Videogames are an important part of our lives and our culture.
They’re much more than just past-times, they outdo Hollywood in terms of the size of the industry, and at their best, they influence our society as pieces of art.
Not only that, they are also often milestones and demonstrations of the development of new technologies.
And no better example than that is “Player 2” in this scenario — artificial intelligence (AI), often deployed as a testing ground to develop new scripts and algorithms to simulate realistic behaviors for non-playing characters (NPC) and environment.
AI, at least the simulated kind, has always been a buzzword in the gaming industry, but with more advanced AI entering the world each day, who knows what the next decade will bring to the playing field?
Until then, we want to focus on these genuinely breath-taking AIs that left players with mouths wide open by the ingenuity of their developers.
In a previous article, we highlighted the most embarrassing failures in AI in the field of video games, but it felt cruel to leave it there.
So this time, we look to those moments where developers experimented with something completely new or where the NPC (non-playable characters) were so human-like that they surprised us beyond any possible suspension of disbelief.
Here are some moments and experiences that took our breath away when (for most of these) we pulled off the shrink-wrap and inserted the cartridge or CD into the console or gaming rig:
Red Dead Redemption 2 and its Lifelike Sandbox World
Rockstar Games are among the strongest software houses when it comes to developing believable and autonomous sandbox games.
Grand Theft Auto V showed the potential, featuring a vast range of human characters interacting with each other in a massively complex urban system.
But with Red Dead Redemption 2, they made a real step beyond by creating a truly immersive historical rendition of the Wild West, with thousands of agents acting independently.
You could just walk around the dirty and raucous settlement of Valentine and look as the mud-covered townspeople act on their needs and live their daily lives.
You can grab your binoculars and observe, at the side of a river, the wildlife as they prey on each other or forage for some food.
Horses bolted when they saw a bear; deers reacted to cougars hiding in the bushes; possums played, er, possum and faked their death when you chased them – every NPC gave clear signs of animal intelligence.
And it’s so amazing that to this day, five years on, no other game can boast such a realistic and immersive real-world sandbox experience.
FEAR – The Brightest NPC AI in First-Person Shooters
First Encounter Assault Recon (FEAR) is a first-person shooter (FPS) by Monolith that boasts a brilliant set of scripts to determine enemies’ behaviors during fights.
This game is so incredible because it was released in 2005, and nearly 20 years later, it still features some of the most advanced AIs ever created.
Enemy soldiers were able to dodge shoot-outs, work their way to surround and ambush the player and make smart use of the environment to take cover.
Instead of repeating the same set of actions in a predictable pattern (such as peeking their heads so you can easily splatter them on a wall), NPCs react unpredictably and intelligently enough to take the player by surprise.
They can crawl and hide to sneak behind you or ask a squad mate to shower you in suppression fire while they advance to a better position. The illusions of intelligence that Half Life 1 and 2 began, FEAR expanded on and ran with the ball.
The razor-sharp AI of FEAR enemies is an elegantly simple example of clever game design, and it is taught in game design schools to this very day.
Doom’s Monster Infighting System
Although we covered this topic already, monster infighting is, hands-down, one of the most revolutionary experimental NPC behaviors in gaming history.
When a monster accidentally hits another one (such as when the second one is in the first one’s line of fire), the injured party will take offense — and then proceed to attack the other.
…Who will, in turn, react and cause a brawl that will only be over when one of the two is dead.
This feature has significant relevance in game balancing since it wasn’t just a strategy to conserve ammo. Some maps, such as MAP08: Tricks and Traps, were built around this feature, allowing the player to provoke some of the largest and most iconic creatures, such as the Cyberdemon or Barons of Hell, into fighting each other.
Shadow of Mordor’s ‘Nemesys’ System
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is another game by FEAR developers Monolith, released in 2014.
A third-person, action-adventure game that rode the wave of the parkour fever launched by the Assassin’s Creed franchise. What made Shadow of Mordor unique, however, was its very advanced AI system called “Nemesys System”, which focused on the storytelling aspects of the adventure.
Rather than just creating scripts that will determine the immediate behaviors of an NPC during a close-quarter encounter, the Nemesys System focused on driving the overall development of the game’s villains.
The Nemeses were randomly generated Warchiefs and Captains of the Uruk-hai army, who would pitch themselves against the player throughout his adventures.
Each nemesis had its own personality and could make different strategic choices that, coupled with those from the player, would cause them to rise and fall among their army’s ranks.
Elden Ring – The Best (And Worst) of Fighting Enemies
One of the aspects that made all of FromSoft’s games, from Dark Souls to Bloodborne, Elden Ring, and Sekiro, so famous is the unpredictability and complexity of enemies fighting patterns.
This is the software house that I personally consider the best one in gaming history, who have spent their time developing the most advanced, complex, and engaging battles ever experienced by players — which may be a good or a terrible thing, depending on your point of view.
What makes every fight in these games so punishing and, at the same time, so challenging is the incredible complexity of enemy behavior.
What made the hardest challenges, namely the boss fights, so unique and compelling is the impossibility of truly predicting your foes’ movements.
And you can’t believe how much breath a game such as Elden Ring can take out of your lungs (by your own screaming), well – test yourself in a battle against Malenia, without summoning spirits.
And remember, the first stage is the overwhelmingly easy one!
Beating Psycho Mantis’ Mind-reading Abilities
One of the hardest challenges for game designers is to develop an AI that is smart enough to offer players a challenge but not over-buffed to the point that it makes it impossible for the player to beat it.
A common shortcut used by many early games was to allow the AI to “predict” the player’s actions by reacting instantly to controller commands. That was, quite literally, a real cheat mode, but if used sparsely, it could be employed effectively to raise the challenge without breaking the game.
Metal Gear Solid brought this idea to the next level when it pitched the player against an apparently unbeatable mind-reading villain: Psycho Mantis.
This gas-masked baddie was purposefully able to “read your thoughts” and able to dodge every hit a split-second before they landed. Ultimate cheat mode, right?
What made this battle memorable, however, was the clever way you had to make sure he couldn’t read your brain waves so you could beat him. And that was… after a handy hint from your commander, plugging your controller into the second player port!
The echo of “I can’t read you…” still rings through most players’ ears to this day.
As a fellow gamer, my best advice is just to play these games if you didn’t do that already.
One way or the other, they made the history of gaming, and they’re now part of these memories we so fondly remember.
Because as AI begins to leave the labs and make its way through the fourth wall and into reality, the first taste of what made AI so “lifelike” came on a shiny disk a few decades before.