COMP_SCI 295, 396: AI for Hybrid, Participatory Narrative

Quarter Offered

Spring : 3:30 -4:50 TuTh ; Horswill


COMP_SCI 295: None; COMP_SCI 396: COMP_SCI 212 or COMP_SCI 348 or COMP_SCI 376, or permission of instructor, and knowledge of C# and Unity, or willingness to self-teach.



Storytelling in digital games is severely hampered by the limitations of current AI systems.  No existing system can generate the kinds of character performance or just-in-time screenwriting that are the hallmarks of analog story games.  There have, however, been interesting experiments in hybrid analog/digital games that integrate AI systems as limited partners in otherwise primarily analog games.  This course will examine recent developments in both freeform table-top roleplay and AI systems for procedural narrative and content generation, with an eye toward developing syntheses of the two. 

Class time will be split between lecture and small-group playtesting sessions.  We will study, play, critique, and modify contemporary indie and small press storygames.  Special attention will be paid to games that use game-mechanical techniques to emulate the structures and tropes of popular narrative, particularly genre fiction, as well as more avant-garde forms such as game poems and the Scandinavian Dogma 99 movement.  We will also study relevant AI technology, as well as contemporary examples of hybrid games.  Finally, we will experiment with the use of prototype AI systems in hybrid play.

The 295 section of this course requires no programming background and is intended for non-CS students.  Students in this section will experiment with research prototypes and design their own games.  Students in the 396 section, which satisfies the Technical Elective requirement of the CS major, will also do additional technical work involving the use of constraint solvers and non-deterministic programming languages.  Students from the two sections will be encouraged, but not required, to work together.

Reasons not to take this course

This class is not for everyone.  One issue is that we really will play storygames in class.  These games involve acting and, de facto, fiction writing.  Your will not be judged, much less graded, on your acting or your creative brilliance, but if such things make you feel exposed, you might not enjoy the course.

The course will also involve a significant time commitment.  There will be a lot of reading; games have rule books, some of which are very long.  Your troupe will also be expected to play games and do assignments outside of class.  Again, your troupe will not grade you on your acting ability.  But they will grade you based on whether you showed up for your troupe meetings on time, having done the readings, and having done any other preparation you need.

Finally, we will be playing improvisational games that emphasize character and story, not more traditional tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, Runequest, GURPS, etc., not because they’re undeserving, but because they make less contact with the AI issues we want to talk about.  So if you’re drawn to RPGs for combat, leveling up, puzzles, etc., you may be disappointed.

Thematic content and trigger warnings

These games tell stories; they’re a form of literature or theatre.  As such, they address the same wide range of themes as traditional literature and theatre.  While we will not play games that are likely to produce emotional distress, we will discuss a wide range of games.  Some of these games may address difficult issues such as race, gender, ethnic conflict, poverty, anti-capitalism, religion, sexuality, disability, illness, mortality, suicide, or mental health.

Many games involve explicit depictions or simulations of violence.  Although, we will not play games that mandate graphic depictions of violence, many of the games we discuss will have some notion of combat.  Some games seek to raise awareness of intimate partner violence, child abuse, or sexual assault, although we will not play them.

Horror has been an especially important genre in the historical development of narrative games.  These include games involving threats from monsters, but also cosmic/existential horror.  As with any horror literature, they can also involve themes or events deliberately chosen for their disturbing nature: serial killing, war crimes, child abuse, mental illness, etc.

Finally, contemporary game design is often critically and politically engaged.  At least three different games we will discuss touch on the issues of access to health care within the US.  One of the collections we will discuss is named #feminism.  Some of the games we will discuss are designed by members LGBTQIA+ community and engage issues of queer experience, be it contemporary, historical or fantastical.

Safety and code of conduct

Any encounter with improvisational storytelling has the potential to drift into unexpected territory, or to produce unexpected responses to familiar territory.  Students registering for the class agree to be attentive to the emotional well-being of their classmates and to be prepared to deescalate should one of their fellow players appear to be in distress.

Students who deliberately violate content policies, troll other players, or otherwise show deliberate cruelty toward their fellow players will be referred to the University Hearing and Appeals System (UHAS) for inquiry and possible sanction.



  • Attendance is mandatory, since we will be playing games in class
  • Individual assessments (40%)
  • Group assignments with your troupe (40%)
    • Class participation (20%)
  • Programming projects (396 only)