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1.5 Player Games - Bonding with AI

A discussion of fictional and AI companions in games and their use and effects as storytelling, gameplay and emotional immersion devices. Written with fond nostalgia :)

Humans beings are social by nature, so much so that isolation from any living thing can lead to insanity. Even if we don't have other people around, we keep pets, bond and share experiences with them. I think we recognize and bond with sentient beings faster than anything else because that's absolutely the best approach for survival - it was co-operative survival that motivated single function amoebas to partner up and create multi-cellular organisms, after all.

In games though, until more or less recently, you've been playing alone. Like always, I think you can trace much of this limitation to lacking technology: limited AI resources, processing power for complex patterns, memory budget for additional avatar-level of detail entities, etc. There were some clever solutions taken over these years, however, to bypass these hurdles. Navi, your fairy in (masterpiece) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time comes to mind, as she introduced this theme in future Zelda games.


Navi is a fairy that floats around you as Link in Ocarina. She's a very smart little piece of game and character design, too. She:

- Points out your main objective, keeping you on track and adding atmosphere with a little comment (no abstracted mission arrow or the like bringing you out of the immersion)

- Highlights objects of interest in the environment (again eschewing abstractions like twinkles and indicators)

- Makes chatter with you and others (advances the story and creates mood)

- Talks about and remembers Link's solitary quests  (allowing the story to have a mute protagonist going on adventures but still providing a way to communicate these experiences within the logic of the world)

- Is a small, shining white glow with beating wings (was cheap in terms of memory, requires no animation/rigging,)

- Has no independent AI, responding only to contextual environmental prompts and scripted events.

Navi is one of the earliest game companion experiences that I remember stuck with me. Simple though her behavior was, it was plausible enough that she would fly over to doors, switches and items when I approached them. I giggled at some of her comments, and was thankful she was able to mention my exploits for me. She was always there as I rode through Hyrule on Epona (another lesser, but still great companion - transport with personality) or on foot. She reminded me of everything that was going on, a living piece of the story traveling with me. The fact that I can't help attributing life and using a female pronoun only underscores how effective the immersion was.

I remember a fantastic journey with HK-47, the blood thirsty droid team-mate in BioWare's excellent Knights of the Old Republic. Having chosen the dark side (and I have yet to replay that as light side), I was slaughtering left or right, shooting and slicing before asking questions. And HK-47 was there all the time, giggling as only a droid can and getting way too excited over spilling blood. And remember, this was a game championing the element of player choice, offering the power to choose your own story arc into the light or dark side (or somewhere in between).

HK was a wonderful reinforcement of all the choices I had made in my evil Sith persona, and an incredible contribution to the feeling that I was truly taking actions that affected my world (and not just going down an option tree). I remember saving and then re-loading a couple of times to make some light side choices, and HK was there, fittingly disapproving at my meaty, flesh-bag merciful tendencies. He made me feel guilty (I kid you not!) for betraying the darkness, and I hurriedly re-loaded, back to the safety of my unflinching brutality.

The Fable series has also tried very notably to offer the player choice and a sense of consequence in the world, right down to the cheering or jeering of townspeople as you walk by. Fable II famously introduced the Dog. Your pet. Loyal to the end, no matter how you treat it. A direct reflection of your personality as it runs around, independent. Tender and playful, or vicious and mean. Visually evolving to reflect your growth also. But it was more than a story element.

Bringing all the companionship of constant presence while wandering, it was also alive, sometimes running off on its own accord, getting into fights, playing. It came to you when it got hurt, and (in my good playthrough) reveled when you gave it attention. It was also an aid in gameplay, fighting (with evolving skills like you), digging for items; it made a single-player game feel like a fantasy journey with a real canine companion. And the opportunity was definitely not missed to use your attachment to the dog in the story development, forcing some heart-wrenching moments and choices.

Atlas in Bioshock, one of the recent years' greatest tours de force. No, he wasn't a gameplay element - but to me it was such brilliant story-telling that it affected the way I played the rest of the game. I think the story was real art, and discovery of the truth about Atlas so profoundly shocking that it changed the way I played the game - there was such a deep sense of betrayal that it spilled over into a viciousness as I killed, I was more hurried, admittedly clouded sometimes with anger. I didn't want to finish the game - I wanted to kill Frank Fontaine.

I was playing Doom Resurrection on my iPhone the other day - in a game all about clever re-use and high-end feel solutions (rail shooter allowed to have incredible graphics due to the simplicity of the gameplay) you've got a droid companion who not only feeds story to you, but also contributes to pacing, which in my opinion is the toughest thing to get right in rail sequences. It does things like open doors with blow torch, requiring you to defend it while cutting, occasionally looking back to check the progress. Nice.

Chacha, the companion in Monster Hunter Tri, is another one I'm having fun with: in a game completely about solitary hunting (or with other human hunters), Chacha is great company with his little dances and comments, helping a lot in gameplay also by distracting monsters, gathering some items on his own, and even doing a bit of damage. Since you can assign different combinations of dances (support abilities) and masks (stats), you've got a nice combination of user development in an RPG system and quite a bit of spirited and fitting cheerfulness.

I love single player adventures, particularly the grand, epic kind  (just made me remember Wander and his relationship with Aro in Shadow of the Colossus), and I think that the inclusion of these companion elements has been responsible for some deeply touching (and commercially successful) game experiences; I see only a bright future ahead as we experiment with artificial sentience and the illusion of it.

Although much can be said about its limitations, I can't help but feel a thrill when seeing something like the Milo demo for Project Natal. If the best points of that concept are realized, is that not one of the greatest dreams for game immersion? The next step is logical, bringing a highly responsive AI out of a "safe" space and into a dynamic, real-time world, where not only does he respond to you, but so much more.

I do like to play devil's advocate, and I'll mention there's also a great space and argument for the true solitary journey, but I can't help but deny that hearing about the idea in a game always gets me excited, like in the upcoming Old Republic MMO. Like in KOTOR, but this companion lives with you in a potentially endless MMO game world. All I can think of is the stories that it can tell, how brilliant that is for bringing single-player consequence into the shared world of an MMO.

1.5 Player Game came to mind for a title because it suggests the feeling I've had that I'm playing with someone else, not alone. It's never the same (oh how I love my local co-op games, sitting on the couch together), but it can do something else: provide an entity from and consistent with the game world, and, if written and made well, something you can relate and bond with. Almost, but not quite, another player.

Is it a sign of an age of digital decadence, finding companionship in the alienation of an electronic construct? I'm sure it can be taken to sad (and comical) extremes, but the point is that video games can create worlds and experiences impossible otherwise - and your deepest and most touching interactions will always be with those living, breathing inhabitants of these fantasies. Specially if they walk by your side.

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