221b Game Brings AI Into the 21st Century


While many video games based on, or related to, films have a rather bad rep for being clunky, ugly, and often just plain boring, you might be surprised to find that the new web-based flash Sherlock Holmes game, 221b, has actually employed some pretty impressive programming in its design. Called “Chatbot” technology, this allows for players to interact directly with characters in the game, enabling for for direct interrogation during gameplay in an unprecedented manner according to the BBC.

The designer of the Chatbot program is Rollo Carpenter, who specializes in programming human/computer interaction, and is the mastermind behind the Jabberwacky chatterbot. In the early 2000s, I recall coming across a very similar program professing to be John Lennon, and all its answers were directly related to quotes he’d actually said that were vaguely connected to the questions and comments provided.

However, that’s the big difference between Jabberwacky/Chatbot design and other computer programs professing to have human/computer conversation like the Lennon bot. Typically, as in any basic RPG, the reactions and responses are pre-programmed. You say something about a gun and the computer returns a pre-loaded response based on a series of possible outcomes; sometimes being nice might get what you want, or sometimes being forceful.

In other words, most AI in this family of programs, until now, is static. Chatbot, on the other hand—as described in this 2003 article from the BBC—actually learns the more you talk to it. Carpenter has been working on Jabberwacky since 1989, in some ways as a means to reach out, as he says, “I was a self-taught teenager programmer, now known as a geek, and possibly needed a bit of communication.”

In 221b, the process is significantly more complex as it’s necessary to maintain the flow and narrative of the game itself. Explains Alex Champandard, a programmer who’s worked with Rockstar and Guerilla games: “Since the AI characters are completely interactive, each time you play the outcome depends on your actions. Yet in the background there’s a drama manager that makes sure the story keeps going.”

Web-based, Facebook-linked, and designed to compliment the weeks leading up to the film, 221b is surprisingly engrossing for a movie tie-in. The aesthetic is gorgeous, the integration is impressive, and—while I’ve only just begun to play the game—it definitely takes a cool, viral approach to gaming that I haven’t seen before.

No, this isn’t earth-shattering as far as game play is concerned. This sort of slow pace game is not for everyone. What’s particularly intriguing, however, is to see this possibly game-changing technology crop up so innocuously. The last place I’d have expected to look was in a movie related game, for sure. But what’s exciting is considering how such a game may affect future gaming. One of the most irritating aspects of most current RPGs (like Oblivion, Fallout, and even WoW and most MMORPGs) is the fact that a true suspension of disbelief is impossible when everything is so pre-scripted.

I’m particularly fond of the way the BBCs article ended, so I’ll share that with you. Dr. Reddy, a professor at the University of Wales specializing in AI explains, “We have come a long way from ‘All your base are belong to us’ and ‘TAKE AXE. THROW AXE AT DWARF.'”

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