I’ve been playing a lot of Civilization 6 recently and I love it dearly. It’s not perfect though. Nothing is, of course, but Civ 6 also suffers because it’s a strategy game so it has all kinds of problems with its AI. When I first started writing a critique of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to the AI, I rather lazily typed out something like that previous sentence: “has there ever been a strategy game with AI that is praiseworthy rather than passable?” There’s a part of me that has become an apologist for clumsy AI routines in strategy games.
Here are a few artificial intelligences that need the fewest apologies.
The fact is, it’s not just strategy games that suffer from bad AI, is it? And maybe “bad” is the wrong word, because if there’s no “good” AI to rate it against, isn’t all AI perfectly fine? What are our expectations of what AI should and shouldn’t be able to do? I often say that the best AI is the one that convinces me I’m playing against a person, making mistakes, reacting to strategies, exhibiting signs that it has a character distinct from other opponents.
To an extent, it’s much easier to be convinced by an AI in a game that has either very simple rules or extremely complex, opaque rules. Civilization falls somewhere in the middle – it’s impossible not to notice when an AI nation churns out loads of settlers and has nowhere to send them. It should realise that it’s wasting resources and stop producing settlers but some trigger has told it that it needs a new city and it’ll just keep going through the motions until a new trigger over-rides that one.
I’m sure there are similar loops in other games but Civ’s transparency – all of the rules and actions are easily knowable – makes it easier to spot the tipping point when the AI starts running straight through the hurdles and ends up lying on the ground full of splinters.
That said, I thought it might be fun to think about my favourite AI in games. Not the SHODANs and other villainous computery sorts, but the AI that drives games.
Crusader Kings II
I’m probably overly forgiving of CK II’s AI because I play the game as an RPG as much as a strategy game. If I tried to figure out how best to manipulate other characters, I might find their fatal flaws all too easily, but as it is, I’m playing to see a simulation of history rather than to win. Whatever the case, if a game can play with itself and create compelling stories, the AI is doing something right. Open up the console (` key by default in the UK) and type ‘observe’, then ‘fow’ to reveal the world. Now you can accelerate and watch history generate itself.
People often talk about Half Life’s soldiers when discussing FPS AI. “The barks,” they’ll tell you, “the barks were the key”. They’re not wrong. The soldiers speak to each other, telegraphing their intentions, and that makes them seem like they’re acting as a team, thinking and communicating. They’re great.
F.E.A.R. wins though, because the soldiers there are absolutely terrified of the player character at times and listening to them panic as they react is preposterously entertaining.
Deadly Premonition (and others)
Alice suggested this, pointing out that it’s more a scripting thing than an AI thing. If you haven’t played Deadly Premonition, know this: you can follow characters as they go about their lives, spying on them in their homes, watching the as they potter about the place. It’s great: both authentically detective-y, and absolutely weird and creepy and sinister.
If the strength of some AI is that it can go off-script, just as an actor can improvise when circumstances demand, the waxworks of Deadly Premonition feel like the residents of a haunted house. They’re on-rails, unable to escape or deviate.
There’s a whole subset of games that have this type of AI. I wrote about my favourites here.
Grand Theft Auto V
Following pedestrians, watching their weird interactions, seeing someone drop a coffee as I brush against them and then seeing the styrofoam cup roll into the gutter. GTA V often bores me when it should excite me, during its heists and high speed chases, but in small moments, its world feels convincingly inhabited.
A turn-based survive ’em up that makes me feel hunted and afraid more effectively than a multiplayer kill ’em up or just about any survival horrorgame. It’s in the combat that the AI really shines, not because it’s good at fighting but because it seems clumsy, terrified and like it’d rather be doing anything else but will absolutely cut you to ribbons with a shard of glass if it has to. After all, you’ve got a nice pair of shoes.
What’s your favourite AI?
Mine, despite all of the above, belongs to these mushrooms that Alice found.