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Idle Musing: Watching The AI Fight

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Over Christmas I drew up a list of little things about games that have always intrigued, interested, or appealed to me. I’ve been adding to it over the past couple of weeks, and I’ll be writing about these little nuances of gaming in the coming months. These are just idle musings, but I hope you’ll find them to be food for thought. Today’s is about the odd joy in seeing AI entities getting into a fight.

I can’t remember when I first saw AI picking fights with each other, because it surely must have first happened way back in the history of gaming. I can, however, remember when I first really noticed it and thought “hey, that’s cool, I’m glad it works like that.” It was while playing Doom: I noticed that an enemy injured by another type of enemy would turn on them. Imps, demons and zombies would go at each other, leaving familiar piles of gibs to no cost to my ammo inventory. The first time it happened, it was a minor moment of joy. Not because the enemy of my enemy is my friend, (although that can be true) but because it meant the game world wasn’t all about me.

It seems a strange thing to say, perhaps, but games not being entirely focused on me, and events carrying on without caring about my activity, I find enormously compelling. It means the world has some glimmer of life in it – something that responds to more than my prodding. A game world in which NPCs fight is one that is not purely a shooting gallery.

When I think about this against the context of my grumbling about a lack of interactivity, or cutscenes, or anything else the player is not directly involved in, it seems odd to exalt in watching the game do stuff by itself. But then again I think it’s the idea that I could be involved (or stand back and watch) that is most interesting here: there is one more choice in this situation than just fight or don’t progress.

I ended up thinking back to the games between here and Doom that have made watching AI fights so interesting. Half-Life did it brilliantly with the skirmishes between marines and the aliens. These were generally heavily orchestrated, and dropped right in your path, but if you played through Half-Life as many times as I did, the joy began to be in seeing how they might change, or how you might change them. In any game where NPCs might come into conflict, there’s a clear joy in tricking them into a fight that they might not otherwise have had.

Stalker, of course, is filled with AI intended to give you this kind of experience. I’ve written about that phenomenon before now, and whenever I go back to the game it’s the desperate battles between stalkers, bandits, and mutants that I find most evocative.

To take it even further you could look at the Arma games, whose editor and AI are pretty much designed to allow you to set up elaborate battles, and then to sit on top of a hill with a pair of binoculars to watch shit go down. The first time someone showed me this in action, I realised that I had, somewhere out there in the Czech Republic, a game design brother.

Of course it’s not always down to the machinations of shooters. The two best things I saw in Skyrim were a dragon attacking a town – spectacularly strafing it with fire as the guards launched arrows and died horribly – and a giant smacking a wolf up the side of a mountain with his tree-sized club.

Perhaps what’s most joyous about these events is that many of them are not, at least in any strict sense, dependent on scripting. They’ve often been “set up” so that the entities in the game will run into each other and fight but, like the Doom baddies scrapping with each other, these fights play out in accordance with the game’s own rules and dynamics. Just waiting to see what happens is one of those little joys of gaming that, I think, a lot of people miss.

Perhaps, in my dream future of game design, I’ll be able to play a game in which enemy factions wage full-blown simulated war with each other, and I am just passing through. A wanderer and a spectator in a conflict that is not simply scripted up to happen the same time every time, but could go any way, with me just pushing it this way and that, interfering with the battles when I need to. There’s a kind of super-voyeurism in watching simulations fight: watching the computer wage fevered, dynamic war against its own is a peculiar, modern experience that I don’t want to take for granted.

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