May 23, 2024
Hidden Door unveils new art style for its AI-based narrative game



Hidden Door has unveiled an updated artistic vision behind its new game where generative AI creates the narrative for humans to play.

With this game, which is still in the testing stages, the development team isn’t creating a singular narrative for the game. Rather, it’s creating a library of tools that can help it bring an endless variety of stories to life so that players can come back over and over and experience a new story.

How the game works so far

This new art for Hidden Door is more like a web comic or graphic novel.

The tools include generative AI, which creates a new story based on The Wizard of Oz in response to text prompts entered by the human player. The company began limited tests back in June for its digital tabletop game role-playing game set in the land of the Wizard of Oz, a public domain intellectual property that includes 14 books written by L. Frank Baum, said Hilary Mason, CEO of Hidden Door, in an interview with GamesBeat at our recent GamesBeat Next event.

Hidden Door is a platform for role-playing in any world, and it’s starting with the Wizard of Oz and is working with more authors to bring more worlds on the platform shortly.

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Rather than use a large language model (LLM) on author’s texts, Hidden Door has built an engine that can tell generic stories of any time and use various AI techniques to contextualize each author’s world along with the player’s choices into a specific story. This gives the effect of infinite player-driven RPG adventures that are also true to the author’s vision and rules for their world.

“We use more statistical approaches on a given book to map it into our platform,” Mason said.

In these games, the AI serves as a a kind of game master or dungeon master, reacting to the choices that you make in the game and guiding you through the story.

“We are giving people the tools for creation and making sure that AI is doing what AI is good at,” Mason said.

In the game, players go on unique adventures with their friends in a world true to the Oz novels, all led by an AI narrator that adapts to their choices to create a personalized experience, every time. In this world, players can do whatever they want – the platform allows for endless adventures in the Land of Oz. Join forces with the Wicked Witch of the West, go on quests across the Land of Oz, or simply stay in Kansas and play with Toto.

Hidden Door’s AI engine adapts to player choices, creating a unique story every time while remaining true to the fictional world the game is set in.

The art update

This art is aimed at people who care deeply about an entertainment property and want more of it to be generated on the fly.

All of that stays the same, but Mason said that the art style is being updated so that it appeals to older audiences, in contrast to the art style that focused more on kids back in June. In addition to generating its own art, Hidden Door also launched a Discord bot to help with character generation.

“We’ve designed a new art style for game, which comes from a bunch of directions,” Mason said. “One of which is that when we launched the company, we were initially inspired by creating games for kids and middle schoolers. And so our art had this kind of style. We’ve since changed that. So now our players are 18 to 34.”

The people who are really interested in the game are the ones who have read books like The Wizard of Oz and fall in love with them. They can’t stop thinking about it and they want more and more stories in that universe. This is why Baum’s 14-book universe was a good one to choose. It draws out these kinds of people who want more than just the canonical story.

Mason said that coming up with the right art style and system for generating games has required a lot of experimentation.

Generating a system to make art

Hidden Door’s earlier art was targeted at younger folks.

Art director Daniel Abensour and character illustrator Alessandra Criseo wrote a blog post explaining the update. They’re trying to evolve the visual experience towards something that works within the same constraints as visual novels—providing the appropriate level of visual orientation to assist the text-heavy gameplay in the most frictionless way.

“Our art director has spent a lot of time creating the art to train the models to create the background images, which are also all labeled with the language,” said Mason.

Rather than making art that fits in a kid’s cartoon world, the art is more like something you would see in a graphic novel or a webcomic.

Hilary Mason is CEO of Hidden Door.

Since every story is different, it’s complicated to set up a system where the art is generated to fit the story and it looks appropriate. So the art team is setting up a foundation of “art skeletons” that they can dress up in different ways to convey the emotions of characters and their reactions and animations in the right way to support the story.

“This is where a lot of people would think about AI to facilitate all these different aspects—and we do, to an extent. The main advantage about generative art is being able to do a lot, very fast,” Abensour and Criseo wrote. “Quality is a far-away consideration if you’re looking at it with the expectation of giving a product enough flavor and originality to stand on its own legs.”

This is why the artists aren’t using generative AI to purely just draw all the characters. They need to have more control, style, and precision in the depictions.

“Thus, for characters we’re using a modular art system that assembles puppets of human-illustrated assets to make unique, memorable characters—with a high degree of control from the players,” the artists said. “The more assets we make, the more we invest in a library that can make any character (although it will take a little while before we have all we need).”

I have to say this art looks a lot better.

At first, they expected a younger audience and created art targeting young people. But now they’re switching to target an older core audience based on the early tests.

“Switching to an older core audience felt like there was an opportunity to bring more value with the art, and investing in making unique visuals that could appeal to a more critical audience,” the artists said.

And they modified the user interface to reflect these changes. They also found that for the backgrounds behind the characters, they could use more generative art. The art style has also evolved to get more stylized in how colors are treated—which makes the game look more unique, but also helps hide that in a lot of circumstances generative art can look underwhelming. They can take the output from the generative AI and spice it up to make it more appropriate.

Generating a lot of art

Variations on an artistic theme.

The company has 14 people. And so they clearly can’t generate all of the art required for each new story by every player or group of players. The artists are relying an an automated AI system to generate the art.

“We spend a lot of energy building a controllable story engine that creates compelling story gameplay in the style of a role playing game,” Mason said. “And this is not just like plugging into GPT or another LLM and letting it take the wheel. We have story structures that underlie the engine. And a large part of that is how the players experience it. How is it visually? How do they interact with the system?”

Mason said that the art matters a lot because the characters are the emotional center of the game. Players may imagine that they are these characters and so they attach a lot of importance to it. Hidden Door is pre-generating a bunch of art and then it will semantically match that art to words that are typed into the game by players.

Players can type in any text they want to modify the game, and the system will embrace their imaginations and try to fulfill what they want to see on the screen, either when it comes to a story or the art work. It’s all in the name of generating an illusion that the player is getting a unique game produced on demand and it will seem like the story and art have been put together by a creative mind. When, in fact, it’s an AI-driven system.

The new art is more evocative and tied to the different types of text descriptions that players can enter. If you type in a “classy lady drinking water in the conference space in San Francisco,” the AI will generate the art based on what’s pre-generated in its library. This art might be for a player character, or avatar, or for a non-player character that could be used in a game.

Mason said the team is also trying to address the hard problem of visual consistency in a game when they’re using AI to generate new scenarios for a new story every time the players come back for another narrative.

A new art form for Hidden Door.

“The art is designed to be and look very human composed, because it is,” she said. “But it gets assembled at runtime.”

Using the Discord character creator, you can put in a written description and the system will generate a visual of a character. You can re-roll the generative art if you don’t like it and keep going until you like it and then proceed to customize the avatar and the character’s traits.

Right now, a lot of players are jumping into the Discord to create a bunch of characters that they can use in the game, like playing cards. You play around with language and AI visualizes that for you, and this becomes a way of expressing yourself.

Later on, Hidden Door will add more worlds from other universes beyond The Wizard of Oz. So the kinds of worlds that are possible will multiply, as will the kind of character art that is possible. You will be able to tune to make the world resemble dark science fiction, and you could also filter for more violence or less violence. It’s all going to use the same underlying engine.

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