Bots may not have turned out to be as world-changing as some of the tech giants wanted you to believe, but there’s still something inherently fun that comes from talking with an AI (especially if it’s the virtual embodiment of a seasonal Starbucks beverage). The concept still has a ways to go before people start doing the majority of their banking or trip planning in Facebook Messenger, but the often silly nature of bots means that they’re potentially well-suited to gaming. This week, two new releases test this theory, putting a chatty AI bot at the heart of the experience.
In KOMRAD, available now on iOS, the story unravels as you talk to a Cold War-era computer that’s been dormant since the mid-1980s. You’re asked to hack it for information, only to discover that the computer is powered by an experimental Soviet AI. "Greetings, professor," it says when you boot up the machine. "I have been waiting." The game plays out as a real-time conversation between you and the AI, as you probe it for information while impersonating its creator. Your iOS device screen is transformed into an '80s monitor complete with green text and fictional, faded UniCom branding. It has a definite WarGames vibe.
KOMRAD is the first release from Sentient Play, a relatively new studio founded by Brad Becker, the former chief design officer working on IBM’s Watson. The game was inspired largely by that experience. "Originally this chat game platform grew out of my desire to be able to more quickly prototype AIs and get people to interact with them for testing," he says. "Although this is fiction entertainment, it is based on a lot of the very specific realities about AI that I experienced firsthand working on Watson."
Modern games like KOMRAD aren’t the first to allow players to speak directly to them. Classic text-based adventures like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had the same basic idea 40 years ago. The difference now is the improved technology, which allows creators like Becker to design more believable interactions with virtual characters. Becker says that the AI in KOMRAD is very similar to the bots you’ll find on platforms like Facebook Messenger, using "a mix of code and pre-scripted dialogue" to simulate real speech. Its reactions are based not only on your current response, but past responses as well, as you build up a relationship based on your shared history.
"It is based on a lot of the very specific realities about AI."
Another key difference is that you don’t actually type anything in KOMRAD — instead you choose from multiple dialogue options. This was done to make the game better suited for mobile, and also avoid one of the common frustrations with those classic text adventures, which often left players stuck until they could figure out just the right phrasing to make it to the next part of the game. "You run into the same problem with bots right now where the users have to guess which words and phrases the bot will understand," says Becker. "This is why I made KOMRAD more of a conversational choose-your-own-adventure than a narrative Zork, if you will."
Event takes the concept a step further. The game sees you stranded on a retro-futuristic spaceship ripped right out of 2001. The only other entity onboard is an AI named Kaizen. Event presents a fully 3D space for you to explore, and actually lets you type responses back and forth as you build a relationship with your virtual companion. The game started out as a student project by Paris-based studio The Ocelot Society, but after winning a series of awards in 2015, the team decided to turn the experience into a full commercial release. Much of the game, including the majority of its levels, were rebuilt for the final version, while new features were added, including a scanner that lets you scan objects around you and then talk with Kaizen about them.
Whereas KOMRAD’s AI has a distinct personality, one that has been rusting away for decades, Kaizen is more of a blank slate. "Its character is like a sponge: it absorbed the different traits of everyone it had ever encountered," explains game designer Sergey Mohov. "Without spoiling too much, I can say that it absorbed some more than others. This, of course, includes you, the player. You will also influence its attitude, mood, and emotions and experience the consequences of that throughout the game." Event uses this concept to great effect, as a way to teach you about the former inhabitants of the ship and what they were like, while also making it feel like you’re affecting the story in some way.
Giving the AI a personality was one of the biggest challenges of creating the game, according to Mohov, but it also came with an unintentional side effect: Kaizen is surprisingly funny. It will often crack jokes, but outside of a few that were prewritten, the rest were created by the AI itself.
"I don't remember writing this."
"The other day I decided to ask it why there was no fish in the fish tank, and Kaizen just refused to answer the question stubbornly," explains Mohov. "I assumed it was a bug or something, but it kept making suspicious innuendos, so I just went with it, and at the end, it said something along the lines of ‘I know that there is supposed to be live fish in the aquarium. I know, and I am OK with it.’ Made me laugh out loud. I don't remember writing this. The other writer doesn't remember writing this. It just created the joke out of thin air and pure randomness."
Games are often about inhabiting a specific role, whether it’s a hardened detective or a violent criminal. But one of the things that can break that immersion is how you interact with other characters; for the most part, games talk at you, instead of the other way around. Titles like KOMRAD and Event are a step closer to breaking down that barrier.
"It allows you to be creative and define who your character is," says Mohov. "You are your character, and their personality is your personality."