June 08, 2005

You are in a maze of twisty little conversations, all alike

Seth Schiesel's NYT article "Redefining the Power of the Gamer" foresees "a future where games are driven as strongly by characters as combat, where games are as much soap opera as shooting gallery", based on "virtual characters powered by advanced artificial intelligence techniques, which [allows] them to change their emotional state in fairly complicated ways in response to the conversational English being typed in by the human player".

The canonical example, for Schiesel, is Façade, a "one-act interactive drama" set to be released for free next month, where

You, the player, using your own name and gender, play the character of a longtime friend of Grace and Trip, an attractive and materially successful couple in their early thirties. During an evening get-together at their apartment that quickly turns ugly, you become entangled in the high-conflict dissolution of Grace and Trip’s marriage. No one is safe as the accusations fly, sides are taken and irreversible decisions are forced to be made. By the end of this intense one-act play you will have changed the course of Grace and Trip’s lives – motivating you to re-play the drama to find out how your interaction could make things turn out differently the next time.

Schiesel is reporting from the first Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment conference (Marina Del Rey, June 1-3). So he's quoting people who have something invested in a future where "artificial intelligence as a feature, like graphics is a feature or sound is a feature" (Bing Gordon, chief creative officer at Electronic Arts), and "what is starting to differentiate games is what is happening inside the characters, how the opponents behave and make plans, how comprehensively and realistically the worlds respond to what the players want to do" (Ian Lane Davis, CEO of Mad Doc Software), and "the computer is ... analyzing the player, and the program is customizing the experience based on the internal model it has created of the human" (Will Wright, creator of The Sims).

This is a bit like a game-flavored re-run of the rhetoric of 1970s AI research. Based on the preferences of the third and fourth graders that I know, it rings true as a picture of what the gamers of the future want. And certainly some pieces of this future are already starting to appear. However, the aspect that involves "response to the conversational English being typed in by the human player" still seems to lag, as far as I can see. The (very simple) modes of conversational interaction of Eliza and of Adventure-style games seem to have been a kind of technological "sweet spot" -- as designers have tried to add more sophisticated natural-language interaction, my impression is that so far, the pay-off has been low relative to the extra effort expended. There may also be a question about how much gamers like typing as opposed to joy-sticking and other less textual modes of interaction.

Nick Montfort has some interesting ideas on this set of questions. His book Twisty Little Passages is an analytic history of interactive fiction; and here are some slides from a recent lecture by Nick on applications of narratology to game design.

If game engineers really succeed in creating a qualitative advance beyond Adventure-style conversational interaction, the next step would be gaming based on spoken conversation. I mean real, free-form speech communication, not just responses to a limited set of patterns. Maybe some day, some of those people walking down the street talking to themselves will be playing games rather than talking to friends on their cell phone. If that ever happens, then I predict that the distinction would start to dissolve, as the game characters begin to participate as disembodied cell-phone voices in players' everyday lives. But the premise is a difficult bar to clear -- it's not easy to make even text-based conversational interaction convincing, as Alan Turing pointed out long ago.

Meanwhile, I'll be interested to see whether Façade lives up to its buzz.

I have one more question. In traditional dystopian SF, the evil AIs who subvert the human world develop from runaway national-security mainframes, or military battlebots, or similarly serious hardware and software. Has there ever been an SF plot where the subversive silicon lifeforms come out of the game industry? And conquer the world via the social network of game play? "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated -- into the game."

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 8, 2005 07:49 AM