In the first part, we met Dan Rutkowski of Sirenum LLC, the Milwaukee indie team developing PISCES for PC, which is coming to KickStarter in 2015. Now it’s time for more on PISCES itself, which promises to be an emotional experience that sticks with the player long after the final bullet’s been shot.
“It’s a different type of game, it’s an experiment, but it’s a game nonetheless,” says Dan Rutkowski, artist and designer at Sirenum. “PISCES is an experiment in connecting a gamer with an artificial intelligence. But doing it on a level that people haven’t tried before, that’s a basic wrap up of it.”
The inspiration behind PISCES’ story comes from an unconventional source, one that might seem odd in game with giant robots and guns. But that’s what PISCES is all about, being something more than a typical shooter. “It’s this reimagining of Hans Cristian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, where we take the literal mermaid away and replace her with this machine, this blank slate of a creature that’s just terrified of disappearing one day, and I think that’s something everyone can connect to,” Rutkowski says. “This is the Hans Cristian Andersen version, it’s a little bit darker. The idea behind The Little Mermaid, when he wrote it he had a strictly Christian background, and there’s this notion that nothing except for human beings have souls. So in The Little Mermaid, she’s not really after the Prince necessarily, like in the Disney story, what’s she actually looking for is a soul. So I was naturally attracted to that idea, because it was so in line with artificial intelligence.
He continues: “If you follow the story of The Little Mermaid, she’s looking for a soul because she knows at the end of her days, she’ll die and turn into sea foam. That’s why she goes to the undersea witch, which in this story is actually more of a witchdoctor, rather than having malevolent intentions. So she trades all these things to become human, but the spell has a timeframe and you have to fall in love. But the undertone of trying to attain a soul is a beautiful idea, especially for this coming era of artificial intelligence; this notion of what makes up consciousness and what makes up a soul. It was a natural thing to graft the story of The Little Mermaid into PISCES. The story goes, that PISCES is The Little Mermaid, this machine that’s suddenly found a tiny bit of consciousness and she, no matter what, wants to gain a soul. She becomes terrified that at the end of her days, she might live for 300 years being a machine, but there’s nothing for her to go on to, no possibility of an afterlife.”
The reimagining doesn’t stop at the character, but transforms the world in which the story is set as well. “PISCES takes place at the end of a technological Atlantis,” says Rutkowski. “The idea is that everything is being flooded and everyone’s moving up and up into high altitudes. So there’s a lot of snow, a lot of water. It’s not a tropical environment or anything like that. It’s not a desert either. It’s kind of this imagined space, that doesn’t geographically go anywhere.
“The game takes place across three territories, and there are load points between them, it’s not seamless,” he adds. “The game itself is open-world, in the sense that we’re not making you go down a single path, you’re free to climb all of the rocks that you see there, you’re free to jump in the water and check out all the seaweed and sharks that you want to. The reason for that is, if we keep it too linear it takes away from the idea of ‘what can the AI really adapt to’? If it’s all scripted, that’s not really that interesting.”
While the open-world allows the player to forge their own path through PISCES, there’s a defined endgame, where all possible variations converge. “If you look at the Telltale games, they use this very intelligent tree that expands in the beginning out to all of these little different branches, and then those branches collapse into one possibility at the end,” Rutkowski says. “There’s lots of different things that you can experience in the game. There is only one way that the game ends, and don’t read The Little Mermaid if you don’t want to know.”
Sirenum are using Unreal 4 to make their game look as good as possible, but originally, they nailed their colours to Unity’s mast. When Unreal officially launched in March of 2014, they made the difficult decision to make the switch. “Unreal came along and we were able to jump on to that, and it’s been a pretty amazing engine to say the least,” says Rutkowski. “It’s very malleable and very well written, so you can the big, beautiful vistas that we wanted to get.
“Unity is a great method for prototyping things, and it’s really good for very simple games, like sidescrollers. There are certainly 3-D games out there too, but the biggest issue that we kept finding was ultimately, that the engine kept falling short when combining all the elements into one. It’s just a bit of an older construct.”
Unreal, from its associations with Gears of War and other high-profile franchises, represents a certain level of quality. One that Sirenum were keen to identify with. “I’ve been heavily discouraged by some of the KickStarter frauds that have been going on lately, in just the fact that people will start these ideas without fully thinking them through, take people’s money and then it dithers out and disappears,” Rutkowski says. “That’s absolutely not what we wanted to do. So we wanted to make absolutely sure that whatever we say on the website or on the KickStarter campaign we can actually pull off and make a reality.”
