The Infinite Adventure Machine

David Benqué's Infinite Adventure Machine creates random folk-tales, and is itself an adventure in what he describes as an unsolved computer science problem: automatic story generation.

Tales and myths; the core narratives of human culture, have been transmitted for generations through various technologies and media. What new forms might they take through digital formats and Artificial Intelligence?

Based on the work of Vladimir Propp, who reduced the structure of russian folk-tales to 31 basic functions, TIAM aims to question the limitations and implications of attempts at programming language and narrative.

Because the program is unable to deliver a finished story, rather only a crude synopsis and illustrations, users have to improvise, filling the gaps with their imagination and making up for the technology's shortcomings.

Wikipedia's article on Propp has a lengthy description of his typology of narrative structures.

I've always been fascinated by the subtle movement these devices make, whereby a description of universal narrative elements is turned into a prescription for writing new stories. Every few years there seems to be another bestseller book, for example, telling you how to succeed in Hollywood with Joseph Campbell. Campbell seems mostly good for turning every hero into Jesus but with Vedic mysticism.

But I love these random generators all the same (and make my own). The bite-size mind-meld between culture and software they embody has a strange magic to it.

The Infinite Adventure Machine [Glitch Fiction via Creative Applications]


  1. My first thought when I saw this was “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.”

    It’s simultaneously comforting and creepy to me that stories can be, in some sense, reduced to their constituent parts like this.

    1. I agree, however the Primer needed a live (underpaid) person on the other end to tell the stories, and even weave them a bit. +1 for the reference. 

  2. I’m sorry, we need to destroy this technology for the good of everyone.
    It is bad enough that Hollywood keeps remaking films and bastardizing our memories, imagine how much worse it could be when they program in the good bits from all of the blockbusters ever and use this to write the scripts!!!

    1. Yes, that would be gruesome, but it would be a sound business decision and the corporations that run the Hollywood studios only care about making money. 

      Why pay writers millions for original work, when the studios have large libraries full of stories, that they already own the rights to, and can use to turn a profit? 

      The mandates for Hollywood CEOs and the executive staff are the same no matter what kind of product they’re turning out for public consumption – make money and protect the company from anyone or anything that threatens their market share.

      I think it could be argued that the principle of ‘The Infinite Adventure Machine’ have already been at work in Hollywood for a couple of decades; it’s was called ‘The Disney Formula’.  Disney continues to use it in their animation stories successfully. 

      This article written by Edward Jay Epstein may be of interest to you:

        1. See edit:  ‘writers’. 

          From what I’ve read, yes, a single original screenplay written by a well respected writer can go into the millions.  The more rewrites, the higher the price goes.  There are *always* rewrites.  Thus, we rarely see what the writer(s) intended in the final product.

          There’s this thing called ‘development hell’.  I’m still trying to bend my brain around it and grok it fully.

    2. But then we can program an infinite audience to watch the infinite stories and produce infinite amounts of disappointment at the current state of the infinite movie industry.

    3. Except some really awful screenwriting exists now and is famous… I might be more comfortable blaming a terrible film on a computer than an actual human being.

  3. The idea of having to improvise reminds me of the card game “Once Upon a Time”, in which players have to keep the story going by playing cards representing various objects, characters, and events. But you can’t just play a witch card and a candle card, you have to come up with a reasonable sounding part of the story that involves a witch and a candle.

  4. Awesome. I’d thought about writing something similar based on the work Lord and Parry did in Albania on the oral tradition there:
    @That_Anonymous_Coward : the benefit of this is that ‘storification’ becomes easy and accessible. Hollywood would have to up their efforts if people became used to seeing every boring game event and list of facts storified.

  5. @boingboing-03c874ab55baa3c1f835d108415fac44:disqus : yeah, that’s a great game if you play it with the right kind of people. Another more “low-tech” version of this is “Can You”, described by Stephen King in Misery : someone starts a story, puts the protagonist in a fix, and then someone else has a set amount of time to come up with a way of getting out of the situation. The players then vote, and if the solution is deemed “good” enough (coherent, realistic, funny, what have you), the story is continued by the last player. Good party game.

  6. “users have to improvise, filling the gaps with their imagination and making up for the technology’s shortcomings.”

    I’m glad my first (and only) MMO experience was MUDding. It kept me away from Everquest and WOW when those came along to fill the little gaps in my imagination left by the text interface.

    I’m pretty sure that leaving the gaps up to the user is a wonderful thing.

  7. I love these plot generators for writing practice. Usually they are pretty limited though, as in they only generate a sentence or two. For this purpose it would be neat to have a generator that would assemble a more complete story structure, including the core template characters, doorway events, suggestions about possible structure the author should supply to connect various generated elements, suggestions for character development, etc.

    Probably could make a cool iPad application out of something like that.

  8. I had a book when I was a kid called ‘The Tales of Joe Egg’ written in 1936, which was a collection of stories linked by the idea that they were generated by a machine bought from a strange shop down a cobbled street in London. The machine looked like a suit of armour with a painted face, and it had dials on the chest to enter a subject for the story, along with the required length.
    I recall the stories were quite violent, and did feature some “interesting” stereotypes, particularly of the Irish.

  9. “I’ve always been fascinated by the subtle movement these devices make, whereby a description of universal narrative elements is turned into a prescription for writing new stories.”

    Shortly after getting a brief summary of Joseph Campbell I saw the original Buffy movie on TV… lordy, things happened in that movie that made no sense in the story, but painted in the numbers perfectly.

  10. In the Paul Magrs Doctor Who novel The Scarlett Empress, the Doctor gets himself out of being captured by a parliament of birds who’ve nabbed him for his storytelling abilities by feeding them all of the elements of a Doctor Who story (monsters, types of plot) and suggesting that they make their own up.  He quotes Propp as part of the rationale.

  11. I saw a plot generator for Law & Order several years ago. I can’t watch the show anymore. I invented one in my head for House a few years ago, fortunately the show is funny so it’s not totally ruined. These technologies are dangerous to Hollywood execs because they expose just how much they suck at producing innovative content.

  12. Storytelling is an art. Anything can be used as the genesis for a story, but after that it’s all in the telling. Think about this old saw for telling jokes, “Some people can tell ’em, and some people can’t.” Wanna be writers would dearly love an easy formula for success, but it’s all reading, observation of life, and practise, practise, practise. 

    The whole monomyth and archetype thing is a form of social conservatism. It’s this magical, semi-religious, semi-DNA programming (or so they would like to think, but have no proof), that puts the theory beyond questioning or testing and has done more for stagnating the development of new storytelling forms than anything else.

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