they’ve been used, and the sealing sages are a Legend of Zelda classic. There are also shades of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger/Cross in here (unsurprising, due to the time manipulation element), and I have no doubt there are other games with similar antagonists that I’m forgetting. Simply put, this bad guy is as generic as our good guy, but generic doesn’t mean unusable. It just means we need to do some more work.
Once I got a protagonist and an antagonist, I set to work fleshing out the cast. By requesting three teammates for Aria, I got Landon the veteran warrior, Kaida the tribe leader, and Elyse the dry comic relief with a mid-battle quip for everything. I left Landon and Kaida alone (though both needed some work), but Elyse sounded insufferable, so I told the bot to make her impulsive and headstrong instead of funny. Still generic? You bet, but I can tolerate it better than the initial pitch. Also, making changes yourself is how you can take a mishmash of tired cliches and unattributed ideas and turn them into something unique to you—something you can be proud to call your own.
With my cast established, I had a couple of different options. It would have been possible for me to explore the setting, themes, or plot beats at this point, but I’d already started asking myself a few questions about the characters I’d been presented with. The biggest question on my mind was why Landon, a so-called ‘veteran warrior’, would want to go on a journey with a young, inexperienced girl in search of her parents. I could have come up with a couple of reasons on my own and told the bot to integrate them into the story, but I wanted to see if the bot had any suggestions first.
Prompt: Tell me why Landon decided to join Aria.
ChatGPT: Landon decided to join Aria because he recognizes her potential as a hero and sees that she is determined to uncover the truth behind her parents’ disappearance. Landon is a seasoned warrior and has seen many dangers throughout his life, but he senses that the threat of Chronos is greater than anything he has faced before. He believes that Aria is the key to defeating Chronos, and he wants to be a part of the quest to save the world. Additionally, Landon had a great deal of respect for Aria’s parents and he wants to help Aria find out what happened to them and continue their legacy. He also sees Aria as a chance to redeem himself from a past mistake and make amends for it.
Prompt: What was Landon’s past mistake?
ChatGPT: Landon’s past mistake is that he was once a member of an elite group of warriors, known as “The Crimson Blades”, who were tasked with protecting the kingdom from any threats, but Landon and his comrades failed in their duty and allowed an ancient evil to rise to power, leading to a great tragedy and many lives lost. Landon feels guilty and responsible for the tragedy, and he wants to make amends for it by using his skills and experience to protect others and make sure that such a tragedy never happens again. He also wants to ensure that Aria does not make the same mistake he did by providing guidance and support to her throughout her journey.
The more specific ChatGPI got, the more questions I found myself asking. Why does Landon recognize Aria as a potential hero, for example, or how does Landon know that Chronos is a greater threat than anything he’s faced before? But, ultimately, it was the last sentence that really interested me, so that’s the one I decided to interrogate further. The result I got was interesting. Not mind-blowing, but interesting. One thing to note is that it seems like ChatGPT either forgot that our ancient evil is named Chronos, or it decided there should be a second ancient evil lurking in the shadows of this story. Both have potential, but I’m a firm believer in a tightly-focused story, so let’s say that Landon’s Crimson Blades were the sages who failed to keep Chronos at bay. Why not, right? After all, we’re trying to turn this into a unique story, so let’s start stitching a plot together ourselves. Luckily, this new information about Landon’s backstory gives me just the inspiration I need to move forward.
If you’ve read a lot of the articles on Cutscene University, you might have noticed that I’m a big fan of John Yorke’s imagining of the Five-Act Structure in his writing guide, Into the Woods. In his version of the structure, Yorke emphasizes the importance of a story’s midpoint, as this is when the protagonist gains the critical knowledge that will shape the trajectory of the story. What if we use this point to tell Aria (and the player) that Landon, her trusted mentor, is a member of the group that freed the very monster she’s trying to kill?
Prompt: Write a mid-point where the Crimson Blade and Chronos turn out to be connected.
ChatGPT: At the mid-point of “Echoes of the Crystal,” Aria and her companions find an old journal belonging to one of Landon’s former comrades in the Crimson Blades. The journal reveals that The Crimson Blades were not only aware of the existence of Chronos but were also tasked with keeping it sealed away. However, they failed in their duty due to a traitor within their ranks who released Chronos and caused the tragedy that Landon feels guilty about. With this new information, Aria and her companions realize that Landon is not only trying to make amends for his past mistake but also is fighting to prevent the same tragedy from happening again. They also learn that the powerful ancient artifact that Aria’s parents were researching is the key to defeating Chronos and sealing it away once more. The revelation that Chronos and The Crimson Blades are connected also adds a new layer to the story and raises the stakes of their quest, as Aria and her companions now not only have to save the world from destruction but also bring justice to those who were responsible for the tragedy.
Well, would you look at that! Not only does Landon blame himself for the return of Chronos, it looks like Aria’s parents also play an important role in the story. Could they have been killed by the mysterious traitor as a way to restore Chronos to power? Could that mysterious traitor be Landon? Maybe he could be; maybe that would be yet another cliche. It’s a choice I get to make, like all of the rest of the choices that brought me to this point. Had I made different choices or asked different questions, Echoes of the Crystal would have an entirely different plot, and it will only get more unique from my unique decisions.
I asked the bot another dozen or so questions after this, picking away at the rest of the story’s plot beats, the setting, and the themes. I’m still not entirely happy with the output and I’ll bet I would need to spend another one or two hours finessing it before I got something I was happy with, but I’m impressed with how far I was able to take things just by knowing how and when to nudge. Over the course of one chat session, I went from having a generic outline with distinct characters to a story with a protagonist, an antagonist, and a connected secondary cast. Having said that, I only got that far because I’ve been studying storytelling for a long time, so I don’t think it’s going to replace me today. A year from now? Maybe, but in the meantime, I’ll keep tinkering with it, learning from it, and always asking questions.
Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief
Frequently used in theater, Five-Act structure marks the midpoint as the height of tension, rather than the closing.
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