Monster Studies

On Bioshock’s splicers and the AI of Alien: Isolation

November and December 2017 were quite hectic on the monster front. A lot of new literature on monsters came out, such as the Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, the Zombie Theory reader and the special issue of Women, Gender & Research, entitled Monstrous Encounters. Lately, it seems that monsters are everywhere, at least in the humanities! Besides having lots of new things to read, I had the chance to present some of the early results of my work. In this post, I will say a few words about the presentations at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference in Krakow and the Games, Values and AI workshop in Cambridge. Each of them is built around a case study.

BioShock: A comedy of splicers
A lot of my recent thinking about monsters has been inspired by the material I collected from online discussions about the games in my corpus. One of them is the 2007 FPS BioShock, an obvious pick thanks to one of the most iconic video game monsters – the Big Daddies. Of course, these are iconic for good reasons, which I will hopefully write about another time. But what struck me about the discussions was the threads about splicers – the basic, non-boss monsters that you will spend most time killing. Some players found them comical, which pointed to the humorous side of the game that hasn’t really been discussed that much. I picked up that idea and developed into an interpretation based on Bakhtin’s carnivalesque aesthetics and grotesque realism – and encouraged by an invitation into a Games and Comedy panel, where I presented the talk.
Splicers are humans or, arguably, ex-humans addicted to ADAM, a substance that allows for genetic modification and physical boosts. Their addiction has made them into repulsive, bloodthirsty and insane beings. They still speak, but their mutterings are not much more than decontextualized shards of their former lives. Many of them wear carnival masks, and they play their simple, repetitive roles of FPS enemies just to be destroyed by the player. They have descended into grotesque and sometimes hilarious monsterdom.

Concept art of BioShock splicers

Fans of the game have made the effort to piece together splicers’ back stories from the game’s files and discovered there were ten splicer “models”, each tied to a set of sound files. Especially popular was a splicer model called Dr. Steinman, a paranoid surgeon, who, among other things, says: “Bacteria are microscopic… Heh, that’s what they want you to think.” But no matter their background “model”, splicers are assigned one of the five mechanical types – a leadhead, a brute, a Houdini etc. The game’s narrative strips them of any identity they might have had and makes them actors in a transgressive, computer-controlled commedia dell’arte. They are good examples of the laughable, pitiful ordinariness of video game enemies. Splicers work well within the context of the game, because they provide a consistent explanation of enemy behavior in shooter games – which is not exactly rational and humanlike. I believe they can also be read as a satirical commentary on in-game enemies in general, most of which behave as if they were insane.

Alien: Isolation: Can a monstrous artificial intelligence be unfair?
Another quite unique game on my list is Alien: Isolation, a first-person horror stealth game from 2014. It makes an intriguing case, because it (more or less) pits the player against one super powerful, indestructible monster. A lot has been written by journalists and AI experts about the way in which the game employs AI techniques. The Alien (or, more precisely Xenomorph) in the game chases the player character, Amanda Ripley, around the space station Sevastopol and adjusts its behavior to player actions. A simplified example – if the player often hides in lockers, the alien will start to search for her there. In this particular paper, I was interested in the way players figure out and evaluate monster behavior.
As described by the game’s programmers and later interpreted by AI researcher Tommy Thompson, the AI of the Alien comprises of two behavior management modules. The first one is the Director – who maintains gameplay tension by monitoring the player’s situation. The second one is the Alien itself, who employs techniques based on decision trees and pathfinding and mostly reacts to what the Alien could physically see in the game world. Importantly though, the Director may at certain points give the Alien a hint about the rough whereabouts of the player, leading to an encounter.


The Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation

The description hints at the fact that the alien is, in a certain way, “omniscient” and has access to information that he has not registered through his sensory perception. This is well justified from the design point of view by the need to maintain gameplay tension, but it puzzled and annoyed some players when the game was released. Players on the forums accused the alien of teleporting or otherwise cheating; others noted that he was “tethered” to the player. While some players accepted this as a case of unknowable, monstrous AI, others were less forgiving and called it cheating on the part of the designers. So, despite the fact that the Alien was a monster, its intelligence and behavior was evaluated by the criteria of human or animal intelligence. To some extent, then, even when speaking about video game monsters, we cling onto the idea of in-game actors as singular, discrete entities. But couldn’t monsters be, theoretically, so much more?
I presented the paper at a workshop organized by the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge, which brought together computer scientists, philosophers and humanists to discuss AI. It was great to talk to such a diverse crowd. There were even game developers, who assured me that they have committed far more severe cheats than the one in Alien: Isolation.

Overall, these two papers apparently do not (yet) represent any “unified theory” of video game monsters, but they have certainly helped me refine my approach and identify some specific features of video game monsters. I hope both of them you’ll be soon able to read them as journal articles. I’ll keep you updated.

[Copied from the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics blog]

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