From the concept art and promotional images, PISCES’ visuals are striking. “Everything that you’re seeing there is just years and years of me torturing myself,” says Rutkowski. “I’ve probably been working on PISCES for about three years now, so it’s just taken a lot of time, a lot of late nights.” While they’re not setting the bar unattainably high, the Sirenum team want to make sure that the visual component of PISCES keeps pace with the story. “I don’t think that photorealism is incredibly important for you to fall in love with a character, or with a story,” Rutkowski says. “Clearly, there’s plenty of games with very cartoonish characters that are very notable and you’ll remember forever.
“We’re not going to model every nut and bolt onto everything, but we’ll certainly strive for something that is memorable and beautiful at the same time.”
Despite not being the sole emphasis, PISCES does involve combat. Battles are large scale and strategic, requiring careful planning to avoid a swift demise. “It’s a paced game,” says Rutkowski. “You have your quiet time figuring out how to defeat the larger enemies that you’ll see. It’s sort of a strategy time mixed with the moments of action. I don’t want to give away too much about it, but way I’d describe it is if you’ve played Shadow of the Colossus. It’s less of the action side of Colossus, half the time. We try to take the misery of dying over and over again out of defeating a larger creature by giving the player time to, almost like a puzzle, figure out what you have to do. To set traps is the best way to describe it.
“There’ s these technologies and traps hidden all around the land that you have to venture out and discover, and it’s you and PISCES that have to figure it out together,” he explains. “Ultimately, if you do not find these things, then you’ll be killed by the larger things that are actively hunting you at all times.”
He continues: “It’s not necessarily a shooter in the sense of Halo or Modern Warfare, in that you’re not getting into these small dogfights. When comes to battling enemies it’s a large ordeal trying to escape being killed. The story’s really what binds it all together. The action parts are what drives the story forward.
“One of the things that we’re going to show in the KickStarter is how powerful the PISCES character actually is. She can manifest these black shards that float around her and she can cast them out. Those shards can pull across the ground and create massive boulders that you can use to bash against the larger robots. As she turns more and more human, the thing is that she loses that ability, so she becomes weaker and weaker. What will happen is you will see her as more and more human. She’s evolving beyond just being a machine, and you have to take up the slack, up to the gamer’s character to fulfil that role.”
The enemies in PISCES are really big. “You always need an antagonist in a game, and they’re the driving force you’re going against with PISCES,” Rutkowski says. “The enemy AI is this lumbering, it’s not a dumb AI, but it works off the Lovecraftian idea that human beings are these small, insignificant things next to these gigantic elements in the universe. It’s not like these elements really care about the tiny little ants, we’re just existing on their plane, and they’ll crush us, not maliciously, but just because we’re like ants to them. But if you do piss them off enough, they will hunt you down.”
What makes PISCES unique, aside from its story and its gameplay, is its approach to artificial intelligence. The character of PISCES grows throughout the game, making use of innovative techniques to get to know the player, meaning she becomes a different person for every player. “Who she becomes and who she is, is very malleable in the game and very personalised to you as a gamer because she’s learned from you,” says Rutkowski.
The team made this decision because they felt that the AI in modern games was lacking, lagging behind the progress made in other aspects of development. “When we were pitching around ideas of what we wanted to do with the game, one of the first things that came up was, as an indie group, we’ll never compete on graphics, we’ll never hit the level of Crysis or some of the other huge ones out there, there’s a massive amount of AAA games that’ll just kick your ass when it comes to making insane visuals,” Rutkowski says. “So as a small group of designers you’ve got to think about, ‘well what else can we do to really interest people in the experience that we want to give them?’”
Continuing, he says: “One of the things that we noticed, is that over the years graphics get continually better, and better, and better, and there’s a lot of focus on it, especially within the gaming community and in publications. But what has been ignored, to some extent, has been the artificial intelligence side of things. It blows my mind, because if you’re going to try and connect a gamer to an experience or a story, because that’s what a game is, a story, if you really want them to connect with it, and fall in love with it, and I think that’s what any artist or writer wants to do with their artwork, you need to give that story a character that they can wrap their minds around.
