• "When we first did this, however, we forgot to make the horse stop acting like a horse. Pretty soon there was a rash of server crashes because the horse inside the player was wandering around, picking up the stuff it found inside the player, rifling through the player’s backpack and eating things it thought were edible, and eventually, wandering “off the map” because the player’s internal coordinate system was pretty small, and the edges weren’t impassable." Games programming, folks.


10 February 2014

Time to write up something that’s been sitting around on various disks for a while.

Many months ago, I saw Plotagon. It’s best explained as Xtranormal by way of The Sims: reasonable resolution, 3D-animated videos based on scripts; a desktop tool to generate them, and a site to host them.

Most interestingly, it’s scripted with what actually looks like movie scripts, and that got me thinking: what would it look like to feed it with procedurally generated scripts? Could you make the machine make videos? All I knew was two things:

  1. I know, for good or ill, how Markov chains work.
  2. All the scripts for Friends are transcribed on the internet.

After all, given Plotagon’s focus on semi-realistic forms, I decided that it was best suited to the great American artform of the 20th century: the sitcom.

The Infinite Friends Machine was born.

The machines does a few simple things. First, it scrapes Friends transcripts. For now, it works for most of Series 1. It then parses those scripts and chops them up into episodes, scenes, and lines attributed to individual characters. It also strips out some directions. Then, using all that, it offers ways to generate new scripts.

Markov Chains, as Leonard has frequently pointed out, are not always the best way of generating text alone, especially when the corpus you’re working from isn’t particularly consistent. He is, of course, right. Still, I enjoy the mental leap readers make in order to make generative prose actually make sense, and for this project, I mainly wanted to get to scripts as fast as I could.

Still, I didn’t want to hamper their relative crudeness, so I tried to skew things in their favour. To that end, the Infinite Friends Machine generates scripts by copying the structure of existing scripts. When it makes a new “episode”:

  1. it finds the scenes that are in the original episode it’s being copied from
  2. for each scene, it finds each line – who says a line at what point in the episode
  3. then, it generates a new line for the speaking character from their own corpus. That is: Joey only ever things derived from Everything Joey Has Ever Said. What this means is that the main cast have quite diverse things they might say, and the bit players pretty much only say the same thing. Gunther is quite boring.

That’s it. A few seconds later, it spits out a nonsensical episodes of friends. Here’s a scene:

Friends script
and this is a full episode.

The machine isn’t online because it’s quite crude and processor-intensive, but you can get at the sourcecode from Github.

Anyhow: machine to generate scripts. Next stage: get them into Plotagon.

This was where my troubles began. For starters, despite having a nice format for scripts, Plotagon really demands you enter them via its UI – you can’t paste a big block of text in, you have to enter it by hand. Painful.

Next: Plotagon only lets scenes have two characters in. I decided to make a single scene – the tag on the end of the episode. But this turned into many scenes in Plotagon, as four people in an apartment was a bit much for it. I had to keep track of who was where, who was talking to whom at any point.

And then I had to deal with the unfortunate truth: Plotagon is horrible. I mean, Xtranormal used its non-realistic avatars and computer-voices to comic extent. By contrast, here we had disappointing voice acting with clunky visuals. Also, I had to add some ‘acting’. This largely consisted of making Chandler say everything whilst doing the (crazy) emote, to really capture that Series 1 Matthew Perry vibe.

A quick sting later, and Infinifriends S1E1 existed:

It is not exactly high art.

Just one scene took long enough, and I think, proved my point to an extent, but probably can’t be improved on for now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to the Infinite Friends Machine, but it was an entertaining enough exercise, and the video rendition is probably worth it for the cringe factor alone.

Theme tune. Credits. Tune in next time.

  • Great article from Jeff Minter on the journey from 70s vector art, 80s vector games, through to the (excellent) Tempest 2000 – including some great stuff on embracing the Jaguar's chips and instructions to make beautiful weirdness – and onwards through Nuon and Space Giraffe to TxK on the Vita. A really lovely balance in the article of coding voodoo, focusing on gameplay, and always wanting to make things both weirder and prettier. (Incidentally: I loved T2K when I first played it, but playing an original Tempest cab at Ground Kontrol was a special moment – striking how much a spinner changes that game). Definitely recommended.
  • "At last week’s Game Developers’ Conference I delivered a talk titled “AI-driven Dynamic Dialog”, describing the dialog system used in Left4Dead, Dota, and basically all of Valve’s games since The Orange Box." This is a brilliant talk – really worth going through the PDF for. In a nutshell, it's how the Left4Ddead conversation works – something I tried emulating with my Twitter bots a while back – but also sheds light on how I could have sped up some of the decision-making code on Hello Lamp Post. It's also good on what designing (andwriting) for this kind of work looks like. Might have to write something longer on this.
  • "I think as experienced game developers / engineers / artists / makers, we don't realize how we've developed strong senses of "vision" — the ability to visualize and maintain this thing in our head, and gradually work to realize that thing into existence despite countless obstacles. Frequent failure is expected! But this kind of emotional intelligence, to be patient with yourself and your work, takes time to cultivate. People have trouble grasping this if they are new to making things, and maybe it's our mission to help them own their constant failures." This is a really good way of expressing this issue. And, in particular, spending time understanding what's going wrong, rather than throwing hands up at the first error message. Those tracebacks, however weird they may seem to begin with, are designed for the reader, and they help with the journey.