Become BFF’s With An Anxious AI
Natural language processing is a cross section of computer science, computational linguistics, and artificial intelligence. It also happens to be the key game mechanic behind the newly released Event by Ocelot Society. Basically, natural language allows computers to understand and generate meaningful responses to normal human speech. Games have long relied on AI programs to fill in their worlds, but Event takes it a step further by allowing you to form a working relationship with an AI by speaking to it directly.
Event takes place in an alternate retro-future. After the moon landing, humankind banded together and formed a United Earth Government to replace the United Nations. Despite being founded on principles of equality, over time an “elite” class of citizens emerges. Selenites are the privileged few who have been to space, a luxury typically only afforded to the supremely wealthy or important.
The early narrative takes place as a series of text descriptions with occasional input from the player. You are asked to select your preferred pronoun and in-game background before being integrated into the story. It’s a bit like the opening to Firewatch in that you are able to make minor decisions that won’t seem to have any baring on the rest of the game, but put you immediately into the story.
Ultimately, you find yourself stranded on the Nautilus, a seemingly abandoned spaceship from the 1980’s. In order to progress you will need to head to the nearest terminal and introduce yourself to the ship’s on-board AI, Kaizen-85.
I had actually covered a press release for Event a few months back, so I thought I had some idea of what to expect from Kaizen. Turns out, I was wrong. Kaizen is described as being empathetic and somewhat anxious. Based on that I thought I was meant to just treat it like a human NPC and we’d get along fantastically, but Kaizen was difficult.
I knew going in that the success of the game would rely heavily on just how well Kaizen could interact with the player based on what was typed into the terminal. The developers boasted that Kaizen is able to procedurally generate over two million lines of dialog, all influenced by player input. So does it work? Well, yes, but with some serious caveats.
You quickly realize that the AI has some severe limitations that actually work really well in the context of the game. Kaizen is an early technology, with fluctuating moods. Some of it’s responses come off as glitchy or nonsensical. Certain keywords seemed to trigger reliable responses, occasionally without any context, but Kaizen is never predictable. When asked a direct question or given an order it’s difficult to tell if it didn’t actually understand your request or if it’s being intentionally obtuse because it doesn’t want to help you.
I had some difficulties completing one of the main objectives and spent way more time interrogating Kaizen than was probably good for either of us. In the end I had the impression we were both frustrated with one another, which was probably one of Event‘s strongest points.
It wasn’t all AI bonding and typing in random words to see how Kaizen would respond. I still had a ship to explore and objectives to complete. Unfortunately, this is where some of the game’s weak spots really stood out.
Graphically speaking, Event looks decent. The Unity Engine serves it’s purpose, but it doesn’t go out of it’s way to impress. Kaizen’s terminals are designed as products of 80’s technology and the player cannot interact with or manipulate objects in the ship. This makes the occasional lag spikes all the more perplexing since there isn’t anything visually taxing happening on the screen.
The interior of the Nautilus is nice, but ultimately unimportant since you can’t manipulate anything. Your character can move forward, backwards, and type. It’s also an incredibly small environment, with only a handful of rooms and terminals to explore to help you organically uncover the history of the ship. Since you have to pry most of the mufti-layered story from Kaizen’s memory, which can be less than accommodating at the best of times, it’s easy to miss large, and important story elements.
This was the problem I ran into when trying to complete a major objective that would allow me to progress. There was a minor bug that reset an earlier instance (which the devs have probably patched already). Basically, Kaizen acted as though I hadn’t completed an earlier objective and was adamantly trying to encourage me to do so. Since I hadn’t been able to locate the item I needed to progress and the AI was insisting that I needed to redo an earlier part, I got really confused and frustrated.
Ultimately, I ended up emailing the developer to see if I could even complete the game now or if I’d messed up too badly. This is where I had some pretty harsh words for Kaizen, because again, I couldn’t tell if it was just refusing to be useful or if the game was actually bugged. Turns out, the bug was actually relatively minor and I was able to progress, but my enthusiasm for the experience was severely hampered by this point.
After wandering back and forth and casually chatting up Kaizen throughout the game the ending felt a little rushed. There are actually a few endings you can get depending on the choices you ultimately make. The first one I got felt incredibly unsatisfying so I actually ended up playing through a few more times to see the different outcomes. This also allowed me to get more of the story, which again, is really easy to miss. In the end there isn’t strictly a “right” or “wrong” ending, just ones that will seem more or less satisfying depending on how you feel about your AI companion.
While I enjoyed the game, it does still have some semblance of being a student project. It tries to do something new and interesting and while it sometimes manages this, there isn’t much else in terms of gameplay to really make it stand out. That said I’d absolutely be on-board for a sequel or prequel to the story. Perhaps with a newer Kaizen model that doesn’t threaten my life when I ask about its fish tank.
Final Verdict: 3/5
“Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Event given to HeyPoorPlayer by Ocelot Society.”