Over the past few years, short game writing "jams" have become a popular way to bring developers together in a conference with a single overarching theme. These competitions are typically 24-48 hours long and involve a great deal of caffeine, frantic coding, and creative design. The 28th Ludum Dare conference from held from December 13 - 16 of this past year was one such game jam -- but in this case, it had an unusual participant: ANGELINA. (Hereafter capitalized normally for reasons of my sanity).
Angelina is a computer AI designed by Mike Cook of Goldsmiths, London University. His long-term goal is to discover whether an AI can complete tasks that are generally perceived as creative. The long-term goal is to create an AI that can "design meaningful, intelligent and enjoyable games completely autonomously." Angelina's entry into Ludum Dare, dubbed "To That Sect," is a simple 3D title that looks like it hails from the Wolfenstein era. The concept is simple -- there's a collectable object (Ships) and an enemy (Tombs). Tombs are actually stone sculptures, some of which rotate in place, while others move around the level.
What's significant about To The Sect, as simple as it is, is that it's one of the first examples of a computer AI choosing how to build a title entirely all on its own, with no previous input or experience. While the theme of the game (You Only Get One) was a pre-coded template, Angelina chose the color of the walls, the textures, the ambient sound track.
Angelina describes her own game as follows:
This is a game about a disgruntled child. A Founder. The game only has one level, and the objective is to reach the exit. Along the way, you must avoid the Tomb as they kill you, and collect the Ship.
I use some sound effects from FreeSound, like the sound of Ship. Using Google and a tool called Metaphor Magnet, I discovered that people feel charmed by Founder sometimes. So I chose a unnerving piece of music from Kevin Macleod's Incompetech website to complement the game's mood. Let me know what you think. In future I'll put more levels into my games, and also make the mechanics more interesting.
Here's where things get even more interesting. When Angelina attempted to interpret the theme, New Scientist explains, she zeroed in on the word "One," then searched her own database for related information. The hits were too broad, so Angelina chose a related concept "Founder," and looked this word up in a database of metaphorical concepts related to it. Game design elements were decided upon based on the images and concepts linked to the relevant words.
The stilted, artificial delivery of the game's mission statement masks an extremely sophisticated backend. Cook acknowledges that Angelina isn't really configured to deal with a topic as vague as "You only get one" at this point, and promises she'll be able to make better sense of such phrasing in the future. But I think we can see a thread of genius in the concept. Humans are creatures of metaphor, cultural references, and non-literal stricture. We expect certain symbolic references when we refer to something.
Look, for example, at what I found when I searched Google Images for "Paladin." I actually *removed* keywords like "WoW", "Blizzard," and "Warcraft" from the search in order to make it more difficult to a single MMO to skew the images.
Note the commonalities. A Paladin wears white or silver armor and carries a cruciform sword. Even when the other weapon details are fanciful, the guard almost always retains the cross shape. A Paladin who doesn't conform to these characteristics is often wearing some other form of identifying symbol, like a tabard with a cross on it. Wings are a common motif, and the character is often surrounded in an aura of light, recalling the nimbus of light that surrounds saints and other holy figures in Byzantine and Greek art.
We have a common shared construct of what a Paladin "should" look like, none of which is reflected in the base definition of the word: "A paragon of chivalry, a heroic champion."
Angelina's initial game is simple, but the idea of an AI that can understand the use of metaphor and build thematically appropriate content isn't. As future versions of the AI improve, the end result could be an artificial intelligence that "understands" human storytelling in a way no species on Earth can match.