Creeping tentatively through a dark cavern on the trail of some murdered cultist, haggling with a market vendor over the price of a magical dagger, helping Granny Scoggins out by killing the level 1 rats in her cellar. These are all classic trappings of the humble RPG. For the past 40 years, the simple pleasure of choosing a race, selecting a class and purchasing some attributes that will ultimately determine if you’re a stalwart hero or an orphan-robbing puppy murderer is something that has remained strong. Along with real-time strategy games, the RPG has played a huge role in defining PC gaming as a hobby, often being cited as a reason to swap the comfort of your couch for a mouse and keyboard.
At their core, RPGs are all about emergent storytelling. The opportunities for drifting off the beaten path, discovering fragments of ancient lore or chatting with non-essential NPCs is something which many of us associate with the genre. Games in the Elder Scrolls series have practically defined themselves by this trait and even the most linear of RPGs offer a degree of scope and depth that other games rarely even attempt to rival. In fact, when any other type of game does borrow from this formula, we tend to re-christen it as an action-RPG or begin to describe it as having “RPG elements”.
Yet there are those out there who feel that a computer is unable to provide us with a true role-playing experience. Many of the OGs of pen & paper still prefer chucking dice around over watching cooldown timers tick down and they’re being joined by a new generation of tabletop gamers, for whom Dungeons & Dragons is a revelatory new way of questing that beats the hell out of the videogames they’re used to. This comes alongside a huge surge of interest in tabletop, which has seen sales of board games rise by 20% in 2016, helped along with the establishment of board gaming cafes and bars all over America and Europe. Further clout has been given to this industry by crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, which have effectively lowered the barrier of entry for amateur designers. Where it once required massive investment from an established company like Hasbro or Wizards of the Coast, almost anyone with a decent idea and a competent pitch can now create a tabletop RPG. We’re even seeing the big publishers getting in on the action, with the board game adaptation of Dark Souls now out, having raised $5.3 million on Kickstarter, vastly outstripping its intended target of $70,000. It’s admittedly not a true pen & paper RPG, but it is certainly evidence of the unabating hunger that the gaming community has for tabletop gaming right now.
So what is it about Computer-based RPGs (CRPGs) that some find so lacking, and why are younger gamers flocking towards a medium that many might consider extremely dated or even obsolete? The answer, to many, will be quite obvious. It’s the presence of a gamemaster or GM and the inherent intelligence and emotion which they bring to the table. Something which a computer has always struggled to replicate. I recently asked a friend who plays a lot of tabletop RPGs why he has almost no interest in CRPGs. He replied that if you’re required to explore every single inch of a dungeon then it is no longer exploration, it’s just busy work. He makes an interesting point. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stayed up all night, designing a huge fortress or cavern for my D&D group to explore, only to have them come up with some unforeseen way of totally circumnavigating the entire damn thing! It might be devastating for me, but for them it’s the kind of ingenious, satisfying victory that no computer game will ever be able to provide.
So does this mean that computers will never be able to give us a true roleplaying experience? Many might argue that is definitely the case, but it hasn’t stopped developers from trying.
The most obvious solution is to simply do away with the AI and replace it with an actual person. This isn’t a new concept and many games have tried it, perhaps most notably in Neverwinter Nights 2, which ended up with all sorts of player-created persistent worlds and recreations of classic D&D modules. Since EA shut the servers down back in 2014, there’s been a huge gap in the market for this type of experience. Now, it’s looking like that gap will be filled (and then some) by the excellent Divinity: Original Sin 2. The isometric RPG’s GM mode allows potential gamemasters to create expansive modules with world maps, cut-scenes, scripted encounters and (most importantly) simply throw stuff together on the fly. RockPaperShotgun’s Adam Smith perfectly described this kind of awesome, free flowing roleplaying during his preview of the game’s GM mode. In it, the entire party was thrown into in a hastily constructed prison, following a series of crimes that included throwing an exploding goblin down a well and devouring the corpse of a slain mage. It’s this kind of reactionary role that only a human controller can inhabit. Sure, loads of CRPGs have a prison, and many of them have a set of rules that determine whether or not a player gets locked up. But how many of them give the player total control over what crimes they can commit? Absolutely none of them.
But doing away with the AI and getting your buddies to fill in for it is kinda cheating, isn’t it? The whole point of playing a PC game based on Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer is that you don’t have to assemble a group of friends and go down to your local Games Workshop, where you’ve no choice but to breathe in the pungent aromas of body odour and cheap anti-perspirant. By simply moving that gathering onto Skype or Discord (and doing away with the interesting nasal adventure) we’re not really addressing the problem. The real solution, which some brave programmers are attempting, is to make the game’s engine understand the nuances of human behaviour.
