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I have some character stuff im trying to figure out for an AI antagonist.

In a game development project that I am part of, there is an artificial intelligence that speaks to the player character through messages that sound pre-scripted, despite the A.I being canonically fully aware of the player character and the status of the game world, etc.

for example, when the player character enters an area the AI doesn't want him in, it might say something like "Warning. Unauthorized personnel in area number [area the player character is in]. Rerouting..." and then proceed to close doors and stuff.

The reason I'm trying to write this character to speak like this is that the A.I was built on 1970s computer equipment- think reel-to-reel tape drives and the like. To me, it makes sense that such an A.I would only be able to speak using the limited phrases recorded on the tapes, and it makes for interesting character development- its an AI that was designed to help humanity's technical progress which suffers from its own apparent obsolescence.

the problem comes with making the A.I more relatable. for example, what if the A.I is angry at the player? what if its the final boss fight, and the A.I is trying to insult the player and stuff to get them to stop dismantling it?

I'm trying to find the best way to write dialogue for the A.I antagonist that sounds more relatable and less pre-recorded, but at the same time, I want it to still give players of the game a sense that this AI has limits due to the antiquated equipment it is on; and perhaps the AI's hidden frustration with that fact.

The A.I running on antiquated equipment ties into the character's motivation and backstory in a few different ways that it would be counter-productive to share in the scope of this question. it is important to me that I don't compromise the fact that this AI believes it is still important to the future despite the obvious obsolescence it suffers from.

Ultimately my question is what the best way is to convey the character's obsolescence without sacrificing believability or character depth.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Fennecai, glad to have you here. To learn more about us, check out our tour and help center. – Cyn says make Monica whole Oct 2 '19 at 22:54
  • Could you have the AI "stitch together" fragments of prerecorded messages? – Llewellyn Oct 3 '19 at 11:44
  • @Llewellyn that could work potentially. the only concern with that is how to make it seem believable still. I guess i could record a ton of generic lines then actually sentance mix them. bit of a technical challenge though, concidering i'd have to make sure one of every word in my main script actually existed in the "pre-recorded" scripts – Fennecai Oct 3 '19 at 18:10
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A strong character has two elements:

  1. Its motivation, as revealed through its choices, and
  2. Its personality, as revealed through its dialogue and body language.

So let's talk about how those apply to this situation!

You AI's Motivation

What does your AI want? Perhaps it just wants to keep the player from dismantling it. But I suspect it goes deeper than that, you seem like the kind of writer who knows the importance of a clever secret. You can give your AI an incredible amount of deep characterization just by having it make decisions that go against what the player would expect from it, forcing them to reconsider what they think the AI's true motivations are.

A classic video game example is the first encounter with Flowey in Undertale. When he first appears, he is incredibly welcoming and friendly towards the player and offers to give them a tutorial on the game's action system. But when you grab one of his "friendliness pellets," all of a sudden, the mask comes off. He was actually trying to kill you, and the friendliness was an act. All of a sudden, the player, who had accepted that Flowey was a nice guy, has to reconsider everything they know about him. What kind of monster would kill someone as quickly as look at them? That question isn't answered for a long time, and the mystery of Flowey's true motivations becomes one of the driving forces of the story.

Another excellent example, one a lot closer to your plot, is the main antagonist of OneShot. In this game, a young boy wakes up in a strange, dying world and must carry a sacred light bulb to the center of the world to reawaken its sun. But throughout his journey, a strange voice, communicating with him through computers, tempts him to destroy the bulb. When it becomes clear the boy isn't willing to listen to him, the voice then reaches through the game to talk directly to the player - and the claims it makes throw the meaning of the entire journey into question. It turns out that the mysterious voice has a very compelling reason after all for wanting the boy to destroy the sun. Its decision to unapologetically harass the poor protagonist casts it as an unambiguous evil at the start of the story, but its later decision to talk to the player hints at a mysterious, deeper motivation. That deeper motivation drives the rest of the story from that point.

In your case, the player is going to get used to the AI acting to hinder them pretty quickly. But perhaps sometimes, the player is going to attempt to do something that actually lines up with the AI's true motivations, or at least something the AI thinks it can manipulate in its favor, and the player will find the AI clearing the path forward for them. Or maybe when it becomes clear the AI is not going to be able to stop the player, it begins trying other ways to get into the player's head - lying to them, coming clean with a partial version of the truth, giving the player a partial victory to try to convince them to leave what it considers the most important alone. When it starts making these decisions that run counter to what the player expects, you will reveal a greater depth to its motivations, and it will be a much stronger character for it. You don't need any dialogue at all for this to be very impactful.

