Video games have come a long, long way since Computer Space was released in 1971. Games have reached the point where they can offer near-photo realism, and with 4K (and no doubt 8K on the horizon) and VR, they are able to offer a higher level of immersion than was thought possible even a decade ago.
Some games are strikingly detailed, featuring realistic-looking people inhabiting worlds with lush countryside and glistening cityscapes beneath lifelike weather patterns. Video games can finally rival movies from a visual perspective.
The problem is, the AI within these worlds hasn’t kept up with the visual advances. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve caught a glance of a game and thought “wow, that movie looks awesome”, or “I’d love to visit that place”, only for AI to let the facade down. Be it people being programmed to walk up and down the exact same stretch of pavement, or vehicles predictably stopping in unison at stoplights with a distance of exactly one foot between their bumpers, something gives the game away.
AI has certainly improved over the past few decades – going back and playing classic titles like Goldeneye show the advances that have been made – but developers still haven’t mastered creating NPC characters that actually feel like real people in a world. They give people random characteristics (+10 cooking, -5 concentration, +2 interest in exercise, etc.) then equally random appearances and call it a day, but it isn’t enough.
Gone are the days when I’m impressed when I follow someone in GTA and see that they drive to a parking spot and park then get out and go for a walk. I remember jumping into citybuilders and being able to follow an individual car between their place of work and their home. That’s great, but not something that makes these avatars feel like people.
The computational power required to emulate a full city may be beyond our capabilities at the moment, but if gaming could make similar advances in their horsepower as they have to their graphical components, anything could be possible.
I would love to see a game based on a smaller scale truly crack AI. A game set in a village, a house, heck, a room – but something that gives me people that make genuine decisions and mistakes and have regrets that aren’t scripted by whichever random number is put into 10 different characteristic boxes.
I want to see a soldier who spontaneously cracks under pressure and gives up the fight mid-battle without it being scripted. I want to see a driver have a blowout and react in a a realistic manner given their personality – do they remain calm under-pressure, or veer off of the road and cause a bigger problem? I want to see things as simple as pedestrians trying to decide whether they’re going to cross a road, going for it, changing their minds. Sports players losing their confidence when they miss a shot, or getting more determined because that’s what drives them.
I don’t need video games to perfect a photo-realistic aesthetic. I think that games are striking enough as they are, and with so much of video game budgets going towards asset creation and trying to make things look even prettier, I’d rather that the industry stayed where it is from a graphical perspective and instead looked to improve what is going on under the hood.