Balancing Intelligence and Agency: The Secret to Engaging Game AI

Video game monsters like Troll make games fun

The only thing more aggravating than playing a co-op game with somebody who can’t keep up with you is playing a game with AI that can’t, either. A poor real-life partner can at least be taught—you can ask them to pick up the pace or show them how to play better—but an AI partner is stuck with whatever skills they’re programmed with. Good game AI is hard to find, especially because what defines ‘good’ is subjective.

For some, good game AI is unobtrusive, staying out of the way and leaving the gameplay up to the player. For others, it’s a dedicated part of the action, just as active as the player is. What people want from games is individual, but there are a few features that make certain AI shine above the rest.

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Children Are Our Future: The Unique Power of Young Protagonists

troll-and-i-otto

I’ve been playing games since I was old enough to hold a controller without chewing on it. While many of the heroes I played were older than me—Mario and Donkey Kong were my two favorites—there were young protagonists, too, characters like Ness or Red or, a little later on, Sora and Roxas.

It was those younger characters that really captured my attention. Maybe it was because they were more like me, or perhaps it was because those games were more story-focused than their predecessors, but while Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario Bros were fun to play, it was Pokemon and Kingdom Hearts that got me to obsess over their characters and worlds.

A young protagonist isn’t just appealing to kids, either. Having a child as the main character changes the way we perceive a story, shifting the tone to one of joy, wonder, or fear, depending on the context of their adventures.

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Complicated Situations: Why Video Game Stories Need Multiple Conflicts

Troll and I adventure game

Everybody has conflicts. Sometimes they’re external—a frustrating boss, for example, or a frightening arch-nemesis bent on your destruction—and sometimes they’re internal battles with ourselves instead. Both make for compelling narratives—in fact, it’s often preferable to mix both together to keep a plot progressing.

Conflicts in video games, however, aren’t quite so cut-and-dried. Consider early games like Super Mario Bros., which are all about external combat; we don’t need to know about Mario’s internal struggle as a plumber-turned-princess-rescuer to enjoy the gameplay. But that’s not to say that the internal side of the equation has no place in video games—in fact, by nature of being interactive, games are capable of telling stories that explore internal conflicts in ways no other medium can.

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Five Games Based on Nordic and Scandinavian Mythology

Banner Saga Mythology

Classic mythology is the starting point for many of my favorite stories. Whether it’s Greek, Egyptian, or Roman gods, there’s something compelling about stories that allow legends to intrude on everyday life. While these three pantheons are perhaps the most widely-known, there is another which has slowly been gaining popularity over recent years, thanks in no small part to Marvel’s Thor series. Though most people can’t help but associate Norse and Scandinavian legends with comic book characters, there’s a lot more to it than magic hammers and frost giants.

Thankfully, this is something that video games seem to be picking up on. Scandinavian mythology contains a slew of interesting characters, creatures, and stories just begging for virtual adaptations, and these five games in particular have masterfully transformed these ancient myths into unforgettable interactive adventures.

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Creating Emotional Connections Between Players and Video Game Characters

Emotional Connections in Games

I remember the first time I cried playing a video game. It was a bit later than many gamers, who probably shed their first tears over Final Fantasy VII’s Aerith. For me, it was toward the end of Uncharted 2, when Nate thinks Elena is dead. I knew she was alive beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it didn’t matter. The way Nate cared for her, and how poignantly the game got this point across, moved me so deeply that logic simply had no say in the matter.

It feels a little silly to talk about it that way, but fictional characters have long been the sources of our irrational sympathy, and video game characters are no exception. In fact, in games, our investment can be even greater because we can interact with them directly, and our interactions drive the story. Though the worlds we explore with them may be virtual, their fates in that world are tied with ours, making us feel close to them in ways that can seem very, very real.

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The Unique Appeal of Fantasy Games

The mountains from Troll and I

Fantasy is part of what drew me to video games in the first place. My love for the genre began when I first read The Chronicles of Narnia years ago; while science fiction lured me in later on, I’ve yearned for unicorns and dragons since I was a child. Luckily, video games have always had my back. Despite the obvious connection between the medium and science fiction—likely because both are associated with technology—video games are actually the perfect medium for fantasy stories.

Fantasy games are often connected to Dungeons & Dragons, but Tolkienesque fantasy is far from the only choice in video games. Where science fiction is often an extrapolation of existing technology (laser guns, teleportation, faster-than-light travel, and so on), fantasy encourages things that have never existed, like giant, fire-breathing lizards, magic, or other purely fictional creations. And, unlike other storytelling mediums, video games possess the unique power to allow us to experience and interact with these things as if they were real.

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Versatility and Vitality: The Appeal of Action Games

mythological creatures in video games: Troll and I

When you think of video games, what comes to mind first? Most people—gamers included—default to shooters. With long-running franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield, it’s no surprise that so many people connect video games with shooter mechanics.

Surprisingly, however, the lion’s share of video game sales does not always belong to shooters. In 2014, action games outsold shooters by just under 7 percent. While shooters took the top spot again in 2015, they only outsold action games by a little less than 2 percent. It’s a tight race for most popular genre, one that’s much closer than common perceptions of video games would lead you to believe. Continue reading

Agility, Brains, or Brawn? Variety in Game Combat Styles Keeps Things Interesting

Troll and I adventure game

Some people gravitate toward magic users or warrior in games, but I’ve always been more of a rogue. My first and favorite World of Warcraft character was an undead rogue, and my Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition was a dagger-wielding Qunari. I like quick attacks and the ability to vanish if I feel threatened, while others prefer powerhouses, hitting enemies with slow but powerful attacks.

Game combat is never about just one style of fighting—even shooters typically offer players multiple types of weapons to choose from. Variety in combat not only widens the appeal of a game to a broader breadth of players, but can also influence the perception of characters, or encourage other possibilities for gameplay. Whether based in agility, brains, or brawn, combat is one of our main methods of interacting with games. A varied approach gives players the ability to choose their own method of progression.

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Make Your Own Fun: Action-Adventure and Crafting Games Combine for Maximum Enjoyment

Video game monsters like Troll make games fun

The first time I played Minecraft, I was blown away by the potential to create new items out of the things I gathered throughout the world. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever played a game with crafting in it, but it was one of the few where crafting was intrinsic to the experience. I couldn’t skate by on just the resources I found—making new items was a vital part of the fun.

Fast forward a few years and crafting is now everywhere, especially in the action-adventure genre. Crafting games are great for giving players a sense of ownership over their equipment, making the various things you find throughout the world useful and personal, rather than merely junk to turn over to the next vendor you happen to meet on the road. In action-adventure games, crafting adds an important element of survival, heroism, and importance to each item you create, increasing the player’s sense of immersion when they’re playing the hero.

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Fearsome Friends: Stories About Monsters and Children Explore Unusual Tales

Mythological creatures like trolls show up in Troll and I.

I grew up surrounded by thick forest, convinced that all manner of monsters lurked within. Sometimes, the forest scared me. I imagined the ghosts and ravenous wolves of fairy tales lurking out there in the dark, waiting to devour me. Other times I imagined befriending them, earning a fearsome, lifelong friend who liked me and only me, like so many characters in the books and movies I loved.

There’s something uniquely fascinating about stories of monsters and their child companions. Sometimes it’s the pairing of a vulnerable character with a character that’s fearsome, other times it’s the innocent versus monstrous dichotomy, and sometimes it’s an exploration of what being a monster really entails. These stories resonate with people because such an unusual pair of characters brings out the interesting features of each, creating different circumstances, themes, and metaphors.

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