Jim Rossignol

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Microsoft’s motion recognition system, Project Natal, presents an abundance of possibilities for the future of videogames. The discussions arising from the abolition of the physical control device were one of the highlights of E3: a chance to see entirely new game mechanisms, and to break down the barrier that seems to have been created by complex interfaces.

But it’s the appearance of Milo – a simulated, on-screen boy who responds to human interaction – which is perhaps the most telling event. For sheer novelty alone he stands out: he is a modern day automaton, a simulation that we can’t help looking on as a little bit alive.


This specific direction of Natal tech also suggests a number of futures for videogame evolution. It’s moving towards the interface that human beings most readily understand: language and interaction with other people.

What’s critical about Milo’s unveiling is that he’s tied to a new technology which allows a game console to recognise users, and respond to physical cues – movement, speech, even physiognomy. The artificial person as a character in our everyday gaming lives is suddenly just a little bit more concrete.

Of course no one believes that Milo is anything more than set of call-and-response tricks, with little flexibility, but both he and the system used to bring him to life point the way to much more. Imagine where this could go: a computer intelligence that shares your gaming with you, or you music with you, or your Googling with you.


Perhaps it could be a character that “lives” in the menu screen, showing you new things, suggesting new experience you might enjoy, or helping you search for content. Or perhaps it would go deeper than that. Just as Mii avatars have been able to cross-pollinate their way into games, so these characters might accompany us into fantasy worlds, or science fiction settings.

Perhaps game engine development might become a secondary concern to character development: the research and development that makes up games could come rely on creation of interesting artificial people, rather than new, stunning visuals, or extra technical trickery. The challenge becomes one not of simulating worlds in more detail, but simulating humanity with greater fidelity. The gaming race would become about building someone interesting enough to keep players engaged, and to keep them coming back.

Of course, the appearance of Milo is not the first time a simulated person has wowed us in the world of videogames, because the evolution of artificial people has been racing along on a number of fronts. The most obvious of these is the artfully crafted non-player character – the Alyx or Barney of Half-Life 2, or the crew of Mass Effect‘s sleek starship. These clever mannequins have been structuring our game experiences for years now, and they are only become more believable with each passing year.


Another important strand in the development of the artificial person is represented by the bots who can fill in for human input in multiplayer games. The actions that we need to perform to play, say, Left 4 Dead, are now readily executed by programmed routines. These are limited, separate aspects of human activity, but they are starting to add up to a whole. The only thing our artificial people can’t quite seem to manage is to type comprehensible, dynamic dialogue. That might soon change.

Returning to the example of Half-Life 2‘s Alyx, we can already see that building even a rudimentary kind of relationship with a character is becoming crucial to game design. You might not be able to talk to Alyx, or even genuinely interact in any way, but she talks to you, and that charm means you respond more readily to the emotional cues in the game. This, already, demonstrates the value of an artificial relationship within a game world. Imagine the impact when Alyx can really “see” you, and respond to your smile, or your rude gesture.

Another strand of the artificial person is the social behaviour of our favourite pocket soap opera, The Sims. While these are, again, only rough analogues of real people, they demonstrate something profound about how we are disposed to react to people-like creations: if it behaves a bit like a person, then we’re not only engrossed by its activities, but we also behave towards it as if it really is alive. Imagine the possibilities for future Sims games where the emotional and behavioural fidelity is that much greater, or in which Sims look out of the screen and respond to you directly.


All these trends feed a single idea about the future of games: that it will be furnished not simply with new challenges and experiences, but with new relationships. Artificial relationships. Legendarily verbose games journalist Tim Rogers made a couple of astute observations about Milo: the first being that if the technology were used to create a pretty girl, Microsoft might finally crack Japan… [ed. note: something that Microsoft did in fact flirt with on the original Xbox with its import-only N.U.D.E. (pictured)]

Less sleazily, the possibilities for game design are thrown into relief, suddenly giving us access to conceits that were unimaginable. The obvious game, says Rogers, would involve us being Milo’s imaginary friend. “Who are you talking to?” ask the characters in the game world. “Oh, no one,” says Milo. Only we are there, and he “knows” it.

Of course it’s hard to believe that gamers will accept Milo unless he’s a space marine covered in orc gore (“THE EMPEROR APPROVES OF YOUR PICTURE. NOW PUSH ME ON THIS SWING”). But nevertheless there’s every reason to believe that the craft of the game designer will soon encompass the same territory currently inhabited by novelists, dramatists, and actors: in creating believable people for us to respond to, and to empathise with.

After all, games have subsumed every other medium, from music to firework displays, so why shouldn’t the more nuanced aspects of human art and culture be any different? And of course games will do it better: just as the rich taste of interaction makes action games a superior experience to action movies, so artificial people and our relationships with them will make videogames more emotionally involving, more upsetting, and more rewarding than any novel of human melodrama or movie about the lives of ordinary people, has ever been.

The future of games, I’m willing to wager, is artificial life.

[Jim Rossignol is an editor at RockPaperShotgun.com and the author of This Gaming Life, an account of the life of modern videogames and some of the people who play them. Ragdoll Metaphysics is his Offworld column exploring and analyzing gaming’s vast world of esoterica.]