“As human beings, we naturally want to connect to somebody or something, so if we’re unable to do that, it’s a huge flop,” he adds. “Unless you really care about the characters in a movie or a story, that story will become ultimately forgettable very quickly, even if it’s action-packed and you had a lot of fun with it. It’s not like we’re trying to make an ugly game, but we’re certainly not focussing on photorealism as the goal. We want beautiful moments for the gamer to experience, but in the end I want the gamer to walk away feeling some emotion for that character. You either feel compassion or hatred or something towards her, but something that’s unnaturally ungame-like.”
Crafting believable AI isn’t an easy task, a fact that isn’t lost on the Sirenum team. “AI’s a very difficult thing to pull off,” says Rutkowski. “If you look at even something like chatterbots, it’s like a blank website, you type something in and you get a response back, and you can hold down somewhat of a conversation. They have their limits with how they can respond to your questions, but that’s basically what we started with, this idea of ‘what was the chatterbot trying to do?’ and ‘how can we mould into the character component in the game?’ If you use something like Siri from Apple. I mean look at Apple, it’s a massive company and they can’t even get Siri to work in a way that’s not infuriating half the time.
“This is the designer’s or the artist’s take on how to build AI, so it’s not the common method. Basically, we looked at life and what life is about. Life is clearly a story. So at the end of the day, you’re the sum of all these moments in your life. In a sense, it’s reactionary, because in the beginning of the game PISCES is a blank slate, so she has to be built along the way. Then, as you experience more and more things throughout the storyline, it goes from being reactionary, to being ‘actionary’, I guess, but it does take time for the AI to build up how to know how to respond to you.
“Usually in games, AI is relegated to being about path-finding and nav meshes, and that sort of thing, just trying to get a character from point A to point B. Then they throw a lot of little gizmos that are trying to do things like have the enemy listen for footsteps if you’re within a certain range. There’s not a lot of intelligence there, it’s just a sort of basic robot.”
PISCES sees the player through Microsoft’s Kinect, reading the emotions on a players face while they play. “I wish I could go out there and force every gamer to buy a Kinect, but I know that that’s never going to happen,” Rutkowski says. “Faceshift is this programme that works with your Kinect, and that allows you to do motion capture with facial movements. The Kinect is a depth sensing camera, so it can actually pull that information off.
“If you connect a Kinect while you’re playing PISCES, what the character is able to do, is watch for all sorts of things. She can tell how many times you’ve smiled, and she can tell if your pupils are watching her or if they’re going all over the place, she’ll ask you if she can help you find something, because obviously you’re searching for something.
“It’s using this set of data that’s pretty simple to understand. ‘Is a person smiling right now? Is their left cheek and their right cheek going up? Is it just the left cheek? If it is then it’s a smirk. If you can take all these very simple notions, that’s the best way to gauge a person’s emotional state, to simply look at their face. It’s the map to the soul in that sense.”
He explains: “What the camera’s actually looking for is little cues, like movements of the face and movements of the pupils. Your eyebrows tell an insane kind of story about what’s going on. So you can take this information and record it within the program and say ‘in 30 seconds, how many times has this emotional cue, like a smirk or smile, or a raised eyebrow, happened?’ And it begins to build a database of those instances and based on that data you can try and gauge what person’s thinking. When you tie that information in with a specific location or challenge in the game, then PISCES is able to create this map of who you are, as a gamer. Are you someone that get incredibly frustrated with puzzles? Or are you really enjoying certain things? It uses all of these metrics and ties them into time and setting. That’s how she’ll build this emotional response to you. I think that’s what will turn her from being just another game character into something you can fall in love with.
“One game that did a half way decent job of faking it was Half Life 2. The female character Alex, she had these subtle type of smirk and smiles and she could communicate with you in that way. That was all scripted, so it couldn’t completely respond to you as a human being playing the game. But even those subtle cues were enough to open up your mind to the concept that she’s more of a human being, you care about her more during the gameplay. It makes the textured polygon character into something more.”
PISCES is initially being built exclusively for the PC and will come to Steam GreenLight as well as KickStarter. However, Sirenum are open to taking their game to other platforms if their KickStarter is a success. There’s scope for expansion in other areas of the game too, and still plenty more to be revealed. “The way that the story’s been written, it uses these three maps, but that isn’t to say that we can’t extend the story a bit if we want to add more content,” Rutkowski says. “I’ll leave who the player is exactly for the KickStarter campaign.”