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This Is Not Creativity

Please do not 'nurture' the model

An AI-controlled NPC stands in front of a map in Ubisoft's NEO NPC demo
The Verge

Ubisoft recently published some details about its experiments in generative AI, in which writers craft a personality and backstory for an NPC that can then, the company hopes, have “an actual conversation, conducted through spontaneous action and reaction” with a player. This is an intensely pedestrian dream in this day and age, and one that, despite Ubisoft’s insistence to the contrary, doesn’t serve players or the people who make games.

In Ubisoft’s blog, Narrative Director Virginie Mosser, who works on the company’s NEO NPC project, says:

“I’m used to building a character’s backstory, their hopes and dreams, the experiences that shaped their personality, and used all that information to nurture myself into writing dialogue,” explains Mosser. Now, she builds a character’s backstory, their hopes and dreams, the experiences that shaped their personality, and uses all that information to nurture a model.

“It’s very different,” she says. “But for the first time in my life, I can have a conversation with a character I’ve created. I’ve dreamed of that since I was a kid.”

Every writer’s goals and interests, and the pleasures they derive from their craft, are different. If Mosser is really into doing backstory work, and this is a chance to have more time to do that, more power to her. In my own fiction writing, as it seems in Mosser’s, backstory is a means to an end: I’m trying to figure out how a character would react to the specific situation I’m writing and why, or using their past experiences to craft stronger dialogue. The point of all those outlines and character worksheets and reams of scenes I’ll never use is to make better scenes in the actual story I’m telling the reader on the page; it’s not an end in itself. Sometimes it ends up in the finished work–we’ve all read books with way too many self-indulgent pages of character history, and I’m guilty of it myself–but, to my mind, the result that work outputs is a better hand-crafted scene for the audience.

But in the NEO NPC project, rather than being turned into a writer-crafted scene, all that work is then fed into a model–Ubisoft’s use of the phrase “nurture a model” is a little too horrifying for me to contemplate–that spits out dialogue that, as Ubisoft itself writes, is “impersonat[ing] this character” that a writer created. You can see this play out in a video by The Verge, in which writer Sean Hollister messes around with NEO NPC. Hollister has a conversation with an NPC named Bloom, who is trying to convince him to join a resistance movement. It largely feels like a “real” conversation–Bloom responds topically to Hollister’s spoken comments, and clearly expresses his passion for the resistance. Bloom has backstory, in the loss of his own friends and family that inspired him to join the resistance. But it’s not a scene a writer would craft for a video game or a movie. It isn’t dramatic, there’s no rising and falling action, there’s no pathos to Bloom’s reveal. Having an actor in Hollister’s place, who could improvise an actual scene, might change things, but NEO NPC isn’t a tool for actors, it’s for players of Ubisoft’s games. 

In a later clip, Hollister and an NPC named Iron try to come up with a plan to break into an enemy villa. Unlike the scene above, this one feels like both sides could have been written by an actual games writer in the dismal but necessary “tick the boxes” style of lots of video game expository dialogue. Iron defaults to prompting Hollister to keep thinking while reciting necessary facts, and at the end everyone has an understanding of the mission at hand and how to approach it. 

At one point, Iron exhorts Hollister to “be creative” in his thinking. In Ubisoft’s blog, Senior Vice President of Production Technology Guillemette Picard says, “With the player in mind, we know that developers and their creativity must still drive our projects. Generative AI is only of value if it has value for them.” The blog stresses the project’s “focus on human creativity behind the scenes,” surely a pre-emptive response to the common refrain that AI is going to replace people and their jobs. And NEO NPC clearly has a need for human writers, which is, if we must, a good thing.

But what is the creativity here? Yes, coming up with characters is a creative act, and it’s one of the pleasures of DnD and other tabletop roleplaying games. Writing backstory for a language model to spit out is creative work, but that creativity produces something that lets itself down, that pales in comparison to what an actual writer could make. Sure, it imitates some kinds of art– famous “two people talking” movies, like My Dinner With Andre or Before Sunrise and its two sequels, come to mind. But those movies’ naturalistic conversations and ostensibly low drama were crafted, by hand, by writers and talented actors; they didn’t just happen from a combination of backstory and grammar. Intense conversations in your own life share elements with theater and fiction–they have conflict and emotion–but they aren’t drama.

NEO NPC is a prototype, and, as AI evangelists are constantly saying, could surely get better with time. There could be a future where it lets a player, alone with their PC or console, improvise and play out scenes in a game, limited only by their own imagination. (I’m pretty sure the AI bubble will have burst by then, but I guess you never know.) Data Scientist Mélanie Lopez Malet says in Ubisoft’s blog, “It’s garbage in, garbage out [when players respond nonsensically to AI]... But it’s also magic in, magic out. And when the player creates their own scene and it all clicks? That’s an incredible experience for them.” But what is that experience, or what will it be? It’s high in player agency, sure, and interaction, and all the other tech buzzwords. But it’s not in any way a scene in a dramatic work, an actual product of human creativity designed to make the audience feel something. It’s just a bunch of loosely-shaped words, dressed up in the costume of art.

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