Since their inception games have struggled with how they use systems of artificial intelligence to present the concept of ‘challenge’.
If a system is too formalised — for example, with enemies getting simply faster and/or tougher as a game progresses — then the entire experience can feel too mechanised and pre-determined. You feel as though you’re playing through a game of fate in which the task set against you remains the same no matter what you do.
If a system is too random and enemies start using ideas and actions against you that you can’t predict then things feel too random and, resultantly, unfair. No one wants to be beaten consistently through acts that they can’t understand or even see coming. People don’t like feeling dumb, after all.
As players we say that we want a challenge within our games, but that’s only part of it. We’re pickier than that, we want the kind of challenge we can understand and overcome.
Ultra Ultra, a small indie team based out of Copenhagen, Denmark whose members are alumni of IO Interactive and the Hitman franchise, believe it has found an AI system that offers the perfect balance between structure and unpredictability in its upcoming ECHO.
Its AI is based on you. Yes, you. You with your eyes darting across the screen and reading and re-reading this paragraph and an attempt to work out whether the fourth wall is really being broken right now. It is. As a human, you’re the perfect combination of structure and unpredictably, planning and panic, ego and selflessness.
ECHO, too, breaks the fourth-wall. It’s a stealth game in which its world is constantly watching your every action and then passing on what it sees to its minions seeking to hunt and kill you. Very quickly you begin to feel the power of the idea as you second-guess your every move, afraid that what you’re about to do is going to be used against you.
The structure comes from knowing that enemies can only do what you’ve done; the unpredictability is a result of your own nervousness in acting and not knowing how you yourself are going to act in each level.
Such a setup is engaging because of the never-ending stream of questions it fires at you and forces you to answer: Do you act in a way to make your life easier now, or to make it easier tomorrow? Am I really watching what I’m doing to make sure I know what my enemies can do? Have I got a countermove for every move the enemies are going to learn from me?
You might take some fruit from a table in order to replenish your health, but thereafter your enemies will be able to do the same. Crouching to hide behind walls is something they can learn, as is performing sneaky kills from behind and working out how to power lifts and interact with other objects in the environment.
After you’ve performed a certain number of actions the world goes dark – the lights literally turning off — so that the computer systems governing the environment can process what it’s learned and pass it on to the clones that give it physical form. How frequently enemies learn new moves, then, comes down to how many you choose to use.
All of what I’ve played so far takes place in a palatial setting, albeit one devoid of any personal touches or human character. It very much feels like the kind of replication a computer would make after scanning through images of illustrious, grand examples of interior design of the sort preferred by Marie Antoinette.
Other environment types do exist, but we’ve not yet had the chance to go hands-on with them. Given the idea of AI learning it will be interesting to see how the different environments offer new potential actions and how we thereafter use those actions given the relationship between what we do and how enemies perform.
The real intrigue behind ECHO is that relationship between player and subsequent player challenge. It could be that Ultra Ultra has solved some of the difficulties related to AI-based challenges simply by having the AI watch before it acts.
This is a game in which you are the architect of any downfall you might encounter. You’re your own best friend and worst enemy.