March 6, 2008

Say It All in Six Words

by Andrew Stern · , 4:43 pm

If I’ve been remiss at blogging over the past few months, it’s not from lack of interest; my finite time at the keyboard has been consumed with work. (Even keeping up with the daily unfolding of Noah’s excellent book takes a bit of time — well worth it though!)

About 9 months ago (time flies!) I posted my thoughts on an improved natural language understanding interface for interactive comedies/dramas. NLU is one of the R&D fronts I’ve been working on since that post — improved drama management and authoring tools being the other major fronts.

In that post I talked about the advantages, from an AI-implementation perspective, of limiting the player’s input to only eight words. After some further design work, I’ve now brought that number down to six. In my estimation, six words of natural language, per utterance, seems to be the smallest number that still allows a player to be highly expressive in a natural, conversational way.

As an example, a player might be hard-pressed to naturally express the nuance of meaning in the phrase “Would you like to come upstairs?” in less than six words — which, by the way, is the kind of phrase typical and important to an interactive comedy/melodrama such as The Party.

And to make the interface design more symmetrical, the NPC’s will speak back to you with a maximum of six-words per sentence.

Therefore I was pleased the other day to read a piece in The New Yorker, “Say It All in Six Words“, reporting about online storytelling magazine SMITH‘s fascinating six-word memoir project:

Legend has it that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. His response? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Last year, SMITH Magazine re-ignited the recountre by asking our readers for their own six-word memoirs. They sent in short life stories in droves, from the bittersweet (“Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends”) and poignant (“I still make coffee for two”) to the inspirational (“Business school? Bah! Pop music? Hurrah”) and hilarious (“I like big butts, can’t lie”).

The project has produced a new book, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Enthusiasts of constrained writing, you now have “a moving peek at the minutia of humanity and the most literary toilet reading you’ll ever find”.

I think I’ll try feeding some of these six-word sentences into my new parser, to see how many it understands!

(I was too time-pressed / lazy to write this post in six-word sentences, but The New Yorker writer put in the effort.)