An App That Can Generate Infinite Bedtime Stories

The Infinite Adventure Machine, by London designer David Benqué, can produce countless fairy-tale plots. But there's a twist.

My siblings and I were voracious readers as kids: Between Hans Christian Andersen and every last installment of Amelia Bedelia, my parents couldn’t keep enough books on our shelves. If only we’d had the Infinite Adventure Machine. Developed as a spec project for Microsoft, it’s a computer program that generates crude outlines for—you guessed it—an infinite number of children’s stories. The only catch: You have to fill in the blanks.

The program’s by London designer David Benqué, and it’s based on the research of Vladimir Propp, a Russian scholar who reduced the structure of Russian folk tales to 31 "narratemes"—basic narrative elements (like trickery, complicity, and villainy). The Infinite Adventure Machine works by randomly aggregating those 31 elements, according to a few simple rules, to create a synopsis. The synopsis is then spread over the virtual pages of a storybook. Each page gives you a rudimentary plot point ("departure of elders") alongside a spare illustration (an empty house). Your job is to mine the depths of your imagination to round out the tale with details ("This story starts with two lovely parents who want to leave their child alone in their cold, dark shack"). Reload the program, and it coughs up a totally new synopsis. Are there really countless stories at hand? "I haven’t calculated the number of possible outputs, but [it’s] seemingly infinite!" Benqué tells Co.Design.

In the computer-geek world, that’s a big deal. "I’ve come across many attempts at programming narrative, and it’s something no one has succeeded in doing yet," Benqué says. "There is this myth, that language and narrative could be reduced to their essential building blocks, and therefore programmed, but it’s far from being solved yet." The Infinite Adventure Machine isn’t the final answer by any stretch, since it still requires lots of improvisation from the reader. But that’s half the fun. As far as narrative fiction goes, it falls somewhere between the Brothers Grimm, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Mad Libs—which pretty much describes every 7-year-old kid’s ideal bedtime story.

It’s probably good for kids’ brains, too. Research shows that "magical thinking" plays a key role in childhood development. The Infinite Adventure Machine fires the imagination—and really forces you to use it—in ways that your average fairy tale does not. This would obviously require further study, but it stands to reason that a program like this one could actually bolster children’s cognitive functions.

The Infinite Adventure Machine was commissioned by Microsoft Research Cambridge, the Microsoft Office team, and Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London, as part of the Future of Writing Project. A prototype will be exhibited at Glitch Fiction, a show that opens during Paris Design Week on Monday.

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