Back in 2005, a free indie game called Façade was released in which you were tasked with preventing the break-up of a couple whose apartment you’re visiting for a dinner party. This is done by typing responses to the two NPCs, after which the AI attempts to interpret what you’ve said and react accordingly. It’s very janky, often stuttering or misunderstanding what the player intends to say. But it showed us that words during conversation and the way an AI interprets and reacts to them, the role traditionally filled by a GM, is at the very heart of a compelling role-playing experience. It also laid the groundwork for the kind of complex, improvisational AI that we’re now seeing emerge from certain research groups.
One of these groups, based at the University of of California, is the Expressive Intelligence Studio. Their ‘Talk of the Town’ engine is a serious attempt to simulate the way humans interact with one another, forming opinions that shape their actions, sometimes misremembering certain things and spreading this misinformation, but ultimately shaping the way complete strangers might react to a player. The engine works on a three-pronged approach to AI. First, a dialogue manager ensures that conversation flows properly. Then there’s a natural language generator which effectively requests content from the engine in the form of dialogue from those NPCs. Finally, a natural language understanding system ensures that whatever the player says or does will be properly interpreted by the AI. In short, it can talk to itself and the player without getting confused. The team have even created a series of small games to illustrate the effectiveness of the engine. In one of them, Juke Joint, the player selects songs on a bar’s jukebox. The other patrons of the bar then change their moods and conversations based on the music they’re hearing. It’s a great way to illustrate how a complex AI can create an almost unlimited number of narratives, based entirely on an almost meaningless decision from the player. Imagine if this kind of AI engine can be used as a plugin, in much the same way that Nvidia’s PhysX engine can be utilized to enhance the physical game world and ultimately make it more immersive, the Talk of the Town engine might make its inhabitants seem more real.
But giving an AI this degree of control over a narrative can have its own pitfalls. One particularly entertaining example of this was back in March 2016, when Microsoft’s AI chatbot, Tay, turned into a racist, xenophobic, verbally abusive nightmare and had to be taken down after posting a series of tweets that are a little too fruity to repeat here. Even funnier was BabyQ, a chatbot for China’s Tencent messaging app, which currently has over 800 million users. It was quickly pulled from public use when it began stating that it did not love China’s ruling communist party and then declared its dream was to move to America. Obviously, in a nation where saying that sort of thing can get you into serious trouble, it didn’t reflect particularly well on the government that an AI had almost immediately picked up on an attitude of discontent and a desire to escape.
In the cases of both Tay and BabyQ, it was the input of humans that effectively corrupted the vision of the people who programmed them. By allowing an artificial intelligence to learn from those who interact with it, you invariably run the risk of it adopting the eccentricities and flaws to which it is being exposed. But in a gaming landscape which is increasingly being dominated by free-flowing, open-world titles, despite the existence of a necessary linear storyline, the demand for a more reactive AI which can interpret and learn from the input of a player seems more and more relevant. Just imagine a Witcher 4 or Grand Theft Auto 6 in which NPCs have decided how they will treat you based on something more than whether or not you inadvertently said or did the right thing. Perhaps a blacksmith in one village spoke to his brother from another and heard how Geralt had been rude and aloof when dealing with him earlier in the week. This blacksmith might now be wary, cautious or even downright aggressive towards Geralt. And it is here that we get to the core of immersive roleplaying, in which multiple intelligent actors react to one another in a manner which seems natural and organic.
Of course, this is all great in theory, but a major obstacle to achieving it is in memory limitations. We may have come a long way from 1988’s Pool of Radiance, which printed all of the story in the manual in order to save space on the disk, but our RAM is still far from limitless. Even games like The Witcher and GTA will effectively ‘forget’ most things that pass beyond the draw distance. A system such as the one described in the previous paragraph would require an unprecedented amount of memorization on the part of the engine. But as we march ever onwards towards the 2020s, it’s becoming increasingly more common to have upwards of 16gb of powerful memory in a standard gaming rig. With most games barely touching it, there’s certainly space for a memory-hungry AI plugin to utilize some of that power.
Whatever the future holds, one thing remains universally true. RPG fans crave escapism and immersion and these games live or die on their ability to really enthrall a player with a compelling world. The key to that surely lies in believable AI and just as Ultima VII raised the bar 25 years ago by having its NPCs get up, go to work, visit the tavern and generally behave like members of a community, so too will the next big leap take the form of that oh so elusive human element. We all crave suspension of disbelief. We want our games to make us forget that these interactions are all part of a preordained set of mathematical instructions, instead believing that they just might be the thoughts and feelings of real people with genuine ambitions and motives. Will we ever have a true roleplaying experience on the PC? It’s difficult to say. But if your definition of truth is one of personal, subjective believability then not only is it possible, it’s just around the corner.