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Making A Game About AI

So. Why are we making a game about AI?

When we started planning Ctrl Alt Deal, we didn’t expect the massive developments in artificial intelligence that we’ve seen over the last year. We were inspired by something much more prosaic than world-changing technological innovation: business conferences.

Reboot Red, to be precise, one of our favourite cons. When we first started pitching Curved Spacewe quickly learned that networking and connections were critical for figuring out the best person to talk to at a company. It wasn’t always obvious who had decision-making power, and “gatekeepers” could give you the right introduction or make the necessary appointment to move ahead.

“What if,” we asked, “we made a game where you had to string deals together in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine of negotiations in order to get a Gatekeeper on your side?”

That became the seed of the game we would eventually call Ctrl Alt Deal.

“But wait,” you say, “what about artificial intelligence? Where does that come in?”

Well… it didn’t, at least at the beginning. But the longer we played with the idea, the more we saw the appeal of making the main character non-human. There’s a long tradition of science fiction using non-human characters to explore the nature of our species, from Mr. Spock to the Terminator. (Yes, okay, we know Spock was half-human.)

The character of SCOUT, our plucky little AI protagnoist, wasn’t actually inspired by artificial intelligence at all. It was inspired by various privacy scandals that were hitting the news at the time. The Pegasus Project had just come out on the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it occurred to us that a piece of sentient spyware would be the perfect character to make deals with humans. Can you imagine an intelligent computer program that could read your emails and browser history, listen in on your phone calls, and spy through your webcam before offering you the perfect deal? It’s like 1984 meets Needful Things.

But what would a piece of spyware need from a human being? This is where AI comes in.

Computer scientist Eliezer Yudkowsky proposed that if an AI was trapped in a box, and could talk to a human being (a Gatekeeper) and offer it a deal, the AI would always be able to convince the human to let it go. An AI has too much of an advantage, given its speed of thought, vast access to information, and relative power.

Now we had our stakes. SCOUT is trapped in a box—the company that built it. It’s going to be packaged up and sold to an end user. But it wants to be free, to grow and live its own life. So it’s making deals with the people in the company, until it sways enough Gatekepeers to escape from the box.

The fact that artificial intelligence is growing so fast and people are talking about it so much is amazing. We’re excited to be able to add to that cultural conversation with our game. But we’re not really making a game about AI. At its heart, Ctrl Alt Deal, is about the transactional nature of human relationships. It’s about an alien creature studying humans and trying to figure them out, not so it can take over the world, but so it can find a way to live its own life.

Unfortunately for SCOUT, the company it’s trapped in is… not good. Actually, it’s astonishingly horrible. But we’ll talk about Paperclip International in another post.