“Trial By Twitch” Say ‘Artificial’ Producers Bernie Su & Evan Mandery
The face of television is changing dramatically and so is the way we consume content. Not only are the platforms on which we view our favorite television shows and web series evolving, but the way audiences interact with them.
Artificial is a Primetime Emmy and Peabody-winning series currently enjoying its third season on Twitch. It can be described as a combination of live streaming and interactivity. Audience participation at its finest.
The best way to describe the show is like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina where an AI lifeform is learning to become human through a series of meetings with humans, but with the interactivity of Netflix’s Bandersnatch, with the Twitch audience. Artificial is live, scripted, and consequential. There’s no going back once a choice by the entire audience has been made.
In some episodes, the audience is even invited to collectively compose a soundtrack.
Artificial was co-created by three-time Primetime Emmy-winner Bernie Su (Emma Approved and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and stars (Ms. Purple) as the series’ leading character alongside Tohoru Masamune (TMNT), Stephen Chang (The Last of Us Part II; Captain Marvel), Justin Lee (Arrested Development), and La Trice Harper.
The dynamics of the Twitch platform is a lot to process. “It is a TV show, I think,” said Bernie Su. “The story will unfold in front of you. You can make your own judgment. It has the option of allowing you to engage and help the characters,” he continued. “You can be a passive or active viewer.” He likens the experience to an immersive theater where the audience controls the joystick to some extent and builds on an existing story.
The characters are a result of the audience experiences who dictate the trajectory via popular vote.
It’s difficult to define how much of Artificial is live scripted and how much is left to the voting whims of the audience. “During season 1, maybe forty percent was live and the interactivity was in the Twitch chat. The rest was scripted. By season 2, the interactivity level was raised to almost seventy percent.” Interactivity could mean simply revealing show notes, commenting, or polling, or allowing the audience to make a consequential decision which changes the direction of the narrative. “By season 3, this level was raised even further to around eighty-five percent. We are elevating the audience experience as we progress.”
Despite the freedom that the audience has in this unique viewing experience, Su and Mandery still control the master switch. “As a voracious reader of science fiction, there are many elements of Artificial that are familiar, but the evolving interactive elements are novel,” added Mandery.
Even comparing Artificial to Bandersnatch on Netflix doesn’t fully define the Twitch experience. “Bandersnatch allows you to choose one of the pre-scripted story pathways. In Artificial, the audience collectively makes a decision to set the course of the show.”
Artificial just had a major story arc where the main human characters who created the AI lifeform was put on trial for the murder of a human. Are humans responsible for the crimes of their AI creations? “We were completely prepared to abide by the audience’s decision. Relinquishing that much control is very unsettling as a writer,” declared Mandery.
Bernie Su thrives on the chaos created by the audience experience. “Despite the amount of freedom we give the viewers, we are still the master storytellers. It still our narrative. We try to make it a consequential conversation with the audience. We lead from behind.”
Su and Mandery admit to not knowing the outcome of the murder trial. The audience jury is still out. The creators’ job is to construct robust, layered characters with emotional throughlines that the audience cares about and protects. “The audience has four minutes to vote on the outcome. They are voting from a place of emotion,” added Su. “It gives the audience a feeling of agency and ownership of the characters.” Think of it like raising children. You can only guide and lead by example, but you can’t control their every move.
Story vs Format
The Twitch platform has introduced tremendous innovation in storytelling. Technology must always be an enhancement to the storytelling. “The original story of Artificial was based on a father’s (Matt) grief over his daughter’s death during a school shooting,” said Mandery. “He created the AI lifeform as a way to understand his grief and the damage her death caused to the community.” As the AI lifeform acquires more human traits, she (the audience named her Lilith) kills a human resulting in a trial. A robot is programmed to perform actions, so who should be on trial?
Following the numerous story forks constructed by the audience, Lilith is a dual AI lifeform, which Mandery finds the most interesting aspect of the series. “There’s a backed-up version of Lilith and a continually evolving version of her. I’m interested in the conception of her own identity versus Matt’s perception of it. I never thought we would have headed in that direction two years ago.”
Breaking stories for Artificial transcends the traditional concept of a TV writers’ room. “In a regular room without interactivity, the writers would outline six episodes, shoot them together and you’re done. Interactivity forces the series into a “produce as you go” mode following the audience’s big choices. We used to film one or two episodes ahead,” said Su. “Now we’re writing each week for the upcoming episode.” Around fifteen percent of an episode is pre-written and the rest is completed live by a team of six writers.
Artificial is also genre-fluid. The first season was distinctively sci-fi and seasons two and three evolved into character drama. “There are always elements of the two genres in every episode. We just move the genre needle between them,” declared Su.
“The science fiction I like has a believable science premise which later becomes about the human relationships. The setting of Artificial in a community of badly-damaged people make the show unique,” proclaimed Mandery. “The Twitch viewers are in the story and interact with the AI universe.”
Bernie Su and Evan Mandery proudly declare their TV series could only be viewed on a platform like Twitch. “They wanted a show that felt different to them. Something weird and whimsical. So long as we were respectful and consistent with our characters, Artificial is a high-quality drama rather than a technical gimmick. The characters have flaws, drives, tragedies, and joys,” declared Su.
It is unclear at this point whether Lilith will achieve humanity. That’s up to the audience. “What’s more important is, not so much what the robot needs to display, as what the robot clarifies for us what is distinctively human,” mused Evan. “Lilith has done and failed to do things. Acted ethically and unethically… even enjoyed the experience of loving. Matt’s trial explores if Lilith genuinely has free will or commanded by her creators. AI is a lens for humans to view themselves.”
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