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Ubisoft is testing an AI tool that writes NPC dialogue

Ghostwriter helps generate the simplest, most repetitive parts of video game scripts

Artwork of a crowd shot from Watch Dogs Legion Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Video game worlds are filled with “barks.” You may not know the name for the short, quick phrases that come from a game’s characters when they aren’t being chatty, but they’re always there. It’s your Call of Duty: Modern Warfare teammate yelling “Grenade!” or Overwatch hero Junkrat’s giddy “Fire in the hole!” It’s Ellie in The Last of Us shouting at Joel, “Watch out!” These lines are often triggered by certain situations — if you get hit by a bullet, land a headshot, or pass by a shopkeeper selling goods, for instance. These sorts of lines 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 job for video game developers; it’s some of the most frequent dialogue a player will hear. (And sometimes they become iconic!) A video game can have hundreds or thousands of these NPC lines. On Tuesday, Ubisoft unveiled a tool it says could make the process of writing barks 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 is using it.

“Ghostwriter isn’t replacing the video game writer, but instead, alleviating one of the video game writer’s most laborious tasks: writing barks,” Ubisoft wrote in a blog post outlining the tool. “Ghostwriter effectively generates first drafts of barks — phrases or sounds made by NPCs during a triggered event — which gives scriptwriters more time to polish the narrative elsewhere.”

Swanson said he worked with Ubisoft’s writers to create a tool that would genuinely aid their work and create larger “bark trees” and more background dialogue. Writers can use the tool to generate lines 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 most often use the tool to generate “paraphrased” barks — helpful when a writer must create multiple versions of a line, like “I’m reloading,” according to Game Developer’s in-depth overview of the talk.

Not all game developers and writers are eager to take up such a tool. There are arguments that AI won’t create lifelike, varied dialogue that can enrich a game world. Some people worry that AI tools like this 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 when tech like this is made in good faith; the dazzle of new tools is alluring, and there’s nothing stopping corporations from using AI unethically.

On the flip side, there are developers eager to see how these tools can fit into the development process. AI tools could free up 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 that’s happening not only in the video game industry, but in tech as a whole. Late last year, it was the ethics of generative AI art programs like DALL-E and Midjourney that dominated debate over its many issues, ranging from art theft to racism. Those issues are still contentious, but OpenAI’s ChatGPT app has moved to the forefront in the past few months. OpenAI released its most powerful AI language model yet, GPT-4, made easy to use with its ChatGPT chatbot app. It can do all sorts of things, like generate code and human-like sentences pulled from a huge pool of data. These sorts of tools are brand new, and people are just starting to consider their ethics and legality.

Swanson, Ubisoft’s Ghostwriter creator, told GDC attendees to steer clear of 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 lines of communication and talk to narrative designers and scriptwriters,” Swanson said, as quoted by Game Developer. “Make sure you’re not inventing a tool nobody needs.”

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