Game Review: Become A Piratical Tortoise in AI Dungeon

They turned the Turing Test into a game. No, really.

AI Dungeon (2019) is a free online text adventure game, and everything in it is generated by the GPT-2 AI (paying members get access to the more capable GPT-3). GPT-2/3 is the most advanced text generation AI existing today. It’s genuinely pretty scary – so much so that access is fairly tightly regulated. Better qualified people than I have opined at length about the possible threat of AI text generation to jobs, security, or both. I’m here to tell you if it makes for a good game or not.

The answer is an impressed maybe.

The key selling point of AI Dungeon is that it’s completely open world. You pick a character and are given a starting scenario e.g. ‘You are a noble in your room and people are attacking the castle.’ From there, you can do literally anything you like. Fight the attackers? Sure. Negotiate with the attackers? Absolutely. Turn yourself into a tortoise and run away to be a pirate? No problem. You write an action, and the AI describes what happens next. This is legitimately quite good fun. It also allows you to decide how much effort to put into the story.

There, I just typed ‘become a pirate’ because I’m not being paid by the hour (I’m not actually being paid at all, but that’s neither here nor there). However, I could definitely spend 30 minutes going around that ship I jumped on, talking to the crew, foment a mutiny, and take it over if I wanted to. It also allows you to get out of any boring story arc very easily. Tired of being a pirate? Easy to become something else – in this case, a bullying dragon. 

If you invest time in one set of interactions or a single character, genuine characterisation can emerge. For example, it’s quite possible to propose to a princess, have her refuse you until you have completed a quest, go complete the quest, and then come back and she may well marry you. It’s a bit rough and ready, but it is possible.

However, aside from the key selling point of total freedom to do whatever you want, AI Dungeon doesn’t really hold up.

The first key problem is that the game lacks permanence. You can become friends with someone, go do something entirely unrelated to them, come back and half the time they’ll have forgotten who you are. This isn’t always the case, but it can pose a slight problem. This lack of permanence also applies to gameplay. You can cast a spell to freeze a vampire in place, but then the next ‘turn’ the vampire will bite you.

The second issue is that, because the whole thing is generated by an AI without human direction, content can shift around a fair bit. For example, in one game, a character asked me to deal with a demon that was haunting her. I asked for details and she said that it was actually a human stalker. I pressed for more information and she said her stalker was a vampire. Now, you can absolutely decide that that represents a reluctant character gradually admitting the truth. However, it can get a little distracting.

Lastly, and unsurprisingly, there is no combat system in any meaningful sense. You absolutely can fight people, but you’re not in any danger. If stabbed, you can continue without penalty. If your leg is cut off, you move around as if nothing has changed. This is a bit of a shame in some senses because the AI has got quite a good handle on writing fight scenes.

Still, for all these infelicities, we ought not be too harsh on AI Dungeon. It is a remarkable technological feat and it’s a pretty fun way to while away the time. I haven’t bought the GPT-3 version, but by all accounts it runs even better. I think we are likely to see more games like this in the next few years – and they’ll certainly be very interesting.

6/10 – An interesting and creative time waster, but its real value is as a technology demonstrator.

Words by Matthew Ader

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