“To That Sect” isn’t a good game, really. But the first-person adventure title certainly is evocative. As ethereal ambient music plays, you wander around some sort of open-air structure under a charcoal sky. The goals, laid out on the title screen, are simple: collect these cruise-ship-looking things while avoiding the angel-looking things that float around haphazardly, sometimes partially and glitchily disappearing into the floor.
The game’s a quick diversion, not something you’d put much time into. Until you hear more about it, that is. Because it turns out “To That Sect” was created by ANGELINA — a computer program.
ANGELINA is the brainchild of Mike Cook, a doctoral student at Imperial College and researcher at Goldsmiths College in London. He sums up the questions that motivate his work peppily on his website: “[C]an we evolve entire arcade games from nothing? Can we start with literally nothing at all, except a few basic ideas about what a game contains, and ask a computer to design levels, populate them with characters, and wrap it all up in a ruleset that is both challenging and fun? Well? Can we?”
“To That Sect” is the result of one such process — this time for the Ludum Dare 48-hour game-design competition. Cook set ANGELINA to work, only giving it a few basic parameters, as he explained in an e-mail. From these parameters, ANGELINA used the principles of evolutionary computing — gradual, random-ized iteration, discarding undesirable game traits along the way — to build the game.
ANGELINA even wrote the game’s instructions — albeit with a little help from Cook, such as the insertion of certain natural-sounding language: “This is a game about a disgruntled child. A Founder. The game only has one level, and the objective is to reach the exit. Along the way, you must avoid the Tomb as they kill you, and collect the Ship.” It also came up with the title, although Cook wrote that he wasn’t thrilled with it. “It uses a rhyming dictionary and a corpus of pop culture and idioms to try and generate snappy titles. This wasn’t one of its better ones — in the past it made a game called Dangerous Koreaisons for a news story about South Korea, while a European Union game was called France France Revolution.” (Not bad!)
These blurbs and titles, wrote Cook, are a key part of his research.
“[T]he little commentaries that ANGELINA writes are really important to me, and to the field as a whole,” he explained in his e-mail. “They use templates I wrote, but the gaps are filled in by ANGELINA with genuine decisions. So the phrase ‘disgruntled child’ is not a template — ANGELINA sourced that itself through the web, other creative tools, and so on.” In other words, the program did a bit of research to figure out how best to describe the game it had made, how best to advertise it. And it works — an actual disgruntled child is nowhere to be found in the game itself, but that little bit of backstory, and especially the concept of a “Founder,” makes things all the creepier.
Cook’s current goals, he wrote, are to have less rather than more input into ANGELINA’s creative process. “Over time my aims are to remove my influence on ANGELINA’s designs so that the system has more freedom,” he explained.
As for the long run, it could be a while before ANGELINA or its offspring autonomously produce “the kind of games people would anticipate with excitement and pay 35 [pounds] for,” as Cook put it. But he’s got more modest goals in mind in the meantime: “I can imagine . . . ANGELINA discovering a small mechanical idea that people are truly surprised by within the next ten years.” And by 2020, he hopes to see a game designed by software nominated for an Independent Games Festival award.
“I think it’s really possible,” he wrote. “Simple mechanical discovery has already convinced me that software can innovate in game design. It won’t be emotionally heart-wrenching or beautifully cinematic, but we’re not so far off software doing things that really surprise us.”
“To That Sect" can be accessed at www.gamesbyangelina.org/ludumdare/sect/To%20That%20Sect.html.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.