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Observer App of the Week 2/22 – Versu

Platform: iOS (iPad)
Price: Free
Publisher: Linden Research Inc.

Versu is an app created by Linden Labs, the company famous for making the game “Second Life.” It is an experiment in “interactive fiction” that puts the reader in the role of a character in one of several Jane Austen inspired short stories. The app comes bundled with a few of these stories and more can be paid for and downloaded.

At first, Versu seems like another fancy ebook that includes a few bits of reader interaction to differentiate it from something you might read on your Kindle. There is a lot more to what the app is doing, though.

Versu’s big trick is using artificial intelligence to direct the behavior of the characters in the story.

At any point, the reader can make a decision about what they want to do. Once they make a decision, or even if they don’t, the app uses AI to determine how the other characters in the story react.

The app gives the reader a lot of different options to play with. They range from the complicated, like participating in a conversation, to the simple, like smiling when you receive a compliment. Not only is there a lot you can do, you can also pick any available option at any time. There is no need to wait until the app tells you it is time to act, it is up to you to choose the moment.

Through all of this, the AI is constantly evaluating. If you compliment someone or say something rude, the characters’ will remember and change their behavior to match.

This system gives the reader’s interaction the potential to be nuanced and realistic. You actually feel in control of the action, rather than like you’re flipping through a choose-your-own-adventure book.

The problem is that the system just does not work.

The AI regularly fails to actually process what you say correctly. Characters often pull out strange non-sequiturs or change emotions randomly.

During one of my play sessions, the characters suddenly started talking about a horse as if I had mentioned it in conversations. There had been a dialogue option about the horse earlier and even though I never chose it, the AI mistakenly thought that I had.

The interface is an issue too. Although it does a good job of providing all the information you need in a clean and simple way, it regularly freezes or fails to register input. You will sometimes be unable to press buttons or your touch registers wrong and you say something you never meant to.

The many problems leave the entire experience feeling unfinished.

At a price of free, I really do recommend downloading the app and playing around with what it can do. It is interesting to see just how the AI reacts to your decisions and see how much freedom you have in the story. In its current state, though, the extra content is not worth the asking price. After some polish this app might work really well, but for now it is just an interesting tech demo.

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