Sunday, July 21, 2019 July 21, 2019 - Final Fantasy 15's AI is secretly a grand philosophy experiment

Where do bodies begin in video games, and where do they end? You might point to the body of a game's protagonist, but if a player's body isn't so much a body as an expression of your agency, it seems reductive to stop at the perceptible limits of a single character model. In the medieval horror game A Plague Tale: Innocence, the player's range of action and awareness is distributed across the bodies of several characters (together with the phantom onlooker that is the third-person camera) - big sister Amicia, a gang of teenage runaways and the sickly young Hugo, who must be guarded like an Achilles heel. Where exactly are you, the intelligence directing the simulation, in this shifting equation, and what does that bode for concepts of minds and bodies at large? To play such games may not feel like reading a treatise, but it's to participate in a thought experiment about the lines we draw between the categories of consciousness, flesh and world.

Games in general are useful platforms for the systematising and testing out of philosophical precepts, and there are projects that engage with this potential more earnestly. Another recent example is No Code's existential thriller Observation, which casts you as a space station AI suddenly encumbered with a self, and struggling to feel at home in a form that spans CCTV networks, heads-up displays and robot drones. The game I want to talk about today is a less likely work of philosophising - Square Enix's Final Fantasy 15, which, it transpires, owes rather a lot to traditions of scholarly inquiry that date back centuries. That's according to Youichiro Miyake, lead AI researcher at the publisher's Advanced Technology Division, who I sat down with at Reboot Develop Blue this spring.

Final Fantasy 15 is yet another JRPG about a dour princeling, Noctis, but you'll probably remember it most fondly for your three bodyguards - snippy Ignis, beefy Gladiolus and the ever-buoyant Prompto. As in A Plague Tale, these "side" characters are in theory distinct personalities, but they function almost as stray appendages, loosely organised reflections of the player's will. During exploration the trio form a loose-knit perimeter, Prompto unable to resist galloping ahead, which occasionally makes it unclear who is following who. During battle, your accomplices fight by themselves but synch up with the player in organic ways, inviting you to perform team attacks and peeling off to help out should you take a tumble. Enter a storied area, such as the opening gas station hub, and they'll fan out, both to give you some peace and direct your attention towards objects of interest. You can delegate to them, ordering Ignis to take the wheel of your swanky muscle car, the Regalia, or asking one of your counterparts to make the call on a dialogue response. Prompto also serves as a kind of involuntary recall function, snapping pictures of your exploits and offering them to you later for preservation.

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