Eliza: it’s all in the mind

How would you feel about using artificial intelligence (AI) to help manage your mental wellbeing? And how much personal information would you be willing to hand over to the company behind it, if they promised it would enable them to better support you?

Seeing the rise of automation and AI in the IT industry has given me an interest in the ‘people’ aspect of my work and questions like this. We’re realising that it isn’t just about computers any longer: technological progress comes with a range of benefits which make our lives seemingly easier, but also has the potential to affect society in unforeseen ways. Younger generations are the first to have grown up with modern technology since the day they were born and seeing how this is changing our relationship with it is fascinating.

This explains why I’ve been keen to play Eliza for a while now. Released in August last year, Zachtonic’s visual novel tells a story about mental health and AI which encourages the player to think about how much of themselves they’re willing to give over to technology. Today’s post isn’t a review as such but more a discussion about some of the questions raised – ones which have been bouncing around in my head since completing the title a few days ago and for which I’m still don’t I have the answers.

The narrative centres on Evelyn Ishino-Aubrey, a woman in her mid-thirties who left a promising IT career three years ago to now resurface as a proxy for a virtual counselling app called Eliza. Her clients attend sessions with her at the coffee-shop-like centre in Seattle where they reveal what is troubling them and it’s her job to make them feel they’re being listened to. The thing is though, Evelyn has no autonomy over how she responds; all her answers are provided in real-time by an AI through a pair of augmented-reality (AR) glasses.

The protagonist admits early in the game that she’s comforted by this lack of freedom because it means she ‘doesn’t have to think’. For the player though, it feels disturbing. The system monitors the clients’ heart-rate, vocal distress and keyword use so it can present the best response to keep the conversation at optimum level. None of it is of use to Evelyn though and it isn’t long before doubt starts to creep in: who is this app really designed to help? Does it have a patients’ best interests at heart or those of the company behind it, Skandha?

Although sections of the game take place outside of Evelyn’s workplace with friends and colleagues, a lot of time is spent with clients in these counselling sessions. You’re unable to make any choices during most of them and must simply select each answer generated by Eliza as a proxy. The more time I spent doing this and effectively behaving like a robot, the more I started to feel uncomfortable. How could a service this impersonal and based only on data analysis truly care for anybody with a mental health issue?

Eliza, video game, man, Darren, sad, artificial intelligence, AI, augmented reality, AR, counselling session, therapy, office

For example: an early patient is Darren, a young man who is worn down by the existential burden of living in a damaged world where people are cruel to each other and those in charge care about nothing but themselves. He’s clearly distressed and crying out for a human connection, but the support Evelyn is able to provide through Eliza felt so far removed from the thing he seemed to need the most. Skandha may promote their app as bringing therapy to those who otherwise couldn’t access it, but I wasn’t so sure it was helping.

Later we see a client named Maya, a female artist who experiences anxiety issues and is struggling because she feels her work isn’t being noticed by anyone in the comic industry. Occasionally she asks questions or makes comments that Eliza is unable analyse properly and it’s here that the limitations of the software begin to be exposed. Instead of generating a direct response, it instead ignores what Maya has said and pushes her back into the strict discussion format of introduction-discovery-challenge-intervention-conclusion.

Then we have Holiday. At first it appears that she is a lonely older lady who has come to check out the counselling centre just to be nosey. Once she signs over access to her personal communications however it becomes clear her situation is far worse she’s letting on during her sessions: she’s in debt, estranged from her children and entirely alone. But instead of offering her channels of support for these problems, Eliza doles out its standard advice of meditation games and possible medication.

As well as examining the effectiveness of such an app, the huge amount of the personal and sensitive information collected through it is highlighted too. Evelyn says herself at one point: ‘the potential for misuse seems kind of high.’ The game frequently returns to questions about data collection and the ethics of using it for research or new business propositions. When the slimy Skandha CEO’s intentions are revealed, it makes you uncomfortably consider where all that information you’re giving away on online is going.

Is it ever ok to access someone’s personal information to such an extent, if they agree to it and it allows a company to better help them – as well as sell to them more effectively? And even with all this data, can an AI truly understand human emotions and correctly interpret the meaning behind our words? Is an app like Eliza really able to support the people who need it the most, or does devolve responsibility to a computer and reduce the care of our mental health to a commercial venture?

