The not-so-Black-&-White world of intelligence

By 4 January 2013 Analysis No Comments

I am a god. What you see before you is merely the physical manifestation of an unknowable; a distillation of semi-phenomenal, nearly-cosmic power into the crucible of a humanoid hand. I can shape the world with just a flick of my fingers, control the forces of nature with a gesture, and command humanity to bend to my will. Children can be tossed into the fires of eternal damnation to feed my temple, and still the people worship. Civilisations fall at my feet. I am everything.

But I can’t stop a monkey eating his own poop. It’s my own fault, really. While trying to teach the furry idiot – affectionately referred to as “Huxley” – to do his dirty business on fledgling forests instead of against the back of my temple, I accidentally made him pick up the tree and hurl it into the nearby town centre. No fatalities. I replaced the tree, and Huxley picked it up immediately to throw it back into the town, before looking up at me expectantly. Three fatalities in the form of a canoodling couple and the local woodcutter, and now Huxley thinks we’re playing monkey fetch. He gets a quick clip around the ear, and is now a little bit afraid of trees. Now he won’t go near the forest and he’s still defecating on my temple. I attempt to move the poop from the wall to the forest, then lead the monkey to it. It works! Right up to the part where he picks up the turd, examines it with scientific curiosity and then sticks it right in his mouth. He wanders off as I set fire to an abandoned hut in frustration, and I watch him puke on the head of the nearest villager.

Believe it or not, this messy sack of failure is exactly what I want from a video game.

I’ve previously gone on about the virtues of cocking things up in games, with specific reference to the physics and weather-based shenanigans of From Dust. But if you truly want to mess with a world you need decisions not of your own making. Autonomous entities. You need AI. The free will of the denizens of Townville is why The Sims is such a fascinating petri dish of human awkwardness and trauma. We rub our hands together with psychotic glee while Howard does his juggling act because we know Jimmy is deathly afraid of jugglers. Sandy ‘accidentally’ walking in on her husband and Old Mrs Putanesca from next door in the hot tub together is magical because we get to watch the violent and emotional aftermath.

But AI is limited. Unless they really need to pee or sleep, your Sims will often blindly follow orders while doing the minimum of personal decision making. They’ll go to work if you’ve sent them to work previously, sit and read books, chat to friends without stirring up any trouble. Games like F.E.A.R. are lauded – rightfully – for their fantastic AI routines, with soldiers able to react dynamically to the environment, pick viable tactics and adjust their strategies to match the player. But this is all just a rather convincing illusion that we all agree to believe in. John Hammond reminisces about his flea circus as Jurassic Park falls down around his ears, lamenting his desires to create something “real”. Games are looking for the same thing, but getting hung up on the realism of looking at dinosaurs through a safety fence and forgetting the chaos that follows when the simulation breaks free.

So we come back to Black & White. All the way back in 2001, Lionhead Studios brought this god game to the world, casting the player as a newly-formed deity looking after (or controlling) the population. It has the now-standard good versus evil mechanic, allows complete physical freedom to pick people up and throw them in the ocean, crush towns with rocks, create deadly firestorms, etcetera, etcetera. Then there’s the creature. Your creature is touted as an avatar; a visual and tactile representation of your inherent godliness for the people to ooh and aah over.

Bollocks. What your creature actually represents is a gigantic baby holding a nuclear bomb. Unbelievable power sitting in the hands of a high-functioning idiot. Your monkey (or tiger, or cow, or turtle, or horse) will blunder around the landscape doing whatever it pleases with no idea of the consequences, and the only thing you can do is try to teach it right from wrong. Emphasis on the word try. With the aid of three leashes – learning, aggression and compassion – you can teach them to carry out complex actions like collecting food for your towns, allocating jobs to citizens or devouring the children of your enemies. You can also slap the stupid out of them or reward their good works with petting.

There are two distinct reasons that this po-faced nincompoop represents what is probably the best example of AI in the history of gaming. First, the distinction between right and wrong isn’t along party lines; good and evil are simply how the tiny human world you control describes helpful or hindering behaviour. The definition isn’t even about helpful actions versus unhelpful ones. Your creature will do whatever you tell it to, defining “wrong” as the things that earn punishment and “right” as those that don’t. What you decide to make a right action is entirely up to you. If you want the giant cow to only beat up women, go for it. If you want him to take all a village’s food stores and drop them into a fire, sure. It’s quite a powerful message about the responsibilities of the parent, if you’re into all that allegorical hogwash. Most of us go through our whole lives without properly realising there’s no authority beyond what we’ve been told, and that everything might just be completely wrong.

The second reason is unforeseen consequences. The earlier dance with Huxley and his poop is a perfect example. The monkey wasn’t following a routine that was activated as soon as his robot eyes saw the poop object, like an AI soldier scanning for cover in a new environment. He was finding a strange thing that came out of his body, examining it, then making a decision on what to do with it. And that decision was wrong. Repeatedly. Sure, my temple is coated in a thin film of monkey leavings, but we’ve all learned an excellent lesson about learning versus programming.

And I feel for Huxley. All this AI lumped together and chaotically interacting, hunger bouncing off desires for sleep and a tendency to dance for attention, has created something my human brain interprets as a real living thing with autonomy, wants and needs. This has nothing to do with the story. Black & White‘s narrative is as complex and deep as a saucer of milk. It’s about convincing me that this is a real giant monkey in a real Norse-inspired island culture. That’s why I feel bad for hitting the poor idiot too hard when he uses a fireball spell to burn down a forest, leading to a lack of proper discipline which ends in the destruction of seven homes and four families. It’s why I can’t stand to put him on the leashes that force him to perform only good actions, as if that equates to a digital lobotomy. When he does something terrible, I get angry, but it isn’t the normal gamer anger at a broken game or a ruined task; I’m angry at the monkey. He should know better. He’s going to need to be punished. He failed. And I’m angry at myself, because I’m the one who raised him and I did something wrong.

I am his god-father after all.

Andy Astruc

Andy Astruc

The flicker of form that lives in the corner of your vision. The smoke seeping under the door. The terror that flaps in the night. Not the messiah. Likes to write about crazy narrative concepts and time travel.

Video games are f&#king cool. Take a chance: Okay