Is AI Dungeon the Future of Literature?

Creativity is in a shift. The production of content, editing and other tasks is slowly being automated, and algorithms and narrow AI have a huge stake in this process. Currently I am teaching on AI & Creativity with several wonderful colleagues, and we are very excited to share our passion with our students. From the AI-directed Sunspring to the song Break Free composed by Amper AI, machines are collaborating with humans and augmenting their creativity. It’s here, and we need to prepare as professionals, no matter what sector of the creative industries or education we are working in.  Narrow AI already infiltrates your writing right now, from response suggestions in gmail to predictive text on your phone.

In fact, predictive text memes are hugely popular by now on platforms like Twitter. Users are curious to see what kind of suggestions narrow AI comes up with, even if some of the answer are not spot-on or even downright flawed.

If AI is changing creative processes, such as writing, how can we prepare? What does interacting with an AI look like? And how can we theorize this new type of content?

Screenshot from AI Dungeon

Writing Quests with AI

One tool that spiked this month is AI Dungeon. You can have infinite text-based adventures that echo classics like the formative Colossal Cave Adventure (Crowther, 1976), Zork (Infocom, 1977), and eventually the more visual point-and-clicks like Labyrinth (Lucasarts, 1986) and Loom (Lucasarts, 1990). AI Dungeon takes a page from the MUDs (multi-user dungeons) that were popular in the 1990s. These so-called dungeons were interactive chat rooms where users engaged in text-based adventures together. These rooms were highly interactive, and acted as predecessors of virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) and Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003), Elder Scrolls Online (Bethesda Softworks, 2014).

AI Dungeon continues this legacy and its tropes, but in a quirky way. It draws from text adventures, but also from Dungeons and Dragons, zombie apocalypse cliches and mystery genres. In fact, the first choice that you have as a user is to define the genre and your character.  Craig Grannell (Stuff.tv) summarizes this tool as: “An interactive endless book driven by an AI that writes surrealist dream-like pulp fiction.”

One of the delights of AI Dungeon is that it keeps surprising you, which forces you to write and use prompts in different ways. The AI is not a human, and while it is not dodgy by any means, its language and actions will often surprise you. Here’s a snippet where I am writing a postapocalyptic zombie war with the AI, and it decides that I move to New York City suddenly as an expert marksman, and later it suddenly marries me to Bob. A snippet from this session:

I should note that after I killed Bob, the AI resurrected him as a zombie and I had to flee with my kids because I refused to kill him. Again. And that is just how absurd but interesting these stories become.

AI Dungeon allows you to create an infinite amount of stories. It is a playful of adding to the database, and the tool improves with every iteration. You can share your stories with other users. On Twitter, writers share their pearls as well. One user remarks that the pre-training of the GPT-2 relied on “swaths of random web text”, allowing users to pretty much make a story about anything. Reddit users have documented their favorites as well in this thread.

Reddit screenshot by u/rundoom

Defining AI Literature 

Interaction in AI Dungeon is seamless and natural. There’s no coding involved, and you don’t think twice about this new type of interaction. It really does play like any other video game, except a bit slower. In this sense, playing with AI is exactly like Colossal Cave Adventure and other games that came before it, except that it isn’t procedural and scripted.

While the interface doesn’t foreground the AI, it is central to the experience, both in terms of reading and writing. Users want to push the limits of the AI and the borders of its stories. AI Dungeon is not an MUD or chatroom; you write with the AI and you are mindful of this. Can you prank it? Can you debate it? The examples of users who try to outwit the AI are numerous on Twitter and Reddit. Players might be co-creators, but they also realize that the AI (GPT-2 by the way) is still in its baby shoes and learns from them. In an interview, the creator of AI Dungeon stated:

AI Dungeon 2 isn’t a solo storyteller. The stories people post are funny not just because of the AI, but also because of how humans interact with it to create interesting and funny stories.

In other words, as readers and players, we are also writers of AI Dungeon, and actively construct the text. Game scholar Espen Aarseth captures these types of fiction as ergodic literature, which is not defined by a specific medium or materiality, but by the practice and activity of the reader: “In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (1997, p. 1). AI Dungeon has similar potential as these previous genres, but a big difference is ergodic literature 1.0 largely the products of human authors and game developers.

AI literature is deliciously postmodern and posthuman. Of course it draws extensively from databases of human writing to rehash content, which poses the difficult philosophical questions – Is this AI truly creative? How far does its agency actually reach? “Who” creates “what” in these dynamic, networked systems? Sure, there is a human behind AI Dungeon too, and he even has a Patreon account that you could support. But AI Dungeon is not just build by a human, it’s a next-gen system that sources our writing, and goes beyond our user choice. It’s beyond ergodic. It’s beyond dialogue trees in games, choose-your-own-adventure books, and postmodern literature like House of Leaves. AI Dungeon is the first step of what’s to come – a very different type of literature with a new type of narrativity that scholars like N. Katherine Hayles (author of Writing Machines) and Espen Aarseth anticipated in a different form. I dare to say that we are entering the second stage of technotext and e-literature that is moving beyond the human, into the realm of posthuman authorship.

In other words, the narratologist in me would argue that there’s a shift in our current narratives, which move from ergodic to algorithmic.

House of Leaves, a technotext that emulates electronic literature in print

A Surprising Collaboration

Like other AI writing tools, such as Botnic Studios (known for the procedurally-generated-Harry Potter chapter The Handsome One), the joy of AI Dungeon is how it surprises you, uses language awkwardly, and makes interesting creative choices. Sometimes these are for the better and inspire, other times they are for the worst. In AI Dungeon, you have the choice to undo certain actions and commands, and write something new that hopefully leads to a more interesting AI decision. You are not stick in this dynamic narrative. The fact that you can undo it and experiment again works very well. The narrative becomes iterative, and it feels like you still have some control over the amounts of story that the AI suggests.

In other words, and to summarize, this new type of AI literature is:

  • Dynamic
  • Self-learning
  • Man/Machine interplay
  • Algorithmic

In short this is a system, not a text (Important one!) We are moving beyond electronic literature (characterized by hyperlinks and html) into something new. Now I don’t want to get into these debates again that we have seen in media studies a lot the past decades (Can we still apply narrative to this [game], [streaming service], [platform]?) Of course you can still interpret the narrative but different theories might be needed and contextualization is extremely important here.

There’s a shift in our current narratives, which move from ergodic to algorithmic.

To theorize this content, resorting to authorship is a no-go; these kind of narratives are a black box. There is no paradigm of Romantic  authorship here, or at least not the human authors that we are familiar with. This type of technotext is not comparable to other types of fiction, where we could draw from statements of figures like J.K. Rowling to tease out the meaning of a text. We are left with pure reader response and reader engagement. And as someone who loves bringing together narrative theory with reception theory and tech, I think that’s beautiful.

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