(Post edited following a brief hiatus off the site)
“A Ken Loach Soap-Opera, Improvised by Robots.”
We’ve launched our next project for Channel 4 Education. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a decade, but it has taken some serious planetary alignment to make real. And because of the the brains making it, it’s way better than I ever thought possible. So we’re pretty excited.
We’re telling stories—primarily on linear video—using a video game engine (The Sims™ 3). It’s a tale of four housemates and their ups and downs; their ambitions and their dreams.
So, machinima, right?
Machinima sees people using game engines as cinema soundstages. You write the script, you make a storyboard showing how every shot will be positioned, you position the actors and cameras and you keep shooting until you’ve got the footage you need. It’s using game characters as puppets, mastered by humans.
We are doing something completely different. Something fitting the driving spirit Will Wright built into his pioneering simulation games—emergence.
There’s no plot in a simulation game; or rather, no pre-planned story. Instead, dramatic gameplay emerges from the complex interactions between the algorithmic expressions of personalities, ambitions, and human foibles. It’s how life works. The game we’re using to tell stories is a version of life tuned to create simulated drama.
A game designer of sensitivity and talent—like Robin Burkinshaw—can carefully sculpt characters and situations and let them run, interpreting their actions in a beautiful and human way. This is what he did in the extraordinarily moving Alice and Kev (the story of two homeless people in a video game) and we’re delighted he’s doing the same on our new project.
Our project is nothing less than the first ever drama improvised by robots.
We’ve cast our characters carefully, given them very detailed character notes, ambitions and motivations and created a dramatic context. Now we’ll let them live their parts for six weeks. It’s more like Ken Loach directing virtual actors.
In keeping with the emergent nature of the drama we are also exploring a Darwinian approach to storytelling. From the same starting point every day we can run different versions of reality on different machines, each of which will mutate in different ways. The one showing the best adaptation to our dramatic needs is deemed most fit to become tomorrow’s starting point—although we sadly won’t be doing that this time round!
It’s whole new way of telling stories and we’ve had to invent many new methods of production for a different kind of drama; there are elements of ‘constructed reality’ and observational documentary as well as a sensitivity to the affordances of software as a collaborative partner. There are entirely different job positions we’re filling and some interesting technical hurdles to surmount (for example, we’ll need over 130TB of storage space at the project’s peak — which is a lot).
For the script-writing part of the project, we’ve drawn inspiration from The Magic Roundabout. When the BBC bought Serge Danot’s series back in the 1960′s they realised too late they had only bought the pictures—not the scripts. So Eric Thompson looked at the pictures and made up new ones. We have the advantage of Robin being the world’s best “AI Whisperer,” who will be interpreting our characters actions. This way we can make sure what goes to the final edit and the script will be fantastic drama—even though the plot lines are emergent. It worked beautifully in the pilot anyway! [edit: it's working beautifully in the real thing — check the link below!]
The final, glorious, piece here is that the project has a positive payload: mindfulness. The series was created as part of our continuing work exploring teaching techniques of resilience for teens.
The SuperMes forms a part of our SuperMe content system for Channel 4 education, commissioned by Jo Twist. Inspired by Alice and Kev by Robin Burkinshaw, it was devised by myself (Paul Bennun) and Jo Roach. Sean Coleman is producing the series and Ian Sharpe from Somethin’ Else is the exec.
Find out more at at http://facebook.com/playsuperme