If you could become a god, would you?
That is the question at the center of a new kind of film released Monday by the studio-lab Transitional Forms and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) called Agence. Described as a first-of-its-kind "dynamic film," the short uses virtual reality and machine learning to give viewers a starring role in the story, and the opportunity to observe or interact with its intelligent "agents."
But whether or not you decide to treat these creatures well, or send them literally flying into the abyss of space, is up to you. And that decision may say more about you than they do the film, the filmmakers tell Inverse.
"In the beginning, the world was an algorithm..." a voice croaks as Agence's opening titles dissipate to reveal a barren, purple planet with three-legged "agents" scurrying on its surface. The agents' large, angular heads are emotionless, save for two round, glowing eyes. The viewer has two choices: to passively watch as these creatures work together to not slide off the edge of their planet, or to intervene.
The viewer is visualized in the film as a semi-transparent hand. While they have the option to act maliciously towards these agents — grabbing and tossing them off the planet to their demise, the more interesting thing to do is to plant kaleidoscope-colored flowers on the planets' surface, which grow and spread across the entire world.
Nicknamed "MacGuffins" — a reference to a Hitchcock-ism that describes a seemingly insignificant object or moment that changes the course of a story — these magical flowers are catalysts, both mesmerizing and transforming the agents.
"Love, loss, discovery, betrayal, death, and rebirth are all possible stories that could manifest on each planet in our simulated universe," explains Pietro Gagliano, the film's Emmy-winning director and founder of Transitional Forms, in a video.
By choosing where to plant the flowers and how to interact with the agents, Gagliano tells Inverse viewers can play out at least six basic story arcs. From these basic plots, viewers' actions can direct the story to create different, unique variations of the film. The 5-10 minute stories loop onto each other for continuous viewing.
"As I watch people go through [Agence], there are new ways of interacting that I didn't anticipate which is really cool to see," says Gagliano.
His own mother, for example, was happy to simply watch the agents live their lives without planting any flowers, unknowingly sidestepping one of the film's main features. "That's a storyline I never really expected."
The nuts and bolts — Interactive media experiences (typically in the form of video games) that change the storyline based on your actions are far from a new experience. Mass Effect, for example, is well-known for this type of branching, immersive game structure, and Black Mirror's "Bandersnatch" choose-your-own-adventure episode follow ed a similar branching narrative format as well. But what sets Agence apart from these other media is the use of artificial intelligence and three-way authorship — between the viewer, the characters, and the filmmakers.
"Generally video games have a goal, they have a point system, levels, [or] a score that you have to pursue, and while there are puzzle elements of Agence, it's not quite a video game in that way," says Gagliano.
"[The film] could be completely observational or completely interactive at the same time and all of it's happening in a real-time simulation where the A.I. plays a role in how it ends."
Unlike other interactive media, David Oppenheim, an NFB Creative Producer who worked on the film, tells Inverse that Agence "unfolds in real-time based on emergent behavior of artificially intelligent creatures."
Some of the film's agents have brains composed of in-game artificial intelligence that follows a certain set of rules (kind of like NPCs in a video game), while other agents are outfitted with neural networks for brains, trained using reinforcement learning.
Gagliano says that these brains are not being trained in the game simulations themselves, but instead are being trained outside of the game to create more "intelligent," and perhaps more human-like, brains that can be included in the film via subsequent updates.
"Every two weeks or so [after release] we're going to update with new brains," says Gagliano. "So we're hoping to get more and more interesting behavior as we go on." These updates are designed to add layers of nuance, agency, and even humanity to the characters.
Following Agence's release, Gagliano says the team plan to make these brain-training tools open to the public. Ultimately, they want to collaborate with viewers and engineers to expand the brains' capabilities even further as part of an initiative called Project Gilgamesh. Through this project, Gagliano says he hopes to use storytelling as a framework to both develop and learn from artificial intelligence.
A hidden message — More than just an innovative way to tell a story, this film is also designed to make audiences think a little more deeply about the role this technology has in our lives.
"[Agence] focuses on this idea of playing god to A.I., [which] is what us modern humans are doing right now -- we're creating intelligent life that never asked to be born in the first place," explains Gagliano. "We're exercising our agency as godlike beings to this new form of intelligence."
Gagliano hopes the comparison between the real-world of artificial intelligence research and the analog of a viewer's control over agents will spark empathy for artificial intelligence. The film could also inspire viewers to think carefully about the effects their actions might have on the world — whether real or artificial.
Artificial intelligence can't boast anything similar to human emotions, but these types of questions can be reflected back to ask questions about our own humanity as well. What agency, or privilege, do we have in our daily lives, how are we using it, and what repercussions might it have?
If Agence is any indicator, our actions, regardless of intent, are not always benign.
For better or worse — But despite such lofty goals, Gagliano also acknowledges that any technology — whether A.I. or dynamic film — can also be used for less altruistic purposes. For example, what if advertisers could use the same tech to train and change intelligent adverts' strategies in real-time, creating the perfect targeted ad?
Gagliano says he hopes that dynamic films can be used as a force for good, but he can't deny the risk.
"Like any other technology, responsible usage lies in the hands of its holder. Fire, for example, can be used to keep you warm, or, if mishandled, it can burn your house down," says Gagliano. "[Dynamic films] will be used in the same way that storytelling, as a technology, has been used throughout history. To motivate new behaviors and inspire change in our culture… hopefully for good!"
Agence premieres at 9 AM EST Monday, September 28th, and will be available on most major VR headsets as well as for download on Steam for PCs and in the Apple and Android app stores.