Your AI's Voice

Voice is picking out a defining personality trait, quirk, or manner of speaking for a character and honing it to the point that we can often identify who's speaking just from the way it's said. If your AI can only speak in pre-recorded phrases, that's honestly a strong voice in and of itself! I don't think it's necessarily a problem. It will make your character stand out in a good way already.

We can go deeper with it if we want to, though. Once you've established a voice, you can make it richer by playing with its nuances and subverting it when the character is feeling overwhelmingly strong emotions. TVTropes calls it Out of Character is Serious Business: When a character drops their usual voice and suddenly begins expressing themselves differently, it's a very clear signal that something very important is happening to them.

Take Flowey's example again. (I get into Undertale spoilers in this paragraph.) He very quickly is established as a sociopathic monster who loves lording how much more powerful he is over the player. His typical voice is on full display during the Omega Flowey boss fight with his deliberately grotesque omega form, his constant taunting of the player, and his goal of just killing the player over and over again forever. But in both of the true endings, we see a very different side of him, ones that make us realize that there's much more going on. In the Asriel boss fight, when Flowey initially transforms into his true form, he still lords it over the player, as we expect. But as the player gradually whittles away his ability to control them, he doesn't react by getting angry and trying to reassert control like he did in the Omega Flowey boss fight. Instead, he gets desperate and starts crying like a little child - which is exactly who he really is at the core. This unusual change of voice shows us, during the final boss battle, that there's more to Flowey than we had heretofore believed. When Flowey is killed during the genocide route, his pathetic groveling briefly shows the same side of him.

Here are a few ideas for how you can play with your AI's voice:

  • It can rearrange its programmed voice clips to formulate new sentences. Hearing a familiar phrase suddenly have its meaning inverted because of a cleverly spliced "not" could be quite chilling!
  • It can use the same voice clips in situations they weren't intended for, giving them a double-meaning that speaks to the AI struggling to communicate with the limited tools it has. Maybe when we first enter the facility, we're in a nice lobby, and the AI invites us to "Please make yourself at home." Then later, when it's tired of our meddling and traps us in a dangerous room with all the doors locked, it sarcastically repeats itself: "Please make yourself at home."
  • If you really want make a point, let the AI say something new, something that wasn't in its programming. If there's something so important for it to say that it finds it worthwhile to dig deep and synthesize new speech, it's got to be a really big damn deal. And it will hint at hidden depths, maybe even a spark of sentience...
  • As the AI breaks down, either as the player takes it apart or it becomes too angry to contain itself, you can distort or corrupt its voice clips.

All of these give you ways to just get more mileage out of the voice you've settled on if that's all you want. But they also give you ways to break out of character to signal when we've touched on one of the AI's raw nerves.

  • this is extremely helpful. thank you! I had the idea that, perhaps, the a.i is pained by the fact of its own obsolescence but keeps pushing onward on its primary directives with its initially charming 70's pre-recorded facade, because that's the only purpose it can still find in its life, and it becomes clearer as the player pushes the a.i's limits, that it is deeply upset by the obsolescence it suffers from and the player is realizing just how badly. it would be really great to take this all into consideration for further writing the character's lines and stuff. – Fennecai Feb 5 at 15:54
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People won't relate to it until they realise it's a mind, not just a recording. You could have it use only recorded messages at first, but later get frustrated at how limiting that is and start composing sentences out of badly mis-matching fragments of recordings, as Llewellyn suggested. I would have this change happen at a turning point in the plot, when the AI starts to seem more dangerous.

  • I agree that it's important that people realize the AI has a mind, but I don't think it follows that it needs to compose sentences by mismatching the recordings. E.g., one way of hinting at the existence of a mind is for a specific question to repeatedly generate the same pre-recorded response, but to later (after the AI has somehow changed) generate a different recorded response in response to the same query. – Brian Oct 4 '19 at 20:29
  • I like both ideas. since there isnt really anyone to ask the AI any questions; i'd have to make something else happen frequently that the AI would get bored or annoyed at repeating a response to. maybe, since this is a game, when the player finished every puzzle at first the AI repeats the same generic "Area complete, opening exit door..." or something but then it slips up after a dangerous puzzle and says, "Area complete...again." showing it's boredom. this first hint would work well because it contains words already in other messages, but different intonation. makes the player go, wait a sec – Fennecai Oct 7 '19 at 2:54

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