So many questions and ones I’m still thinking about. What I can say though is that seeing Evelyn go off script towards the end of the title and push against Eliza’s boundaries is so satisfying. After realising the app isn’t aiding society in the way it was intended, she chooses to take a stand and intervene. It will get her in trouble with her employer, is unlikely to change the company’s culture and won’t completely change the world; but if it helps even just one person then surely it’s worth it?

Evelyn is an unexpected character in some ways. In releases about mental health, the focus is usually on a protagonist who’s struggling or trying to work through their problems. But here we have someone who’s coming out on the other side, who’s gradually starting to peel off the armour she built up over the past three years and that makes her far more vulnerable. She shows us that it’s ok not to have all the answers and to have to find your way one step at a time.

The things she says and the way she behaves make her incredibly relatable. You might see yourself in her or one of the other characters at some point, and realising you’re not alone is an incredibly powerful thing.

Commander ’85: hacking back to the 80s

I’ve been a huge fan of anything to do with the 1980s for as long as I can remember. Give me a denim boiler suit, white heels and neon-pink lipstick, and you’ll find me on a dancefloor somewhere singing along to the likes of Chaka Khan and Spandau Ballet (badly).

My love for the decade also extends to video games, and a release set in the 80s or with artwork inspired by it is bound to catch my eye. Take 198X for example. I backed its Kickstarter campaign in June 2018 after seeing the artwork alone, despite the promotional trailer not giving much away about the game actually involved. I wasn’t disappointed though; we played it on day nine of our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 and liked the way that several different genres came together in one story.

After making pledges to the campaigns for Gamdec and Chinatown Detective Agency last month, I came across another on the crowdfunding platform last week – one which this time appealed to my obsession with the decade rather than detective games. Commander ’85 by The Moonwalls is described as ‘a sci-fi thriller about a seemingly ordinary birthday present that changes the lives of the main characters forever’. It sounds like the set-up for a great 80s movie and so I happily became a backer for the project.

The story starts out well when you’re given a super modern computer with real artificial intelligence (AI) for your birthday on 13 May 1985, but things take a turn for the worse when military experiments get out of control and the world faces the threat of nuclear war. Together with a group of good friends and crazy scientist, you’ll have to try and end the Cold War, discover the secret of the Commander computers, and find out the mysterious truth behind the Roswell Incident.

Like 198X, it’s hard to figure out exactly what to expect from Commander ’85 from the limited information provided through the Kickstarter campaign and Steam page. What I can tell you though is that I’m getting vibes of WarGames from the promotional video (and who doesn’t like a young Matthew Broderick?). I’ve mentioned before that my favourite narratives are usually those grounded in reality but where something is a little ‘off’, and this seems like one which is going to hit that spot.

Although gameplay details are light, we’re told that players will get to decide the fate of the world using an advanced system of interaction with the computer’s AI. You’ll have to build its trust and friendliness towards you, listen to its sarcastic comments and even watch as it quarrels with your parents. Randomly-generated plot points make for a slightly different experience for each player and you’ll reach one of three different endings according to the choices you make.

Several short gameplay videos are already available on YouTube as a demo is provided with the ‘White Hat’ backer tier. It starts with a section almost like Gone Home where you’re able to explore your bedroom and look at objects, before moving onto a tutorial where your computer guides you through hacking into your school’s database to update your attendance record. While downloading a file however, a virus is installed on your machine and it begins to attempt to access the ballistic missile systems of the United States and USSR.

The AI then tells you that the virus is modifying its files and you should expect some unexpected effects when launching programs. It can also take advantage of any free threads on your computer and use them to speed up the hacking process, so it’s time to keep your machine busy by playing video games. But soon your eyes grow fuzzy from tiredness and you have to head to bed… before being abruptly woken up by strange noises and an incredibly bright light in the night sky. It’s here that the demo ends.

The Kickstarter page mentions that you’ll need to complete the chores given to you by your parents so you don’t get grounded and stopped from playing, and these optional activities help vary the gameplay each time. It’s safe to guess that if you don’t do these tasks, they’ll prevent you from getting back to your Commander ’85 and this will give the virus an opportunity to gain access to those missiles far quicker. Who knew that playing video games was going to prove important when trying to save the world?

