The Big Idea: Gard Skinner
One of my favorite video games of all time was Unreal Tournament 2004, in part because the game had a bunch of “bots” — artificial intelligence players — who were good enough to make the game really enjoyable. Why is this comment relevant in relation to Game Slaves, the novel by Gard Skinner? Just you wait.
The best thing about science fiction is that it’s a brutally honest way to examine what it means to be human, but do it through the eyes of revolting, evil non-humans. We get to see what makes Earthlings tick from the perspective of robots, monsters, alien conquerors, dark lords, magic high school students or busty Amazon royalty from lush beach planets.
Game Slaves – as a Big Idea – seemed obvious. I was playing (I believe it was Jak 2 or 3) and I couldn’t beat the last boss. To get to him, right after the save point, I had to shoot a few of his minions. I’d killed them dozens of times, then I’d lose again.
While I was thinking how I was tired of shooting those idiots, I realized that they were thinking how tired they were of getting sniped by a bigger idiot who couldn’t defeat their boss. Maybe hoping they could bring bigger guns or hide in different places the next time I respawned.
The quality of the AI used to be a huge element in video game reviews. It was always mentioned. The original NPC, such as ghosts in Pac-Man, were mostly just proximity detectors who followed or shot you if you got close. In 90s, the enemy kept getting smarter, and designers were trying to find ways to make their game interesting on a second playthrough.
The core challenge is making game experience variable. Once any narrative becomes predictable, it becomes easy, and the player puts it down. AI has stagnated, and this led to the popularity of online shooters, because at least when you play another human or squad of humans, you never know what they might do.
What I got to do in the book – and this advance is, realistically, thirty years in the future for game AI – was to assemble a group of programmed, self-aware, elite game combatants with almost zero life experience.
I got to make them live and love and solve puzzles at a video game pace.
And, I got to make them want things.
They get to be the ones who examine what it really means to be human. From our frailties to our strengths, our motivations to our passions, NPC “extras” became the lens.
And not only do the characters make their decisions through the limited experience they have, but also through the experience they lack: What if you never learned to lie? Or to cheat? What if you had not been exposed to greed?
It was a great journey, and they surprised me along the way.
What’s been fascinating so far is the feedback on those characters – whether they are deep or shallow. I suspect that’s an indicator of each reader’s familiarity with modern games. Did they recognize the influence of Master Chief? Fenix? John Marston? Brick?
If readers do, that’s cool – if not, that’s cool too. Game Slaves is a world built on top of dozens of great game worlds. It doesn’t matter how you got there.
Gamers, like readers, have spent a lot of time running around in certain environments. We know Pandora and Sera, but couldn’t tell you which Sea that Old Man was fishing. We understand that rocket launchers take a long time to reload, and what ragdoll physics can add to laying traps with remote detonators.
Pew Research reports that 97% of teens play games. That’s a sit-up-and-take-notice number. Games are now where they’re learning about characters, world building, pacing, conflict and all the rest of the nuance that our generation learned from movies, comic books, and groundbreaking novels. I had a blast mimicking that pace, the puzzle solving, and those decision points.
I think it’s a good idea to learn how the next generation now experiences science fiction. Many games tell as great a story as any other media. And, they’re so much fun. The worlds are captivating. I just wish they were that way the second time through.
(The game character screenshots are from Gearbox Software’s BORDERLANDS)