March 18, 2013 at 10:08 AM ET
Renowned game developer Ken Levine has spent the last few years trying to take the artificial out of artificial intelligence. The result of this effort has a name. It's Elizabeth.
"Elizabeth is an artificial intelligence that’s quite different from what you see in other games," the mastermind behind the forthcoming game "BioShock Infinite" told NBC News in a recent interview.
In this game, Elizabeth is the character that you, the player, have been sent to rescue from a mysterious turn-of-the-century floating city called Columbia. Elizabeth is also your partner — a very powerful partner and, Levine hopes, an especially realistic partner despite the fact it is AI that governs her every move.
Levine has called Elizabeth the heart of "BioShock Infinite" — the new installment in the beloved BioShock franchise and a game that will launch to much anticipation on March 26.
"It was a very difficult game to make," he says of "Infinite" which was originally scheduled to arrive back in October, before he delayed the launch to give the team at Irrational Games time to make it "into something even more extraordinary."
"This is certainly the largest game we’ve ever made, and there were many complicated elements to it," Levine says, explaining that one of the most complicated elements was Elizabeth, an AI character that doesn't just mindlessly follow the player about like some zombiefied ragdoll, backing you up in combat and feeding you tidbits of repetitive dialog.
Instead, Levine says the developers at Irrational have gone to great lengths to infuse her with life.
Levine describes Elizabeth as a "nerdgirl of 1912." She's a young woman who has been locked up in a tower her whole life. And though she has no worldly experience, she's had access to plenty of books and is plenty smart. (You can get a preview of her in action in the below trailer for the game).
In many ways, she is the opposite of the character gamers will play — the cynical, world-weary Booker DeWitt sent to retrieve Elizabeth from Columbia. But how did the developers at Irrational go about making this AI nerdgirl different than the AI characters we've seen in countless other games?
"The first work with Elizabeth was figuring out, how do people act?" Levine says. "I said to the animators and the programmers, 'Go home and don’t tell your wife or your husband, but go watch them. Go creepily stare at them for an hour, and see how they do things.' Because, you know, if I said, 'Tell me how somebody washes their hands, specifically, exactly how does that work?' you might not be able to tell me exactly. But if you saw somebody doing it wrong, you would know."
The point, Levine says, is this: "Elizabeth has to behave in a way that we think is natural — and she has to do it not just in the big dramatic moments, she has to do it all the time."
And it's that all the time bit that makes Elizabeth such an intriguing AI creation. As gamers know, AI characters spring to life when you interact with them and often then simply stand there woodenly waiting for your next move. But Levine says what they wanted with Elizabeth was for her to "never let her guard down and turn into a robot."
"What’s interesting about Elizabeth is what she's doing when you’re not in combat — what she's doing when you’re just sort of walking through the space, exploring," Levine says. "We wanted her always to be engaged. We wanted to always give you the sense that she’s discovering things, that she’s finding things, that she cares about what’s going on. That she’s worried about something, she’s angry about something, she’s scared of something."
By way of example, Levine describes an early scene in which the player and Elizabeth find themselves at a resort beach inside the floating city.
"There are literally dozens of things that Elizabeth can interact with," he says. "There are people she can talk to. She can pick up rocks and skip them along the water. She can try to pick up a medicine ball that’s on the ground. She can look at the surfboards. She can want to buy cotton candy."
In short, she is at all times bubbling with life and engaged not only with what the player is doing, but with the environment around her.
Part of the point of doing this, Levine says, is that they wanted to get away from telling the game's story in cut scenes — those moments in a game where the control is taken away from you the player and you are shown a brief movie-like cinematic detailing an important moment in the story.
"We don’t put up a cordon and say, OK, time for a narrative, step back. We just let the narrative happen as the player is going through the experience," Levine explains. "I guess the simplest way I can put it is, our goal at the company has been to make a player be a participant in the narrative, not an observer."
Ultimately, he says, "The story is a very personal story of Booker and Elizabeth and the changes they go through, and this journey that you’re on. And the fact that a lot of it is told in dialogue between these two, creates this connection — this emotional connection — that I think you’re going to feel."
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