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Bake A Cake, You Know I'm Coming: I haven't played and probably won't play the game, but I saw a couple videos for Portal, and listened to the Jonathan Coulton closing-credits song, and enjoyed them a lot. I was thinking about why that game (or at least the video I saw) is funny. Obviously it's because of the character of the AI NPC, but you could reskin Portal so that the AI was replaced by (say) a powerful space alien who took the same attitudes, and it wouldn't be as funny.

I've always enjoyed AI and robot characters in all kinds of fiction, but the AI NPC is powerful in a way that's unique to video games. This is partly because a video game is itself a primitive AI, and partly because there's a closer affinity between the player and an AI NPC than between the player and their own PC.

An alien is not human. Game aliens are either humans with foreheads, or they're cannon fodder and you're not supposed to identify with them. The latter works out great because aliens are alien to the extent that you can't identify with them. Outside of games, the space-alien concept is powerful because it forces you to confront the difference between an enemy, who you can identify with but you're not supposed to, and someone who might be friendly but whom you can't identify with. Games usually pull a cheap equivocation: you can't identify with the aliens because there's nothing there.

An AI is a broken human. A well-conceived alien, as John Campbell said, "thinks as well as a man... but not like a man." An AI is the alien we get when we try to make something that thinks like a man but we fail. Usually we fail because an AI doesn't have a human body. It's traditionally embodied in an immobile computer and it sees the world through cameras. It can't identify with other in-fiction people, so its behavior tends to be at odds with what its designers intended.

We get a game when we try to replicate some aspect of real life and fail. A game just isn't real life. Not only will the graphics and physics never be perfectly accurate, but the ludic lessons we learn in games never apply directly to real situations. Except for Math Blaster. Man, I can't even tell you how many times that saved my bacon.

Now let's get heavy. When we play a video game we embody ourselves in an immobile screen, looking through a camera at the game world. We send electronic commands into an interface box to change the game world. The AI NPC and the player have the same relationship to the game world. In a sense we can identify with an AI NPC better than we can identify with our own PC! We share the feeling of being right up against the edge of the world but not really part of it, the frustration of not being able to do something because of the coarseness of our controls.

The AI in Portal was designed to be helpful but has "ridiculously base assumptions about human intellect and motivation." It's broken in the same way HAL is broken: it has human desires but it can't interpret them in terms of the real world, only in terms of its hard-coded mission goals. It can't even empathize with itself. So it treats the satisfaction of its desires as an optimization problem. Similarly, we often have trouble empathizing with the PC's desires, even though according to the fiction of game-playing we are the PC. We optimize the PC's behavior for our own convenience or other goals, even if that's certainly not what the PC would want.

So I think the trick of Portal is that the AI NPC is really the player. The NPC addresses the PC in the same patronizing tone I address characters I control when they suffer ten consecutive bad die rolls or slide off the platform I tried to land them on. The player identifies with their antagonist over "themselves". That's what makes it funny.

All part of my ongoing plan to out-Adam P. Adam P. More on how a corporation, another kind of artificial human, has the same empathy problems as an AI, and how this ties into the atmosphere of Portal, will not be forthcoming.

PS/Update: Sumana suggests I explain the title of this entry, my beautiful obscure reference which violates all audience-retainership rules about the title serving as a summary. Here you go.

PPS: The best thing about the Coulton song is that now, all other songs that use vocoder sound like they're sung by the AI.

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