Today, we interview Bernie Su, the co-creator and showrunner of Artificial, Twitch's interactive Science Fiction webseries, which ended its third season last week. The series follows a group of scientists as they create artificial intelligence in the form of a robot and try to guide its education and evolution towards sentience. The Twitch audience is invited to vote and ask questions that can influence the course of the story, the decisions the characters make, and the decisions the AI makes as well, often changing the direction of the story.
They even helped create two supporting characters from scratch during the course of the third season. It is a unique and massively ambitious show that was streamed live every Thursday with sometimes tens of thousands of viewers watching and voting. The show has won the Primetime Emmy and a Peabody award.
Making the show is a massive undertaking, with multiple actors to direct, narrative paths to follow and switch, and the dangers of glitches and crashes that might shut down the livestream. We asked Bernie about all of that.
Congratulations on pulling off season 3 of Artificial. Can you talk about what it was like to rethink the production of the show after the first two seasons to make this one in lockdown?
Thank you! Rethinking/reimagining the show as a remote production was definitely one of the most challenging creative things I've ever had to do. My team and I had to solve a lot of problems that you don't have in regular production. What do each of the actors have? What do we need to send them? How are they connecting to our technical director? Is their internet good? And that's just the technical parts. Then there's the artistic parts like how do the actors communicate and perform off each other? And then finally… How do we still do the series live and interactive while making sure it looks like a sci-fi series and not like a dramatic zoom call? – I hope we accomplished all of that in spades.
So how did you come up with the interactive storytelling system for the show? Do you and the writers prepare each scenario beforehand and then have the actors enact the chosen story path?
Our thesis with our interactivity is that the audience is consequential. We want their interactive input to matter. Whether it be a poll, an audience question, or even the LifeScore tech that allows the audience to change the music.
With the story, there are parts that are pre-written and there are parts that are written on the fly. The audience chat responses are written on the fly since we're responding to chat in real-time. Remember it's the writers who are writing the responses, the actors aren't improvising (they may ad-lib) them. It's entirely a team effort with those, we have to identify the questions we want to answer, write the in-story answer for the actors, and then communicate the answers to them so they can be performed.
When it comes to a poll, those are either scene branches and/or variables. So say in the trial episode with the guilty/innocent verdict. We have two branches written, which affect multiple scenes. Both variations are rehearsed, but only one is ever performed live. So there is a guilty branch for Dr. Matt Lin that was beautifully written, well-rehearsed, and that was never canonized.
Did this affect your system of letting viewers vote on the outcomes of parts of the story?
The more consequential the poll, the more difficult it was, and the more exciting it was for us. The trial innocent/guilty poll gave the audience the power to literally eliminate a lead character from the series. Though very exciting for us, it really limited what we could plan beyond that because we didn't know if we'd have this character or not until that verdict. And as crazy as that sounds as a storyteller, I'm proud that we did it that way. We just had to wait for it to happen.
How did you decide to also let the audience vote on creating new characters like Kira and Viktor this season?
I have to give credit to the Twitch team for suggesting this. It wasn't even on my radar going into development of the season and once they suggested it, I totally embraced it. I believe the Kira (Alejandra Reynoso) and Zander (Dante Basco) characters were two of the most impactful characters of the season, and before the season started they weren't even concepts.
What were the biggest surprises this season in terms of what the audience voted for?
This one is really hard to answer because we accept all results. We don't let a choice hit the poll if we aren't accepting of that outcome. But my answer to this would be the final poll of the season, the vote of which character gets freedom in the end. I wasn't necessarily surprised at who won, but I was surprised by the margin, it wasn't even close.
The episodes occasionally get plagued by freezes and crashes. That must be stressful. How do you and your crew cope with that?
Unfortunately, we just have to deal with it. I do like how when it does happen, we are able to write to it in the story world. But yes, incredibly stressful, internet connections when the entire world is working remotely tends to be spotty at times.
The end of season 3 seems to tie a bow on the story with an ambiguous cliffhanger. You've said you want to do another season if you get greenlit. Where would you see the story going in a new season?
Committing to nothing, I really wanted the finale to leave us with a lot of options of where to go, and stories to tell. Whether we follow Lilith's mission or follow Sebastian's organization now that he's violently dismantled his team or both. But no matter what, I want to make sure that the choices from this season do carry over into any future stories because with Artificial the audience is always consequential.
All 3 seasons of Artificial can be streamed on Twitch.