The campaign for Commander ’85 is running until 09 May 2020 and, at the time of writing, it has already secured almost 70% of its £4,545 target. Head over to the Kickstarter project for further details and give The Moonwalls a like on Facebook to stay up-to-date on their progress.

My perfect video game

What makes the perfect video game? It’s a difficult question because there’s no single right answer. Everyone has their own favourite genre, gameplay mechanic, art-style and narrative direction – so what makes a title amazing to one player is going to turn another off.

mckliz from McKenna Talks About Games gave her nominees the chance to ponder this while sharing a Sunshine Blogger Award earlier this month, after asking what a release designed by them would be like. I have a feeling that elements from Celeste or The Legend of Zelda releases might feature in her own response to her question! This post is dedicated to this blogger and covers the elements that would make up my own perfect game and, if it’s ever made, you can be sure I’ll be following her tips for the perfect night-in while playing it.

Genre

The Secret of Monkey Island, video game, ghost, pirates, LeChuck, Guybrush Threepwood, root beer, grog machine, Stan's Previously Owned Vessels, boatyardI don’t think there’s any doubt which genre my video game is going to fall under. Everyone who regularly visits Later Levels will know I’m all about adventures so this release is definitely going to be a point-and-click! They encompass everything I love most about gaming: great characters, an amazing storyline which goes through plenty of twists, and gameplay where you have to use your brain in order to progress. Now let’s dig into those elements a bit further to find out what the player is getting themselves into…

Protagonist

Although some people prefer to play as a character who’s totally different to themselves, I like strong female protagonists who aren’t afraid to speak their mind. Think Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, Zoë from the Dreamfall games and Commander Shepard from Mass Effect. ‘Strong’ doesn’t necessarily mean perfect though; each have their flaws and weaknesses, and their vulnerabilities are shown during their storylines. Give me someone who’s relatable and worthy of looking up to regardless of their background.

Story

The Red Strings Club, video game, bar, woman, Larissa, bartender, Donovan, android, AkaraMy favourite stories are usually those grounded in reality but where something is a little ‘off’. They start with an inciting incident in the real-world, either during the present day or near future, and it soon becomes apparent its cause is something very unusual: a parallel universe, time-travel or rogue artificial intelligence (AI) for example. There would be lots of secrets to uncover so you’d be left guessing all the way through, but there would be no pesky plot-holes left open by the time the end-credits rolled.

Gameplay

I have have to stay true to my roots: the gameplay for my release would take the form of a traditional point-and-click. I’d do away with verbs but stick to dialogue trees, inventory combinations and plenty of puzzles; and each would be carefully implemented to be a narrative channel rather than an artificial game-lengthener. There would be no character-switching so the player could get to know one protagonist fully, and after enough content to keep you going for a month you wouldn’t want to leave their world when the end credits rolled.

Visual style

Cognition, An Erica Reed Thriller, Erica Reed, FBI, face, gunThis is perhaps the toughest element to decide on because there are a few visual styles which appeal to me. You can’t beat a bit of photo-realism to help bring you into a title’s world but there’s something about 2D pixelated art which makes me want to jump into an adventure. However, for this release I think I’m going to go for something like that used in Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. There’s something about that comic-book style that I think would really suit the type of storyline and protagonist I’m going for.

Audio style

A lot of adventures made in the classic style forgo voice-acting and instead use display text. But I think it adds something special if done well, so let’s get in someone like Sarah Grayson – who did a superb job of voicing Samantha Greenbriar in Gone Home. The soundtrack therefore needs to be something subtle enough to not drown out her work, but with the ability to effectively highlight the current feeling through the game. Is it also possible to add in an 80s-inspired track somewhere, like on a radio in the background?

Replayability

Gone Home, video game, photograph, dark room, handsThis is a one-and-done kind of video game. Many players are keen on non-linear storylines and meaningful decisions, but these mechanics can result in perfect ending pressure and are rather anxiety-inducing when you’re a perfectionist! Knowing your decisions won’t have any unintended negative effects because you’re ultimately going to arrive at the same end point as everyone else can be liberating. All you need to do is sit back, drive the game forward at your own pace and enjoy the plot as the developer intended to tell it.

