I finally got around to watching Spike Jonze’s science fiction film Her when it became available to rent on Netflix last week. I can’t for the life of me imagine why such a film didn’t make it into wide theatrical release considering the alternatives we’re being given, but that’s another discussion for another place and time. Aside from the emotional moodiness, beautiful music, and general brilliance of the film, one thing that really struck me was the ideas it presented for near-future gaming.
The protagonist, Theodore, is presented as a lonely gamer in the midst of a divorce. In his world, artificially intelligent Operating Systems have become a reality and his sounds like a very charming Scarlett Johansson. It’s also heavily implied that video game characters are imbued with independent personalities of their own as well. While the story focuses on Theodore’s love affair with his OS, Samantha, I was really interested in expanding the concept to Her’s vision of video games.
Rather than being limited to a screen or even some virtual reality helmet like we often see in sci-fi, Theodore’s game fills his living room. And it makes sense. Why encase the player’s head in some helmet with a screen when you can just project the game around the player? In lieu of a controller, the game is played using the player’s words and gestures, which is something I still believe Microsoft will some day manage to get right.
This is all good stuff, but as with most games these days, what really floats my boat is the characters. In Her, Theodore’s in-game character is challenged by a small alien with a penchant for profanity-laden abuse. He converses with the alien in real time as the point of view seamlessly switches from third person to first. It even responds to Samantha when she chimes in to update him on his email and mocks Theodore’s sensitivity. It’s pretty awesome. Assuming profanity = comedy in your mind, that is.
Lionhead Studios kind of toyed with this idea in their original Kinect demo named Project Milo, which made us think that Kinect was going to be this amazing thing. But at this point I think we can kind of assume that they were blowing smoke up our rear ends considering it’s been five years and we’ve seen absolutely nothing else playable along those lines. But still, it could happen in the future.
Sure it’s only recently that video games have developed AI sophisticated enough not to continuously try to run through walls or compulsively hide behind explosive barrels in the middle of a firefight, but progress is progress, yeah? Sooner or later it could be possible for developers to program video game characters with real personalities beyond a mere script that are able to respond in various ways to our interactions with them. Eventually, they could theoretically operate without canned programming prompts at all like they do in Her.
Now considering the film’s premise of romancing an AI Operating System, the next logical step would be romancing video game characters. Heck, people have already done that in real life so it’s arguably a previous logical step. Japan is almost always ahead of the pop culture technological curve and they have long been focusing on crafting virtual substitutes for genuine human romance. 2009 saw the world’s first human-video game character marriage in Tokyo. This is happening.
Romancing an OS without even an avatar to look at is one thing, but what about a character who could literally be projected into your home? Could an artificially intelligent being capable of learning, evolving, and conversing like a real person with a semi-physical form be an ideal partner for some people? In Her it’s made apparent that dating OS’s has become fairly commonplace and possibly even socially acceptable, although Theodore’s ex-wife makes the very valid suggestion that it implies an unwillingness to deal with genuine human emotion.
But negative sociological judgments aside, virtual personalities could be a great tool for people who suffer from social anxiety and allow them to practice interacting with other people in a safe environment. And if somebody decides they’d rather have their romantic needs met by an AI I’m not sure I have a problem with that. You know, may as well have some fun with them before they take over the world, go all Hal 9000, and exterminate us all Skynet-style, right?
So not only is Her one of the best and most emotional sci-fi films I’ve seen in forever, but it successfully raises a lot of legitimate questions that we may be dealing with irl as both gamers and human beings before we know it. And it’s not even pessimistic, for a change. Definitely a breath of fresh air in every sense.
So now I’m left dreaming about how freaking great the new Dragon Age would be if I could converse in real time with my companions at camp and have them respond not with a canned, pre-recorded script, but according to their own personalities. Even with all the options in current gaming that help make a story your own, being able to really interact with the resident of a game’s world using your own ideas instead of a set of laid out options and having them respond in kind would be some serious next-level immersion.
I don’t know how far away we are from this kind of thing, but I guess I should give up on flying cars and hoverboards and shoot for this instead. Not only is it way cooler, but it’s probably a lot more logistically feasible as well, even if it could decimate the need for human interaction as we know it. I just really, really want to look an alien in his eyes some day and tell him “fuck you” just to see what he’ll do before I die. I can’t be the only one.