Escort Service

Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I can't remember the exact moment, or the circumstances, but I'm pretty sure I was impressed, delighted and amazed the first time I saw a computer-controlled character in a video game fight alongside me.

I'm not talking about Sophia from 1992's Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, a computer-controlled character who would simply follow you from room to room and wait while you did whatever it was you needed to do. You would play AS Sophia from time to time, generally to help Indy out of a jam, but the rest of the time she was there as a sprit guide.

This was innovative at the time (as was most stuff from early LucasArts). There was a time when the idea of a player character period was innovative, following from games like Defender, Pong, Lunar Lander, Asteroids, etc. But here we had ANOTHER character without a 2P controlling her.

But here's the thing. Sophia was dumb. She had strict hard-coded responses to questions asked of her, and when controlling her, was only ever meant to do exactly what LucasArts intended YOU to do with her. That might have taken a while, but since she could only respond to the objects you had her interact with, her responses either advanced you further along the path, or indicated that you were barking up the wrong tree. I'm not saying that Sophia, the character, was dumb, or that Sophia the concept was dumb. That would be wrong on both counts. But Sophia as a piece of computer software, as an actor able to function independently in the game was literally dumb, unable to concieve of and act on information that the player didn't provide.

And that was PERFECTLY fine. LucasArts knew that she didn't need to have intelligence, that they weren't going to be able to give her intelligence, and if they had, it wouldn't have improved the game much. So they went with a gameplay mechanic that made sense in the context of the game, and Sophia is one of the most beloved characters in Gaming. (Beloved in the sense that she's actually charming and interesting, not that she can carry 4,000 Big Guns and jump and kill aliens or whatever.)

Compared to this, Alyx, from 2004's Half-Life 2 is an amazing piece of software wrapped up in the guise of a character. She does interact with you and the world, commenting on your abilities, and helping you shoot... well whatever you're shooting at the time. Going from independently-acting sidekick to scripted drone is seamless, and really provides the gamer with the sense that she's a fully fleshed-out and deep character, 1000 times more interesting and charming than that game's Player, Gordon Freeman (mostly because she actually, you know, talks). Well, of course a game made a decade later is going to be more sophisticated. Alyx is by far the best computer-controlled character in any game I've ever played.

So what's this all about?

Even Valve, the creators of that 5-year-old masterpiece (5 years?? Already?), knew that their artificial intelligence wasn't good enough to completely convince you, and gave Alyx a conservative role in the game, staying behind you for the most part, and hiding, rather than trying to do a full-out assault on whatever the objective was. Even though the computer was ALSO controlling enemies, even a sophisticated character like Alyx isn't able to concieve of strategies and thinking that is humanlike enough to be effective in that situation.

Other developers on the other hand, fresh from their Intro to AI course at the local community college, don't share that same sense of modesty. They have a hubris which tends to ride into the disappointing, giving a share of the game's actual gameplay to their digital creations, rather than leaving it to the CPU sitting between the keyboard and chair. I hate games like this with a passion. But at least those characters are supposed to be helping you.

Enter the escort quest. Someone somewhere decided it'd be a super idea if you, the player, had to at some point "rescue" someone, or bring them from point A to point B, guiding them through whatever deathtraps spanned the two. Valve itself did this in the original Half-Life a couple times, though it never made the game's progression dependent on it. Games like Metal Gear Solid had times where the player would have to navigate whatever tricky situation he was in, while at the same time, making it safe for the important computer controlled robot that he was escorting.

It was at those points where scientists, high-ranking military officers, heads of state, other combat veterans, whatever, turned into the largest sacks of idiocy, showing no survival instinct at all, instead relying on the player to dive between the bullets or electrified floors that they would expertly avoid avoiding any instant your eyes were off them for a second.

No one is going to accuse Konami of being a poor developer of video games, but I would suggest a certain level of hubris in assuming that their Artificial Intelligence was good enough to give the player a rewarding experience in feeling like they were really working with someone to get through a tough situation. Instead you have people who your entire goal for 5 minutes is to keep safe, running around in circles in the path of enemy fire, falling into lava pits, and basically acting like a suicidial seizure victim. That'd be fine with me, if the game didn't require me to keep said victim alive to open a door, or get back to Washington, etc. etc. The worst is getting the person nearly there, having their life bar finally vanish because your camera was pointed at, you know, the goal, only to have them take the opportunity to run head first into the nearest bullet. A fact you are only aware of because the game instantly stops, and tells you Game Over, as though time itself hinged on the survival of this loon with no instinct for self-preservation.

This is bad enough when it's for one or two missions in a game, but for games where it is a large chunk of the action, like Resident Evil 4, it totally saps any desire to keep playing for me. I feel like if Ashley isn't smart enough to keep her head down when confronted with hordes of brain affectionados, then it's probably for the better that the President never see his daughter again. She's just baggage when the world rests on the shoulders of YOU. Taking care of one lobotomy patient while you're supposed to be saving the planet from the end times seems counterproductive, contrived and just plain irritating.

This makes the game not about defending the character from whatever trials await you and them, but about definding the character from themself, which is frustrating and stupid.

So what does Capcom do? Release Dead Rising, of course! A game which is basically a string of escort quests where the only consolation to your charge's suicidal tendency is that the opponents are just as stupid, often sitting there and ignoring you completely while you hit their next-door-neighbor with a shopping cart. Let me be clear: the concept of Dead Rising - swarms of slow-moving, slow-witted enemies and myriad ways to dispose of them - is not good enough to overcome the escort-questyness of the execution (har har).

Until game AI is good enough to simulate human thought, or at least approach it, these missions should be eliminated from all games. This will take nearly forever, which is ok. I'm fine with never seeing another one again. The fact is that AI still isn't good enough - even from top-tier developers in 2009 - to be convincing, and nothing highlights that more than the escort quest. So do yourself a favor, and stop including it in games, and we'll stop noticing.

If you need filler, consider turning your main character into a slow-moving, boring werewolf for 2 out of every 2.5 hours instead. I for one would prefer that epic failure.

[thanks to GameDaily for the image]


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