I haven’t updated my website for a while, but I think it is a good time to do it now as we are in lockdown and the coronavirus seems like it is here to stay.
I don’t often write about startups anymore, but I made an exception for charisma.ai because I love writing about storytelling and new forms of it, and I love writing about startups from the great city in which I live, Oxford. I also love Confluence London where I first heard about the app.
My piece was written back in February when the idea that the London Book Fair or SXSW, where the app was due to be launched, could ever be cancelled seemed like a fantasy.
You can read it in full below, or by downloading the excellent Publishing Perspectives Spring magazine here.
Publishing Perspectives is owned by the Frankfurt Book Fair and is based in New York.
Charisma.ai Puts Consumers in Control of the Story Using Artificial Intelligence
UK startup Charisma.ai adapts graphic novels into interactive stories, using its AI platform to generate multiple endings and outcomes.
By Mark Piesing
Being introduced this month, a tool called “Charisma: The Interactive Storytelling App” uses the charisma.ai tech platform to adapt graphic novels into interactive stories. Charisma.ai also announced in December the launch of the second series of its interactive television show with Sky called Bullet Proof.
Think not so much of the Choose Your Own Adventure books of a previous generation but of Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Initially, Charisma.ai is launching five or six of these immersive, interactive stories, based on graphic novels and targeted at the UK and US markets. The titles chosen are in the sci-fi and crime drama genres, and are nearly all based on the first graphic novel in a series, which was a deliberate choice. The startup has commissioned original stories as well.
Rianna Dearden—who is the interactive story lead at Charisma.ai and co-artistic director of the theater company called Lost Watch—adapted two of the stories herself, Centaurus and Sherlock Holmes: The Vampires of London. She spoke about the challenges of adapting graphic novels for this new platform at the Confluence London conference in February, and Publishing Perspectives spoke with her there.
“We want to honor graphic novels,” Dearden said, “because they’ve mastered how to tell stories through image. But we want to take what they have learned and turn it into something new.
“AI is not a marketing tool. The platform uses natural language processing and a curated data set to make an interpretation engine, which then means that the writer doesn’t have to write an infinite number of options. The artificial intelligence will fill in the gaps when needed.”
Charisma.ai is an Oxford-based startup founded by Guy Gadney, who has 20 years of experience in digital publishing, including stints at Penguin Random House UK and BBC Worldwide.
Charisma.ai’s technology platform was developed by the games studio To Play For, which Gadney also founded. There’s an impressive list of partners as well, including the BBC, PlayStation, King’s College London, and Brunel University London. The BBC Writers Room has run events on how to use the platform to tell stories.
“One of the challenges of adapting graphic novels,” said Dearden, “is how graphic novels tell their stories. And the beauty of a graphic novel is its simple storytelling. It’s clean storytelling without much context, dialogue, and certainly no subtext. It often relies a lot on the imagery.
“We’re demanding a much higher level of understanding of the story from the reader” in interactive work, “because we’re asking them to make choices or express how they feel about what has just happened. Part of the challenge of adapting graphic novels is getting that information in there—allowing the imagery to do the work but also working to make sure that the dialogue is quick and witty, and doesn’t sound like it’s been crowbarred in.”
Simple yes-or-no questions have been “banned,” she says, in favor of questions that open up narrative possibilities.
Her team then has to adapt the original images from the novel. “It may be a facial expression or using a character from one panel and putting it on a different background. We even create brand new panels internally when we need to. It is a real skill to be able to take on someone else’s style, recreate that as your own, and make it fit into the narrative.”
“The ‘replay-ability’ of the stories is crucial,” she says. “We want to create a much, much bigger world than was possible in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. You can play this again and again and have a completely different experience. People want to find out everything about the characters and the world, and this sort of thing gives them the chance to do that.”
There’s a limit to this choice, she admits, however. “The book does need to end, and certain things need to happen before it does, especially when you then add a sequel to it. And everyone needs to start at the same point.”
In the end, “The biggest challenge for us,” Dearden said, “is making sure that the users know the nature of the experience they’re going on.”
Beta testers at first assumed they were playing a game rather than a reading experience, she said, which is closer to a graphic novel. To emphasize the reading nature of the experience, the command Play Story has turned into Start Story in the user interface, and the app has no mention of the word player.
“We don’t want to end up with something wishy-washy in the middle,” Darden said. •