AI miracles are the talk of the town nowadays and one of the most recent developments in the field is AI dialogue. A longtime dream of gamers has become a reality now: you can talk to NPCs inside video games. Not by choosing dialogue options, but by literally typing to them whatever you like and expecting a coherent context-appropriate response.
A Youtube channel called “Bloc” has been posting some videos in the past few weeks, showcasing the technology using a custom build story engine that implements ChatGPT in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord.
You can check the videos in the link above, but basically, through this story engine, you can type whatever you like to NPCs and they respond in the manner of a medieval character. One of the disturbing videos is titled Raiding while AI Begs for Its Life – Bannerlord and Chat AI (NOT ChatGPT). In it, the player, acting as a raider, is talking to an AI-controlled NPC, asking him to give him his belongings. When the NPC says he has nothing of value to offer and begs him to be left alone, he types that if he gives his wife to the player and his men, he will be left alone. The NPC says his wife is not for trade and begs some more. The player gives one last warning that if he doesn’t comply, he will start beheading his children and after the NPC resists, he kills the man and starts massacring the village.
Now that’s different from your average raiding experiences in video games, isn’t it?
This technology is still at an early stage. The most glaring problem is that AI dialogue sounds too scripted and repetitive. You can try this out inside ChatGPT itself right now. Ask ChatGPT to write dialogue from the point of view of a certain kind of character (no matter how specific) and then ask it to role-play with you as that character.
For example, I asked ChatGPT to role-play with me as a high-level member of the Sicilian Mafia in a future cyberpunk New Jersey (!). We had a little chat about a mission delivering some high-tech equipment and doing favors to gain his trust so he lends me the help of his crew; nothing is out of ordinary when it comes to simple role-playing. Most of this dialogue could be easily carried by the traditional “dialogue option” method. So I decided to ask some non-conventional questions, like “what’s the meaning of life?” and “what do you think should be done with the immigrants in this city?”
If AI dialogue becomes a norm in the business, I imagine people will find a lot of meme-worthy material when it comes to talking to NPCs. Like a new emerging genre of clickbait Youtube videos will be something like:
- “I played the new Berserk game and convinced Griffith he’s Gay by Referencing the Manga”
- “I told Super Mario He’s Getting Cucked by Bowser. Watch His Response.”
- “I Ask Every Character in Elden Ring III to Praise the Sun and Found an Easter Egg.”
But there’s an obvious problem with this. If we make it possible to talk with NPCs in an unrestrained manner, this can become tiresome really quickly, even if AI dialogue becomes way more advanced than it already is and manages to come up with responses that don’t seem so bland, predictable, and politically correct.
The thing is video games have become too tied with the concept of progress. When we play games, everything we do is a step towards reaching a goal, even conversation. We might not mind a long conversation because in our minds, it’s just part of the game’s progress. When we exhaust all of the options, we feel good, because it feels like we have accomplished something by consuming the game’s content, which is a dialogue written by a writer and voiced by a professional. Even if the dialogue is as bland as AI dialogue, our cognitive bias of valuing human labor still makes consuming it feel mildly satisfying.
But the idea of an NPC having infinite things to say – things that are just made up on the spot without any labor involved – is in direct contrast to this sense of progress. Due to the cognitive bias previously mentioned, we might feel more satisfied going through 5/10 dialogue written by a human than a 6/10 dialogue written by an AI, because the former feels like progress, but the latter doesn’t. So what can we do about that?
One possibility is that the idea of NPCs with infinite things to say will never take off beyond being a novelty or an easter egg. Video game writers might use AI for inspiration or use AI dialogue verbatim for unimportant dialogues – like those quest dialogues for MMORPGs that already seem AI generated anyway – but they might never actually put AI-controlled NPCs in the game. In this possibility, video game characters will remain the way they were; with pre-written and pre-recorded dialogues and dialogue options you can choose from.
As an interesting piece of trivia, It’s worth mentioning that the idea of typing anything you like to NPCs has already been turned into a game. No, I’m not talking about the old text-based adventure games that didn’t have any graphics. I’m talking about a 3D fully-voiced story-rich game: the 1998 obscure adventure game called Starship Titanic. It’s the brainchild of Douglas Adams (the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and two Monty Python members. In the game, you’re in an art deco styled starship that is populated with some robots who answer anything you say to them. As mentioned in the game’s Wikipedia: “In order to achieve Adams’s goal of being able to converse with characters in the game, his company developed a language processor to interpret player’s input and give an appropriate response and recorded over 16 hours of character dialogue.”
The fact that Starship Titanic was a financial disappointment at the time of release and didn’t even manage to reach cult status like many of its peers (the game has 77 Steam reviews atm) shows that the idea of AI dialogue never taking off is not completely off the table. The idea of conversing with NPCs – even if their dialogue is written by a brilliant writer like Adams – didn’t seem that exciting back then, even as a well-developed gimmick for one game, so why should it become a trend now? I think no matter how well AI develops, the idea of an infinite generation of dialogue will be off-putting to many people. A limited, linear predetermined dialogue written by a proficient writer who has something to say will never fall out of favor.
However, it doesn’t mean that AI dialogue will not have its own exciting uses, as long as it’s not aimless. One of the ideas that come to mind is “keyword-sensitive” dialogue. What I mean is you can design a quest revolving around an NPC that is AI controlled; you can say anything to the NPC, but in order to progress by talking to them (in the old-fashioned way of choosing the right dialogue options), you must form sentences that show you have found the right clues related to the plot.
A simple example would be the interrogation scenes in LA Noire. It’s obvious that this game was trying hard to convey the feeling of real interrogation, but your input is limited to choosing 3 options: accuse, doubt, and believe, usually based on the weird overly exaggerated facial animations of the suspect.
