Video game worlds are filled with ‘barks’. You may not know the name for the short, quick sentences that come out of a game’s characters when they’re not talkative, but they’re always there. It’s your Call of Duty: Modern Warfare teammate yelling “grenade!” or Overexpected hero Junkrat’s staggering “Fire in the hole!” It’s Ellie inside The last of us yelling at Joel, “Watch out!” These lines are often triggered by certain situations, such as getting hit by a bullet, getting shot in the head, or passing a shopkeeper selling goods. These kinds of rules are easy to overlook when they’re good, but hard to ignore when they’re bad.
While barks are short and sometimes repetitive, writing them is an important task for video game developers; it is one of the most common dialogues a player will hear. (And sometimes they become iconic!) A video game can contain hundreds or thousands of these NPC rules. On Tuesday, Ubisoft has unveiled a tool it says it could make the process of writing bark less tedious for its writers. Ubisoft describes the program, Ghostwriter, as an “in-house AI tool” to generate “first drafts of barks.” Ghostwriter creator Ben Swanson, an R&D scientist at Ubisoft La Forge, hosted a GDC 2023 talk Tuesday to talk about how the company uses it.
“Ghostwriter doesn’t replace the video game writer, but instead alleviates one of the video game writer’s most labor-intensive tasks: writing bark,” Ubisoft wrote in a blog post outlining the tool. “Ghostwriter effectively generates first drafts of barks – phrases or noises made by NPCs during a triggered event – giving screenwriters more time to polish the story elsewhere.”
Swanson said he worked with the writers at Ubisoft to create a tool that would really help their work and create bigger “bark trees” and more background dialogue. Writers can use the tool to generate rules for NPCs using a character’s motivations and other criteria. The writer can then accept, reject, or edit the generated line. The tool learns from that feedback. Swanson said Ubisoft writers use the tool most often to generate “paraphrased” barks — useful when a writer needs to create multiple versions of a line, such as “I’m reloading,” according to Game Developer’s in-depth look at the conversation.
Not all game developers and writers are eager to use such a tool. There are arguments that AI will not create lifelike, varied dialogue that can enrich a game world. Some people worry that AI tools like these could take away jobs in an already competitive industry, or that AI could only generate lines that make more work for writers. People are right to be skeptical, even if this kind of technology is made in good faith; the dazzle of new tools is alluring, and there’s nothing stopping companies from doing so Using AI unethically.
On the other hand, there are developers who are eager to see how these tools can fit into the development process. AI tools can free writers from tedious, repetitive work, allowing them to be more creative elsewhere. Video games already use machine learning and AI tools, and some developers think this could fit into the existing writing structure And benefit game workers.
Ubisoft’s tool will inevitably be part of the conversation happening not just in the video game industry, but in technology as a whole. Late last year, the ethics of generative AI arts programs like DALL-E and Midjourney dominated the debate on the many issues ranging from art theft to racism. Those issues are still contentious, but OpenAI’s ChatGPT app has come to the fore in recent months. OpenAI has released its most powerful AI language model to date, GPT-4, which has been made easy to use with its ChatGPT chatbot app. It can do all sorts of things, such as generate code and human-like sentences extracted from a huge amount of data. These kinds of tools are brand new and people are just starting to think about their ethics and legality.
Swanson, the creator of Ubisoft’s Ghostwriter, told GDC visitors to avoid programs like ChatGPT, according to Game Developer. He says using a proprietary tool like Ghostwriter means more control and flexibility.
“If you’re trying to build these systems, keep the lines of communication going and talk to narrative designers and screenwriters,” Swanson said, as quoted by Game Developer. “Make sure you don’t invent a tool that no one needs.”