Manipulating and exploring human emotions is a cornerstone concept in video games and one that has been covered countless times to the point that there is rarely a new and ground-breaking experience. Oftentimes, these human emotions are explored using a flesh and blood human, however, in recent years, there has been a rise in artificially intelligent game protagonists. These artificial intelligencies, or robots, offer a more emotional gaming experience when compared to that of a human protagonist.
Part of this argument is that fully-grown humans have already encountered a vast array of emotions and experiences, leaving little new avenues available, whereas robots, and their struggle with identity, self, and consciousness, are rife with potential emotional narratives. Playing as an artificial intelligence that is learning about life and what it means to be alive is one of the greatest forms of narrative available to gamers. By allowing gamers to experience a world through the eyes of a newly created robot, they are essentially experiencing the world through the eyes of a child or infant, albeit without the limitations of the physical body.
Experiencing the world through a robot is more than just about the physicality of movement, it also allows gamers to explore ideas of worth, the conscious mind, and potentially even the effects of artificial intelligence. Robots, as they currently exist in the real world, are simple machines with no sentience, so when a player is plunged into the role of a robot, it becomes an important goal to establish a sense of worth and value, to ensure other characters know you are sentient and not just a machine.
There are several philosophical and theological struggles an artificial intelligence can face that a mere human is incapable of experiencing. Take, for instance, Frictional Games’ recent title, SOMA, where the player takes control of a robot, imbued with the consciousness of a human. While this isn’t strictly an AI experiencing life, it still draws into question a lot of thought-related problems.
Throughout the entire game, your character believes they are a human, much like the other characters you encounter. However, as the game continues, it’s revealed that you are in fact a robot with your previous self’s memories and personality. It’s a major turning point in the game as you quickly wrestle with the idea of who you are and whether you are still the same person as you were when human. This problem is about the mind and whether a human’s consciousness, when applied to a machine, can be considered human or just a bunch of reactions to input.
SOMA continues to push the limits as the iconic coin-flip scenario unfolds in a similar fashion to Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie, The Prestige. Will the character, after undergoing a certain change in the game, be the character in the box “drowning” or the one that is now alive? It is these sorts of conscious problems that a robot is able to face that create an emotional experience a player is unfamiliar with. The more games explore the idea of what it means to be conscious, the more varied experience a gamer is able to undergo.
Continue down this line of thought and you encounter games like The Talos Principle, which on the surface is a puzzle game, but take the time to read the computers littered around the field and the problem of whether your existence is meaningful is soon encountered.
Playing as a robot, you are told you are the child of those who came before you, and as such you are deeply loved. But as the game progresses, your purpose shifts and just maybe you are supposed to take up the mantle of those before you. Or, alternatively, is your existence an offshoot of humanity’s hubris in trying to achieve immortality?
Each computer in the game introduces you to new problems of immortality, consciousness, and creation, and each time these entries seem to help you learn about yourself. During the game, despite knowing I was a robot, I would fiercely argue with computers that I was human. There was a need to prove myself worthy of those who created me.
This has never happened to me before in a game, where I felt the need to convince someone I was one thing when they were saying I was another. On an emotional level, all I wanted was to have my character be classed on the same level as a human because I had consciousness and sentience. It was important that the character not be undermined or treated as less than another.
By playing as a robot, I was distinctly aware that I could potentially be considered a simple machine, lacking freewill and simply reacting to stimulus. It was a new experience to be wrestling with philosophical problems, not from the position of being a human and the morality involved, but from the position of a machine and whether these issues could be tackled and applied to my new form.
It’s a new form of storytelling, playing as a robot. It allows game developers to explore a different kind of narrative, one where human emotion can be experienced from another angle. A human emotion, being experienced by a human, is nothing new. But by creating a non-human character and having them experience human problems a developer can create a new journey for the player, one which explores moral and ethical problems from a new perspective.
This is also an important discussion as humanity wrestles with the problem of artificial intelligence and whether it would be a benefit for us or a disaster. Hopefully, by designing and playing games where the player controls an artificial intelligence, we can learn more about what it means to be human, what it means to have a consciousness, and maybe even the effects of artificial intelligencies.