VIDEO GAMES HAVE NOT COME A LONG WAY SINCE ELIZA
by judge russell
December 12 2020
On December 2nd Spain’s Deconstructeam came out with their newest small-scale game, Interview with the Whisperer, available on their itch.io account. Most well known for their 2018 feature-length cyberpunk bartender point-and-click The Red Strings Club, the team release short narrative games in addition to making larger-scale projects. This year, even in the midst of a global pandemic, intercollective burnout and rehab, and working on a project larger than The Red Strings Club, the public received two of these short games from them; The Bookshelf Limbo and Interview With the Whisperer. While The Bookshelf Limbo brings Deconstructeam’s thoughtful writing and point-and-click gameplay into a more mundane scenario, namely buying a book for your father, Interview With the Whisperer returns to science fiction, utilizing an exciting new gameplay mechanic for them, a chatbot. The game consists of the player character, a young journalist, speaking to a not-quite-there elderly Galician man named Manuel Fateira who claims to have built a radio that allows him to speak to God. Your goal is to see if it’s bull or not, and try to get a few words in with the maker Themselves.
Deconstructeam’s itch.io bio states they are “Looking for new narrative experiences in games”. So to anyone who’s played their work, this turn in gameplay style shouldn’t be surprising. Chatbots are such an incredible concept for anyone who loves narrative games. With a functioning chatbot, you can just say what you want to say to the character-- no inadequate dialogue options, just you and your facility of language. However, there is a reason why chatbots are mostly confined to overbearing customer service pages of Bank of America or Papa John’s. Which is to say, video games have not come a long way since ELIZA.
Technology has, however. Functioning neural networks were just a blip in eyes of Joseph Weizenbaum’s coworkers when he developed that primordial chatbot in the mid-1960s. Technology has come so far since ELIZA, in fact, that I wrote an ELIZA clone in two days for an intro to programming class recently. (1) ELIZA was, despite inspiring the Papa Chats of today, a joke. ELIZA is a “mock Rogerian psychotherapist” who, no matter what, throws the questions back at the client. As it was designed to show the superficiality of communication between man and machine, Weizenbaum was shocked when people told him they felt that ELIZA really understood them. Turns out, with little more input than “And what does that suggest to you?” people can produce a lot of thoughts. Granted, an ELIZA conversation is never a conversation. It’s more of a journal entry with a prompt before every line. You can’t get anything out of it you don’t already have inside of yourself. Take some dialogue I had with my ELIZA clone as evidence.
Hi. What seems to be your problem?
--> I'm nervous about being the person I want to be
That's quite interesting.
--> I guess, I feel like I'm coming up on the end of college and I still don't know what I'm doing on earth
You say you guess you feel like you are coming up on the end of college and you still don't know what you are doing on earth?
--> long sentence, eliza, but yeah
It’s not quite fair to call Manuel no smarter than ELIZA, no. He can answer your questions. In fact, the player is the only one asking questions throughout the whole game. You can ask him “What language does God speak?” and he will say “It’s cliché, but the truth is that God speaks in music. It really is the universal language...” However, you can also ask him something like “What kind of music does God speak?” and he will say something like “I keep dreaming with Doctor Medeiros.” (2) Moments like these separate the story from the game. Although the two are intertwined at the start; getting information out of the man requires asking him questions, completing the game requires him to trust you enough to let you speak to God. When the player realizes the way to progress is not to listen to what the man has to say, but to ask the “right questions”, any facade there was is dropped, and suddenly you’re speaking to ELIZA, but ELIZA won’t let you leave the therapy session unless you say the magic words. There is a trust value stored somewhere in this computer program, and the player won’t be able to see the end of the game unless they get those designated bits to flip all the way to 1100100.
To make matters worse, there is an in-game plot-explained way to check how far you are in raising that number. I can understand why this is important for developing the game, but PLEASE, your interactive fiction does not need a completion meter! The last third of this game was spent in a cycle of me asking anything in order to receive a non-gibberish response and then checking the trust meter. Once it hit 100% I said, “Hi Can I Speak To God” and he said “Yeah Sure Thing”, and then I arrived at Interview’s thought-provoking and hilarious ending. I doubt anyone on the team studied natural language processing other than to create Manuel, and that’s fine! DePaco doesn’t work in the MIT AI lab, or in Papa John’s webdev department, they make science fiction indie games. But as a game designer, you’ve got to keep the facade going. What I’m saying is that Interview With the Whisperer’s chatbot faults may be unavoidable, but the game design could work around these issues instead of highlighting them.
I’d like to say, however, while the facade lasts, it’s remarkable. Like most freaky old men, Manuel has stories to tell. He talks of his life as a tinkerer during the Franco regime, of how God lacks omnipotence or intention, of the joys of making poetry and alcohol, of the miracle of stumbling upon God’s frequency. While trying to piece together his story, deciding if he is reliable narrator, your mind is led down its own individual path to the truth. You may think “This man is actually crazy. How can God talk with music?”, or you may think “This woman he met in the 50s must be a time traveler.” or any number of possible stories his ramblings suggest. And just like The Red Strings Club, the writing excels at making you stop to work out how you as a person feel about what the characters are talking about. (3) Also like The Red Strings Club it brings your mind many places on its way to the single ending.
y ¡menudo fin! Despite my eyes rolling while I struggled with the chatbot to give me the damn ending, my eyes were fixated when God spoke to me. God offers to remove anything from the world as long as it can be said with one word. (4) What thing would improve the world the most if it were gone is a hard question by itself, AND it’s gotta fit in one word! I thought for a solid 5 minutes and said “greed”. God swiftly opened the player character’s head and hard coded “Perception.Remove(Greed)” right into his brain, erased the memories of the encounter (and the notes he’d been taking on his phone!) and sent him back to where ever the hell he came from. Watching the scene unfold is amazing: at once it’s wonderful food for thought and an incredible prank on the writers’ part. It brings to mind the practical joke nature of ELIZA. Like Weizenbaum provides a subpar tool and pokes fun at those who utilize it, Deconstructeam grants the players wish and reminds them to “be careful what you wish for”. However, unlike Weizenbaum the players of ELIZA (5) and Deconstructeam believe that there is something to gain from conversing with a machine, just like people believe that there is something to gain from conversing with a text. Perhaps it was in us all along, but maybe we needed a prompt. If the player asks Manuel about religion, he might mention that God thought it was funny that human beings prayed to them. He’ll say that God said the people themselves were the God they were praying to. Perhaps interactive fiction’s greatest feat, and Deconstructeam’s games’ strong suit is providing the player with a means of conversation with the God within themselves.
(1) Please do not ask why I took an intro to programming class recently when I have already been introduced to programming AND we have been dating off and on for the past four years.
(2) This doesn’t really decrease my enjoyment of the game but there are quite a bit of non-native English speaker typos/ungrammaticalities in the script of this game, enough that it is noticeable. “dreaming with [blank]” is a common Spanish-ism that could be fixed if … they let me be their proofreader and amateur translator as an intern position…
(3) Unlike many works of narrative fiction, I recommend playing Deconstructeam’s games with somebody. When recommending Red Strings after playing it, I called it “philosophy class without high-school liberals”.
(4) I wonder if the chatbot breaks if you say two words. Or if you say “God”.
(5) yes, ELIZA is a video game. Take that, Spacewar!
Thank you to Andrew Lamont of the Umass Amherst Linguistics Department for making me think about ELIZA and the Papa John’s chatbot, thanks to Zachtronics for making the visual novel ELIZA which I didn’t bring up because it’s not so relevant to this article, but is one of the greatest visual novels I have ever played, and thank you to Deconstructeam for the cool games!