Title

One of the things I struggle with most when it comes to blogging is finding a good title for posts I’ve written. It’s therefore understandable that coming up with a name for my game is just as difficult, so I turned to my friends for their suggestions. The one I like best comes courtesy of Phil and is Call of Data. It nicely alludes to a career change I went through this summer, and seems would be fitting for a storyline where dangerous technology and AI were involved somewhere.

A huge thank you to mckliz for very kindly nominating Later Levels for the Sunshine Blogger Award – and to any developer reading this post who’d like to make the game above for me! Now, what would your own perfect video game be like?

State of Mind: Daedalic disaster?

Although I love the adventure genre, I’m not a Daedalic Entertainment fan. There’s something about their games I can’t get my head around and the humour falls flat. I haven’t played a title by the developer since Silence last summer, when the promotional material failed to explain that it was a follow up to 2009’s The Whispered World and the storyline was spoiled as a result.

It therefore probably seems strange that I was drawn to State of Mind at the Rezzed event in April 2018. Unfortunately the stand was busy every time I stopped by and I didn’t get the chance to try the demo there, but there was something about its futuristic low-poly world that intrigued me. The fact it was a release by Daedalic did put me off however and so it sat in my wishlist for over a year after being added – until I needed something new to play and received a Steam notification about a discount last month.

Almost 12 hours later and I was pleasantly surprised. I’d finally found a Daedalic title I’d actually enjoyed. I considered this over the following week, trying to figure out why this was the first that had really appealed, and then I realised: it wasn’t like any other the developer’s earlier work. Instead of being a story about a fairytale, cartoonish and full of saccharine, State of Mind had a much grittier feel and a narrative where there were no entirely happy endings. And best of all, there was no humour to be lost in translation.

Bias is a curious thing. No matter how much we try to remain unmoved by our preferences and past experience, it still has a funny way of creeping in there; even the most open-minded person will categorise in a way that influences their decision-making. I consider this post to be a simple discussion about a game I played recently rather than a ‘proper’ review. But if it was a critique, I’d likely be focusing on the way State of Mind kept me engrossed for an entire weekend and how it kept me guessing who the real villain was until the very end.

A lot of other people don’t agree with that opinion though. A quick search on Steam at the time of writing reveals a ‘Mostly Positive’ rating at 71% along with a score of 69 on Metacritic. While looking for discussions about the game’s ending, I found numerous reviews giving it two or three stars out of five and commenting on bugs, confused narrative and limited challenge. For example, Lewis from A Most Agreeable Pastime called it ‘a reasonably interesting story that’s hamstrung by poor pacing and character development, and a glaring lack of things to actually do’.

And you know what? I don’t disagree with him. It wouldn’t be unjustified to call State of Mind a walking simulator (although I hate that term) with a light sprinkling of puzzles on top. Most of the gameplay consists of traversing to one point of interest to another and having conversations where your choices don’t impact the title’s direction in any significant way; and when challenges do appear they’re not all that, well, challenging. There’s therefore little to keep you hanging on for more if the story isn’t gripping you.

As for the narrative itself, it covers a wide range of futuristic subjects from social division to transhumanism. They’re fascinating individually but combining them all within the same video game means that none are given appropriate focus before we’re moved onto the next. The characters have to make huge leaps in logic in order to connect numerous subjects and sometimes it feels as though they’ve draw conclusions out of thin air. As a result, I found myself asking ‘But why though?’ several times throughout my time with the title.

I therefore still have a number of outstanding questions – the reason why I was searching for discussions about the ending, as mentioned above – and their answers would probably make interesting games in their own right. It feels as though Daedalic attempted to do something similar to The Longest Journey series and give us a story about conspiracies, technology and control but sadly missed the mark slightly. Whereas Red Thread Games’ project gives you all the explanation you need, State of Mind leaves you hanging.

So do those negatives make the opinion I gave earlier in this post less valid? I don’t think so, because I genuinely enjoyed it despite the release’s many shortcomings; but it’s certainly worth noting how bias could affect my view in some way. Previous experiences with the developer’s work haven’t been great and so this release, being so different in its nature, caught me off-guard. Was it that I enjoyed being surprised by the change in style and subject matter rather than State of Mind itself?

