Summary: The BBC R&D team launched an original voice first interactive drama last year called The Inspection Chamber. I spoke with Nicky Birch, executive producer of the Amazon Alexa skill, to find out more about the aim and scope of the BBC’s experimental voice drama.
During our discussion, Birch helped me understand what makes The Inspection Chamber a valuable learning tool for those in the voice first fiction space. Below I summarize the skill’s key features, what it does differently from other interactive voice games, and the elements that I think work really well.
The Inspection Chamber offers a highly engaging participatory drama experience that takes about 20 minutes to play on any Alexa-enabled device. As a player-participant, you take on the role of a central character the moment you start the skill and step into the inspection chamber.
As you soon learn, the chamber is used to examine and classify unidentified living specimens. The plot revolves around the efforts of the other characters to determine what you are and successfully enter you into the all-encompassing universal life-forms database.
Since the drama is about you, and determining what you are, you have to decide how cooperative you’re going to be. This situation leads to tension that further immerses the player in the drama.
Apart from you, the drama involves three other characters, all played by talented voice actors. Your guide through the journey is a computer named Dave who portrays a classic unreliable narrator. You never know just how much faith to put into what Dave tells you. Dave controls the database that’s waiting to include your details.
The database can’t be updated until the two inspectors figure out who and what you are. Both of the inspectors are very open about the fact that they don’t much like their jobs. As the drama progresses, they become increasingly disgruntled, impatient, and in need of a long vacation. The player can’t help but start empathizing with the inspectors and this building empathy (combined with a player’s natural inclination to withhold information) helps make the whole experience work.
Unlike a classic branching CYOA story, The Inspection Chamber offers a linear path. Birch explained her goal was to provide the player with the fulfilling experience of a traditional story with beginning, middle, and end.
Even with events flowing in the same direction, the drama coaxes the player into the story and provides plenty of opportunity for interactivity. The concept of the inspection chamber, where the inspectors need to ask you questions to aid in the classification process, is a great mechanism for player input.
Since the story line of The Inspection Chamber is linear, you might think the choices a player makes don’t count. In fact, the drama works to cleverly weave a player’s choices into the overall experience.
Nouns, adjectives, and personality traits you chose to describe yourself early on are included later in the data that goes into the database. Your choices also influence the exact configuration of the ending, even though you can’t alter the general outcome.
These unexpected references to your past choices are surprising and help increase the overall enjoyment of the drama.
During our discussion, Birch noted the current limitations of Natural Language powered smart systems and how far away they are from sustaining real conversations. As a result, workarounds are needed to give people the sense of a conversation with authentic turn taking.
A classic workaround consists of asking an open-ended question, then giving the user time to make any response. The flow of the app’s interaction is designed so that it doesn’t matter what the user says. The comment is acknowledged and the drama continues. But the player gets at least some small satisfaction in having made a statement that was heard and acknowledged.
Inspection Chamber uses this open-ended question technique very sparingly. Since the technique isn’t overused, I think it works within the confines of this particular drama to increase the illusion that true conversation is taking place.
Birch offered to share forthcoming analysis about user engagement with The Inspection Chamber. This information is likely to provide valuable insights.
Initial data suggests a respectable player completion rate. That means that of those who start playing the drama, a significant number stick with it to the end. Considering total play time can extend to 20 minutes and beyond, that’s a substantial time commitment.
There’s a lot we can learn from The Inspection Chamber experiment and many great elements to emulate and build on in future efforts. I’m especially impressed with the drama’s ability to balance a linear story structure with engaging interactive elements. If you haven’t entered the inspection chamber yet, just ask Alexa to take you there. You’re sure to have an interesting experience!