Imagine walking around in Riften, Skyrim. You meet an NPC, Mjoll the Lioness. She strikes up a conversation: “You’re a stranger here too, eh?”. In response, you really want to say: “Not really, I’ve got 1000+ hours in this game”, but instead, you can only ask her about the Black-Briar family or the local Thieves Guild…
If you choose the latter dialogue option, Mjoll will ask for your opinion. Again, you’re faced with a few options: you can either say you care, you don’t care, or you’re planning on becoming a thief yourself. Depending on your choice, Mjoll will either like you or be greatly disappointed in you. And that’s about it.
Why having chatbots in games would be awesome
Chatbot apps are very popular, and for good reason. It’s fun to talk to an AI, ask them questions, and see what response they dream up. As you’re free to type out any comment or question, most chatbots feel similar to texting with a real human being.
It goes without saying that it would therefore be cool to discuss Mjoll’s claim that the Thieves Guild is worse than the Dark Brotherhood. Just like it would be awesome to tell Nazeem where to stuff his Cloud District as soon as he opens his mouth…
It’s therefore no surprise that the question “why don’t we have a chatbot system built into our favourite video games?” pops up on gaming forums every now and then.
Chatbot-less games explained
Here’s why. For starters, an in-game chatbot would need access to a huge amount of data in order to recognize your words and formulate an appropriate response. However, even though the need for internet access and proper processing power make this more complicated, the base technology is not the main issue here. The biggest problem is integrating the chatbot into the game world in a way that makes sense.
Unlike separate chatbot apps, an NPC in a game needs to stay in character and refer to the game’s lore. Imagine asking Skyrim’s Mjoll for the nearest gun shop. Would it feel authentic if she says she doesn’t understand, or should she point you to the blacksmith? What if you tell her you’re not only joining the Thieves Guild, but planning on robbing all of Riften? Should she attack you? And if so, is she supposed to remember this forever? Wait… do all NPCs need to have a conversation memory?
If that isn’t enough, NPCs often have a purpose beyond talking. Triggering an action, or choosing the story path you want, is going to be extremely tricky. If players get reactions that don’t make sense, the gameplay, not just the dialogue, will suffer. Good luck with all that, game developers.
Why chatbots in games might not be that awesome after all
Even if all those issues were magically resolved, we need to question whether we really want this. Endless conversation options seems great in theory, but it could become a rather overwhelming experience. You’d always have to think about what you want to say, while it’s way more relaxing when you’re simply presented with a few options. Even more importantly, unless the game stepped up further and provided speech recognition too, would you want to spend a big chunk of your game time typing out dialogue?
It’s also unlikely that the NPC voices would sound realistic (not to mention the impossible amount of voice-acting this would require). So all the immersion you’d hope to gain from free speech, might be shattered by lack of realism in other departments. By using limited dialogue options instead, developers can ensure that the voices are great, the conversation makes sense, and the player will always choose an appropriate response.
Verdict: no chatbot-powered NPCs anytime soon
The bottom line is that we shouldn’t expect chatbots to find their way into video games in the foreseeable future, but we also shouldn’t mind too much. The idea is great, but it would be a developer’s nightmare with a very high chance of a zillion issues arising after launch.
For now, if you want to have a functioning and meaningful conversation with an NPC, go play the Bloody Baron quest in The Witcher 3 one more time.
Oh, and say ‘hi’ from us.