And more importantly: does that even matter if I was entertained and this post is in no way meant to be a proper review? Whatever the answers to all these questions are, there’s one thing I’m sure of. I’m more excited to see what Daedalic does next than I’ve ever been before.

More than meets the AI

Before its final date at the end of August, I had the pleasure of attending the AI: More Than Human exhibition at the Barbican in London. This event promised to explore our relationship with artificial intelligence (AI) and reflect on how technology impacts our existence.

After entering the hall, attendees found themselves in an area that at first felt too ‘spiritual’ to be associated with its subject matter. Seeing objects such as Jewish holy books and small figurines was slightly confusing and we wondered what this had to do with AI. The plaque next to a stand containing a small figurine and Hebrew parchment from the 14th century read: “The golem has taken many forms in different stories… It was brought to life through complex, ritualistic chants…”

The next section was devoted to alchemy and featured items that looked straight out of ancient mystical experiments. We found out it was a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Although alchemists at the time were primarily concerned with transforming metals into gold, several were fascinated with the creation of life too: “One of their concoctions involved creating miniature human-like beings, named homuncules.”

The basis of the exhibition gradually became clearer the further we progressed through the hall. People have always been fascinated by the creation of artificial life and this interest has expressed itself differently across times and civilisations, with religion, science, magic and illusion all playing their part. Humans have explored their own place in the world by attempting to give life to non-living things. At times this has made us feel powerful and almost godlike; while at others it’s caused us to be fearful of a world we can’t control.

Is technology the next step in this process? When we think of AI nowadays, it’s not golems or alchemy that spring to mind but incredibly-advanced computer systems that seem to be able to think for themselves. A roped-off section towards the end of the exhibition contained a robot called ‘Alter 3’ and this is probably more along the lines of what most visitors were expecting. With the body of a bare machine and genderless mask for a face, it ‘learns and matures through interplay with the surrounding world’.

This machine alone encapsulated both the power and fear of AI creation for me. On one hand I was amazed at witnessing a robot capable of learning, that had been crafted by a team of very clever humans. But there was also something extremely unsettling about it that caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end: at certain points the mask pulled expressions that seemed to represent something like pain. It was almost as if Alter 3 had become self-aware, and was realising the limitations of its physical embodiment.

In March 2018, I wrote a post which mentioned how contemporary research into emotional AI was progressing. Mark Riedl, Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in an interview with The Guardian that he believed we’d soon see video game characters that could learn from stories and actions in a digital world and then work out how to act more like humans. But what will it mean to have AI characters who can ‘think’ for themselves and make decisions based on data not obvious to the player?

New relationships, even digital ones like these, come with big questions and potential ethical implications that are difficult to respond to. As characters become more complex and humanlike with their own beliefs and desires, is it moral for us as players to decide their fate? Will it be harder or even wrong for us to cause them harm and choose whether they live or die? And if that’s the case, when comes the point that it stops being a game?

I don’t have any of the answers but it’s a fascinating subject to think about. We’ve gone from golems and alchemy to robots capable of self-learning; where will the next step take us?

AI: More than Human photo gallery

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LudoNarraCon 2019: Neo Cab

Over the past year in the IT industry, artificial intelligence (AI) has become a hot topic. It’s the thing a lot of companies are looking for when making decisions about new systems: chatbots that feel like a real person and software able to automate previously manual tasks.

It’s been a big at a number of conferences I’ve attended recently and you generally see two main reactions. First are the executives who think AI is exciting, usually because they consider it a way to save money (although they never seem to fully understand what AI actually is or the work which goes into maintaining it). And second are the IT staff themselves who, on the surface, appear enthusiastic but underneath are feeling uncertain. What will this mean for their jobs, their long-term careers and their livelihoods?

It’s this aspect of the subject fascinates me: the impact of technological changes on society and how we react to them. Perhaps that explains why I was so keen to play the Neo Cab demo during last weekend’s LudoNarraCon event after hearing a bit of buzz about it during the past month or so. The upcoming title by Chance Agency is pitched as an ‘emotional survival game about staying human in a world disrupted by automation’ – sounds as though all those IT executives might want to take note.

