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COMP_SCI 295, 396: AI and Experimental Narrative

Quarter Offered

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

Prerequisites

COMP_SCI 111 and (COMP_SCI 150 or 211)

Description

Story games (or storygames) are narrative frameworks in which participants (players) collaborate with each other and with the system to tell stories they find compelling.  Examples include story-centric computer role-playing games such as Disco Elysium, but also larp and story-centric tabletop role playing games such as those based on the Fate, PBtA, GUMSHOE, and DramaSystem systems, as well as smaller, more personal games of the lyric games movement.

In this course we will study, play and design story games, study and build AI-based story-generation systems, and experiment with the use of AI systems in story games.  No previous programming knowledge is necessary for the 295 section.  The 396 section will go more deeply into the formal and algorithmic foundations of these technologies.

AI assignments will use two experimental AI systems, Step, and Imaginarium, designed to be accessible to non-programmers.  295 students will use these systems as tools to make stories and story artifacts.  396 students will additionally learn their detailed semantics and structure. 

Grading

  • Individual assignments: 50% (AI assignments, weekly feedback from your group)
  • Group assignments: 50% (game designs, weekly gameplay reports)

Reasons not to take this course

This class is not for everyone.  One issue is that we really will play story games in class.  These games involve acting, and effectively, fiction writing.  If these things will make you feel exposed and uncomfortable, that’s okay, but you might not enjoy the course.  That said, you will never be graded on your acting ability or artistry, only on whether you showed up prepared for your games and you made an honest effort.

This is not intended to be a conceptually difficult course.  But it will be a time-intensive course, since it will involve not only programming, but playing games, reading games, and watching videos of games being played.  Students should expect to spend 10 hours a week on outside activities (gameplay, assigned readings and videos, game design, and working with the AI tools, guest speakers).

Finally, we will be playing improvisational games that emphasize character and story, not combat-oriented RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons that make less contact with the AI and narrative issues we want to explore.  So if you’re drawn to RPGs for combat, leveling up, min-maxing, etc., you may be disappointed by the course.

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 avoid playing games 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, and 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, etc.  These games also often represent mental illness, usually in ways chosen for dramatic effect more than clinical accuracy.

Finally, contemporary game design is often critically and politically engaged.  At least three different games we will mention 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.

Again, we will not play games in class that are likely to produce emotional distress.  In the event of unanticipated emotional distress, any student may bow out of any game at any time.  That said, if any of the content discussed above is problematic for you, you might prefer to avoid the course.

COURSE COORDINATOR: Prof. Ian Horswil
COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Prof. Ian Horswil