Now imagine using AI dialogue and AI voice acting to enhance the interrogation system; you could interrogate suspects by writing your own sentences and find the truth using your intuition. The developer could determine certain keywords and key phrases as the way to get to the bottom of a suspect’s confession. If you think someone is lying, you can either expose them by having a long conversation and finding inconsistencies in their speech, or by mentioning a clue that you have found earlier, a clue that proves that they’re lying. In this scenario, the clue could be the keyword that the game recognizes as “progress”. The idea of making progress in the game using keywords you have found intuitively has already been implemented in the 2015 game “Her Story”. But the scope can become bigger and involve actual characters, not just a search engine and pre-recorded videos.
If AI becomes so advanced that it manages to influence NPC’s action in the game world, you could revolutionize tactical features in games. You can design a quest in an RPG in which you and your companions have to storm a castle. You can explain your tactics to them, give them orders, argue about what works and then watch your exact plan play out. Of course, for this to work, this dialogue should not just be a gimmicky replacement for tactical UI elements. The tactical scenario should be dynamic and be impacted by your direction. If you talk rudely to one of your companions, there should be the possibility of them disobeying your orders and doing their own thing, which could lead to failure or loss of resources for you. Likewise, there should be the possibility of someone ignoring your orders if you are not strict enough with them. You need to be able to figure out these things based on the characters’ personalities.
Basically, divorcing video games from the idea of progress is going to be very hard and if AI dialogue is ever going to be relevant, it needs to find a way to become tied with the game’s progress. The developers have to find ways to use AI’s nature of infinite generation in accordance with the gamer’s sense of creativity and intuition, not just to fill up space. The examples above are simple ways to do that, but I’m sure the possibilities are endless and will be discovered in the years to come.
However, AI Dialogue and AI writing can give rise to a whole new genre of sandbox games, games that are not based on progress, but on exploration. If you are following AI news, you might have heard about how AI will make Dungeon Masters redundant and how it will revolutionize Tabletop role-playing. These claims are obviously an exaggeration because the point of tabletop role-playing has always been chilling with friends, but they’re a good place to start. Tabletop role-playing games were always about unrestrained imagination and starting stories that no one could possibly predict where they could go. Thanks to D&D, humans started to experience stories – and high-quality stories, mind you – in a different way. Now the story was not something that a brilliant author bestowed on you like a god, but something that you and your friends made up on the spot.
As tabletop role-playing entered the domain of computer games, it was forced to become more and more restrained, because the developers had no way of addressing all the possibilities the players might have come up with, especially in terms of graphics, voice acting, and level design. Role-playing games became the same predetermined authored experiences that tabletop was originally trying to challenge.
But now thanks to AI dialogue, AI writing, and AI image production, we can have a 360-degree turn and go back to the beginning of RPGs: the point where unrestrained imagination was possible and you could experience a high-quality story that was not authored by anyone previously.
The nature of AI – which is based on infinite generation of narrative-related content – is a hurdle for standard video games, because it will ultimately result in the spamming of content and makes the whole experience feel cheap and recyclable. But as they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure: the idea of infinite generation is exactly what traditional role-playing thrives on.
AI is a golden opportunity for tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, The Old World of Darkness, and the rest to go back to their roots and publish something that makes it possible for people who don’t have access to tabletop equipment or friends whose schedule matches (or friends in general) to enjoy these franchises as they were meant to be played. I for one would be interested in a D&D game that is designed to recreate the unrestrained nature of D&D sessions using AI DM, AI artwork, and AI writing, a game that can literally address all sorts of wacky scenarios you could come up with and apply D&D rules to them. I know it’s not the same as gathering around with a group of friends and playing D&D with them, but it can be a great way to introduce newcomers to the world and its rules in a visually pleasing well-structured digital environment.
If none of these propositions satisfy you, let’s think about the situation in a different way: in the past few decades, we humans have been training ourselves to create and consume “content”. Content is an ugly word because it implies mediocrity. You wouldn’t call a masterpiece you experienced “content”. Content is something that mildly amuses you. It’s something that’s just there to fill up space. In extreme cases, content is something you consume, not something you enjoy.
AI has reached a level where it can just create infinite story-related content day in and day out. Now just filling up the game world with content doesn’t seem that special. It wasn’t special before, but at least you thought to yourself: “a human labored over this. There’s a part of their soul in it. It’s not THAT worthless”. You can’t think like that anymore. AI won’t let you be satisfied with mediocrity in the realm of creativity. No one can produce mediocre art and writing and call it a day just because they produced content. So anyone who’s in the field of content creation is faced with a dreadful existential question: why should I go on?
No matter how AI gets used in video games, I think it’s going to have one big effect: it’s going to challenge all the people who produce mediocrity and are satisfied with it. AI can produce mediocrity hundreds of times more effective than any of us, in any field. So now what are we left with? If game developers never find a way to implement AI writing in their games, at least it will have one important use: it will provide a template of mediocrity and blandness that humans will try to get away from as far as possible, because “it’s like it’s written by AI” has already become a critical buzz phrase. The result will either be really bad or brilliant, but it will be human; it won’t be mediocrity and it won’t be content for content’s sake. And that’s all that matters.
P.S.: It’s also possible that AI makes it easier to create mediocrity faster and more efficiently than ever before, everyone will keep consuming content that constantly gets more dumbed down and no one would bat an eye, because the standard of greatness simply doesn’t exist anymore, no one has the will and motivation to resurrect it and humanity will be submerged in a sea of mildly pleasing mediocrity everywhere, all the time.
But I wanted to end things on a positive note. So please, play along.
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