You play as Lina, a Neo Cab driver-for-hire, and the game begins when her friend Savy invites her to leave her current town of Cactus Sands and move to the neon-drenched streets of Los Ojos. After piling all her stuff into the back of her car and hitting the road, she picks up a pax (passenger) along the way to make a bit of extra Coin. Here’s where players are introduced to the central mechanic, dialogue choices selected from a list that each having a different effect on the person in your backseat.

My first conversation took a political turn: the guy was on his way to the city with the intention of taking photographs of a building owned by mega-corporation Capra. It was this company who automated all cabs and replaced the drivers with robots, thereby kicking Lina out of her first job. After choosing dialogue options which expressed her anger and annoyed the pax, I managed to reign it in and get him back on side. At the end of the journey he gave a five-star rating which pushed the protagonist’s overall score up from 4.9 to 5.0.

While checking this out on the Neo Cab app installed on Lina’s mobile device, a call from Savy came through so it was time to pick her up. Witnessing the friend’s reunion was interesting as it gave an insight into their relationship and why they’d fallen out around six months earlier. It also highlighted the character portraits; although depicted in quite a ‘cartoon’ style, emotions flashed across the girl’s faces in a way that was believable and easy to read. They’re also a lovely contrast from 3D-style used for the streets outside the car.

Neo Cab, video game, Savy, Lina, cab, car, mirror, Feelgrid

Savy gives Lina a Feelgrid to set things back on track: a device that changes colour according to the wearer’s emotions and their intensity, kind of like a digital mood-ring. She also warned her friend to not ignore what it was trying to tell her. Red signified anger and could be a sign that the protagonist needed to respond to her passengers more assertively to stand up for herself, while blue meant she was feeling down and possibly needed to take a break. An icon in the bottom-left corner of the screen shows the full range of colours and where Lina is on the spectrum at any point.

After dropping Savy at a club to take care of a ‘work thing’, Lina finds another pax through the app and here’s where it gets more complex. Are you willing to let the protagonist stand up for herself in conversation if her Feelgrid is flashing red, or would you rather her emotional well-being take a hit for the sake of her star-rating? Are you happy to collect a pax from a no-parking zone if it means a good review, even if you might have to stump up the Coin for a ticket from the LOPD? And how much juice can you afford to put into your car?

It’s not always easy. One passenger began asking questions which sounded as though she was reading from a script. Lina’s Feelgrid then started to glow bright red when it was discovered that the pax was recording information for Capra for a wage. My next dialogue choices weren’t exactly friendly, but finding out more about the NPC and what was happening in Los Ojos opened my eyes and I began to tone it down. Another five stars was secured – and the fact I let the woman charge up using the electricity from my own car helped with that.

The city is a dystopian place and what makes it even more frightening is the fact that it’s so much like modern life. Citizens make use of wearable technology which monitors their emotional state as well as records what’s happening around them. Workers are worried about being pushed out of their jobs by robots and automation, concerned about how they’re going to make a living. And huge corporations are focused on profit at the expense of their employees and society in general. It’s all a bit close and it certainly makes you think.

Neo Cab, video game, women, passenger, driver, car, Azul, Lina

Lina isn’t the only one concerned. A pax named Azul jumped into my vehicle without invitation after she’d been hit by a Capra cab and wanted to flee the scene. Our conversation revealed that she was a Radix member, a group fighting against the corporations for a public city – and one which also doesn’t like cars because of how dangerous they are. However, saving her butt and not charging her for the privilege won her over. Azul seemed to hint that she may see me again later so it seems as though the protagonist may be able to recruit allies in her new life.

The demo lasted roughly an hour until I received another call from Savy, this one was a lot stranger than the first. After heading to her destination she was nowhere to be found and I discovered her mobile device broken on the floor. Where was she and was she in trouble? I needed to look for her but there were other responsibilities to take care of too: it’s going to be necessary to balance your emotional health, Neo Cab rating and cash flow throughout the search for your best friend.

The full game takes place over five nights of driving and I’m intrigued; can’t wait to see how the whole thing shapes up. Head over to the Steam page to add Neo Cab to your wishlist and follow Chance Agency on Twitter to stay up-to-date on their progress.