If you’re an avid video game player, you definitely know the terrible feeling of playing a good game, only to have it ruined by an underdeveloped artificial intelligence (AI) that’s more busy tackling its own life problems than… attacking you.
From foes wandering aimlessly around the screen asking to be killed to suicidal allies that keep throwing themselves in harm’s way and need to be constantly saved from a gruesome death, the history of video games is ridden with bad AI.
Some moments are particularly memorable, maybe because they became never-ending memes and part of the gaming culture, or because they caused the downfall of a software house, or just because they were particularly dumb.
Step away from the gaming laptop, and let’s take a walk down memory lane.
Red-Blooded ‘Redfall’ Made for a Red-Faced Microsoft
This is not the first time a bad AI red-faces a software house because of its faulty behaviors, but in the case of Redfall, it managed to shame two companies at the same time: Microsoft and Arkane. The game was so poor that the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, had to apologize for how disappointing it was.
Redfall was all set to be an over-hyped open-world, co-op FPS from Arkane Austin, the prestigious developers of the popular and successful Dishonored and Prey. The purpose of the game was playing as a witty and edgy band of vampire hunters, cleaning the town from these nightmarish, blood-craving creatures.
However, besides failing badly in nearly every other department, what made Redfall nearly unplayable was the AI of the enemies.
You can say that the vampires in this game really sucked hard – but it wasn’t blood that they sucked.
Most of the time, they just sat there, dumbfounded and clueless about players being just a few meters from them, doing absolutely nothing while they were shot like vampire fish in a barrel.
You could clear out a (mostly empty) map by shooting enemies from afar with a long-range rifle.
The worst they could do is just run a few meters and then pointlessly shoot in your direction, even if you’re much farther away from the maximum range of their weapons. What a waste of good ammo.
Total War and the “No Touching” Cavalry Charge
The Total War series is not just a game but a very popular franchise that spawned dozens of games over 20 years, from the first Medieval in 2002 to the latest installments of Warhammer.
However, it seems that such a long time wasn’t enough for developers to properly fix the in-game cavalry – they were entirely, completely broken.
Picture the scene: The enemy is charging at you, a force ferocious enough to destroy the waiting line.
And then they simply stop, one inch in front of you, don’t even offer you some chewing gum, and wait to be slaughtered by even the cheapest, most underequipped peasant army.
The bug was later fixed, but like any good bug, came back in the sequels such as Medieval 2 (probably because the original code was used rather than the patched code).
And in a move known to most developers, later games course-corrected in the most extreme way, with cavalry becoming completely unstoppable, bulldozing whole armies like they were nothing, and throwing heavy infantry through the air like bowling pins.
20 years later, it seems that the situation never got better, with cavalry requiring constant micromanagement in the best-case scenario. One of the latest iterations of the cavalry AI bug makes it extremely risky to launch a charge since the cavalrymen will take quadruple the damage they just inflicted. Which is like watching a bowling ball explode into tiny fragments from all the bowling pins it just hit.
Doom’s Existential Crisis Demons
Doom is a game about terrifying hellscapes, twisted demon creatures, and gory dismemberment. One of the most intriguing characteristics of its AI is the possibility for monsters to start fighting each other rather than just attacking the player.
While it is unclear whether monster infighting was made on purpose or as a consequence of an unwanted scripted behavior, it rapidly became a staple of all subsequent games, including the successful Quake franchise.
After all, it was a fun game mechanic to save ammo and fight your way out of impossible situations more strategically and an immersive way to portray the chaoticness of demons’ behavior.
However, this very mechanic could cause monsters to go awry and get very angry against themselves in some instances.
In particular, when a monster hit an explosive barrel and got damaged by the explosion, players could enjoy themselves as the monster started ripping itself apart.
The explanation for this apparently suicidal behavior was the same script that caused monster infighting. When the barrel exploded, the game engine tracked the creature that caused the explosion as an enemy. Since the monster itself was the one who destroyed the barrel, it started retaliating against itself, clawing itself to death if it was a melee creature.
‘Elite Dangerous’ Took Galactic Domination Too Far
Elite Dangerous is a massively multiplayer space flight simulation game that brought the adjective “ambitious” to a new level. Featuring a 1:1 scale, open-world reenactment of the Milky Way galaxy, it boasted a very advanced AI to manage NPCs and factions.
However, it seems that things went a bit too far (even for the galactic size of this game) after the developers installed a patch of “improvements”.
Their purpose was to provide high-ranking NPCs with better skills, weapons, and strategies. However, at some point, these NPCs started to engineer new armaments that merged the stats and abilities of the best weapons available.
As a result, they came up with incredibly unbalanced weapons that could hit as hard as a railgun, all while boasting the fire rate of a pulse laser. This was Death Star territory.
Needless to say, players were systematically annihilated by these new weapons of mass destruction in what we could now describe as a training session in Skynet’s future human extermination.
Skyrim: Need a Disguise? Just Bring a Bucket
In all its years of existence, the Elder Scrolls franchise is some of the most popular action role-playing video games ever created, and Skyrim is certainly the most famous of the entire lineage.
While a great game, it was still famous for a lot of its comical bugs and glitches, most of which were linked with hilariously broken non-player characters (NPCs) behaviors.
Some of the most famous glitches included bears following you forever across the entire map or giants sending you hundreds of meters into the air until you reach the moon with a swing of their clubs.
However, a few creative players who just wanted to rob a shopkeeper blind discovered what could be considered Skyrim’s most iconic AI bug: the bucket robbery.
Despite all your efforts in raising your stealth skill, by far the most important aspect of the stealing mechanics was to make sure the NPC you wanted to steal from could not see you.
And what’s the simplest, yet most effective way to block a person’s sight? Well, just put a bucket (or a basket or kettle) on their head!
At least Solid Snake made the cardboard box trick look legitimate.
Honorable Mention: Big Rigs
Considered by many as the absolute zero of gaming, Big Rigs was a terrible racing game that failed for a lot of different reasons.
The most distinctive feature of this game, which was nothing but a simple 1v1 racing game featuring some large semi-articulated trucks, was that your adversary simply refused to cross the finish line a few meters from it. It seems they took a lesson (or a patch) from the Total War cavalry and decided victory just wasn’t worth it.
Meanwhile, you could spend hours running around aimlessly and enjoying the track and then saunter over the finish line for your gold medal.
A critical component of any enjoyable game experience is the suspension of disbelief that comes from the feeling your enemies are autonomous, driven characters — not just some poorly scripted bits of machine code.
Bad AI can totally make or break a game, disintegrating that feeling of immersion that ultimately makes you forget you’re actually pressing buttons to execute some script.
Luckily for us gamers, though, there’s a huge list of games whose AI was so great at simulating reality that it makes the whole experience even more enjoyable and immersive. But that is probably a topic for another article!