Ever since the current console generation has gotten underway, I've been asking myself one question: "What's going to define the current generation of games? When we look back, what will we point to as a turning point?"
I was hoping to find an answer at this past E3; but for the most part, I was disappointed. Most of the truly interesting games I saw, such as the fascinating No Man's Sky, won't be out until 2015. "Next-generation gaming" could mean any number of things, but it was hard to pick out underlying trends. Will asymmetric multiplayer continue to grow in popularity? What about social features like streaming? It's tough to get a clear picture of what to expect.
But if nothing else, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor does offer a clue of what to expect with a radical leap in an element that tends to get overlooked by both fans and observers: artificial intelligence. Good A.I. is the backbone of any game, but it hasn't progressed as much as some have expected since Halo blew observers away with its intelligent enemy classes, each of whom had their own tendencies and personalities. Bad guys are smarter now in that they are more creative with their attacks and they no longer get stuck in walls (well, usually), but they're still just drones for the most part. Even in games with more dynamic A.I., such as Skyrim, they tend to have a very simple routine that is occasionally interrupted by a trigger, such as a dragon trying to destroy their village. Ultimately, they feel like props.
IGN actually covered the problem with A.I. in gaming in some detail last year, also noting the relative lack of games with truly sophisticated A.I. Far Cry 2 and 3, as well as Left 4 Dead, have done their part to make incremental progress; but by and large, we're not there yet. Which brings me to Shadow of Mordor.
As we've discussed before, Shadow of Mordor aims to change that with enemies that can grow more powerful, develop grudges, and can even rise to the level of Warchief. Mike titled his piece "An Orc Never Forgets," and that indeed seems to be the case. For once, the bad guys seem to have an agenda.
In a weird way, what Shadow of Mordor is trying to accomplish sort of reminds me of an experience I recently had with FIFA 14. While playing in the franchise mode, I started seeing reports that a player of mine was thinking about leaving. After a few such headlines, the player himself approached me and told me that I had nothing to worry about. The controversy refused to go away though, and I heard more than ever that he wanted to leave. Soon after, however, he suffered an injury, and the story faded.
The FIFA storyline is similar to Shadow of Mordor in that it takes a stab at emergent storytelling: an industry buzzword that suggests that a story in a game can take on a life of its own, independent of what the developers are trying to accomplish. Shadow of Mordor differs from FIFA, however, in that it has the potential to generate more than canned storylines that can go in any number of directions. Rather, it essentially dumps players into a sandbox and lets players actions serve as a trigger, leading to what can be term a butterfly effect as the consequences reverberate down the line. I die to a grunt, who grows in power and kills his captain to take his place, leading to a complete shift in Mordor's hierarchy. That one event has the potential to spawn a whole new series of narratives, which can then change the game.
Out of that initial idea, developer Monolith Productions has developed a variety of interesting concepts for their game. For instance, every orc including the highest level boss is randomly-generated and has its own strengths and weaknesses to overcome, which different players will react to in different ways. Lead designer Bob Roberts remembers trying to puzzle out how to deal with one enemy: "My achilles heel early on was that I couldn't deal with enemies that were impossible to leap over. So I ran into an enemy who defended everything from the front, so I tried to leap over him and got blocked there, and then I went to range and found that he was invulnerable to range. So I was like, 'Uh-oh, I don't know what I've got left.' So my solution was to draw him into a group of caged beasts and set everything on fire."
Another interesting element is the ability to take control of enemies and build up your own army to storm the proverbial gates. Roberts explains: "You're trying to use them for good, but it's very much like Boromir said in the council, 'It's madness not to use the power of the enemy against him.' We wanted to explore what would happen if they were given that power."
As for what the potential drawback of using such an army might be, Roberts wouldn't say at the risk of potentially spoiling the story, but the mechanic may have its own potentially interesting impact on the world.
Shadow of Mordor is just one example of a more recent trend toward more open-ended experiences in which NPCs have an opportunity to make an actual impact on the world. In EverQuest Next, for instance, orc tribes have their own set of goals separate from that of the players, which can lead to some very interesting consequences as they settle down, propagate, and eventually try to conquer player-controlled areas. In that way, A.I. has the potential impact to gaming as much as new online innovations and social features.
Compared to the likes of EverQuest Next, Shadow of Mordor is actually a somewhat more simple example of emergent A.I., but it's still a really neat example of how it can be woven into sandbox action games. I hope Rockstar and other sandbox developers are paying attention, because I would love for them to take what Monolith Productions has started and really run with it in a series like Grand Theft Auto. Truly emergent A.I. would do much to help those games come alive in a way that they haven't up until this point.
With the enhanced processing power afforded by the latest generation of PCs and consoles, we may be on to something really special with A.I. In that way, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor could open the door to a new and interesting way to play games, which would truly be worth remembering in the years to come.