Many gamers talk to their games—be it interacting via simple spoken commands, or just yelling at the television about how cheap their character’s death was. Now, the Montreal, Canada-based developer North Side Inc. is looking to turn that typically one-way conversation into a new method for narrative interaction.
Back in 2004, Konami published a Sony-developed PS2 title called Lifeline here in the States. In the game, players had to help a young waitress named Rio Hohenheim survive an outbreak of monsters aboard a near-future space station. The catch? You could do nothing directly in the game. Instead, players gave voice commands (via USB headset) to Rio. The game’s AI was able to understand 500 pre-set commands, and while you could speak full English to Rio, in reality it would simply look for one of those command words or phrases to recognize whatever it was you said.
Nine years later, North Side’s Bot Colony makes a similar promise: the ability to talk to the game, and interact with its world via those voice commands. The tech that the team at North Side are using, however, is a little more advanced than what was powering Rio all those years ago. Bot Colony is built off of something the developer calls “Natural Language Understanding,” a proprietary voice recognition engine that was first started back in 2001.
According to North Side, their NLU tech “understands English well enough to enable a player to complete game levels, as long as they don’t veer too much off topic. Yet off topic conversations are also supported, and characters can use them as an opportunity to learn new concepts from the player. Responses by the game’s characters are generated on the fly by parsing the player’s spoken (or typed) English words, reasoning based on facts, AI rules and the 3D environment, and dynamically generating an intelligent reaction. This reaction can be verbal (spoken English), or non-verbal (the character carries out a command, or exhibits a quasi-emotion).”
It’s a fascinating idea, but one that can also quickly break down if the speech parsing isn’t strong enough. As the owner of a Siri-equipped iPhone 5S, Apple’s (purchased) voice recognition technology is extremely convenient and powerful when it works—but rather frustrating when it doesn’t. When you come to use a system that can handle natural voice recognition to some degree, you quickly take for granted that it can’t truly understand the English language. That’s one thing for a device where you’re asking it to do simple tasks, but another when you’re talking about a game in which progression is directly dependent on it understanding what you’re saying.
And yet, as skeptical as I am of the idea of a game like Bot Colony, I’m also absolutely intrigued. Some of my favorite experiences in gaming have been those projects that took crazy chances in what they tried to do, and I’d rather have a unique concept that fails at what it wants to be than a totally generic offering that’s successful.
One potential boon for what the team at North Side are working on is the game’s use of speech synthesis to reply back to the player. Returning for a moment to our dear cocktail waitress Rio, every potential answer she had for what was said to her had to be pre-recorded—meaning she could never deviate from the selection of audio files she came bundled with. When using a speech synthesizer like the one which powers Bot Colony, games are suddenly able to have AI that could theoretically adapt to the player’s actions and decisions, without the need of the developer having to predict what those deviations might be.
At the end of the day, I see Bot Colony as one of those games where I think it’ll be impossible to get a proper idea of how it’s going to turn out until I’m able to try it for myself. Trekking through its adventure could be slow, tedious, and cumbersome—but it could also be enthralling, innovative, and unlike anything you’ve played before. Or, maybe more realistically, the true answer will lie somewhere between those two extremes.
Bot Colony is now up and running on Kickstarter, and North Side has plans to launch a public beta come November 1st. The game will be an episodic experience, with 12 episodes planned if funding is successful.