When it comes to pop culture and science fiction tropes, the all-seeing artificial intelligence the either helps or impedes the protagonist’s efforts has created some memorable moments.
From the moment HAL 9000 went rogue in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the genocidal actions of AM in Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” the proliferation of sentient virtual beings has spilled over into our sci-fi-based videogames, as well.
While GLaDOS may be heralded as one of the most cleverly-written A.I. characters in recent memory, we think there are some others that deserve just as much praise. Be it a malevolent, all-seeing stalker or a wise-cracking sidekick, we present to you some of the best AI videogame characters that have zilch to do with cake.
Best A.I.: Shodan from System Shock 2
Spoilers for System Shock 2 follow!
It took me a while to figure out what the buzz surrounding the manipulative SHODAN was all about. I’m no stranger to malevolent A.I. villains in my games (Icarus from Deus Ex comes to mind), so I figured that SHODAN would regularly antagonize me throughout the game. But I can’t say I was necessarily prepared for how exactly she revealed herself to me.
For the first portion of the game, the main protagonist is being led by another survivor over a comlink. Though her cold-hearted demeanor seemed off-putting, her instructions to him serve as the best course of action for staying alive on the alien-infested ship he unfortunately finds himself on.
Upon arrival at her office, you discover that she’s been dead the whole time. It is here that SHODAN reveals herself to the unnamed soldier in an intensely chilling cutscene, explaining her presence and tasking him with destroying the alien creations that she herself had created.
From this point on, SHODAN comes into regular contact with you, oftentimes scathingly referring to you as an insect in her freakish voice. I swear, her voice was the stuff of nightmares, often changing pitch mid-sentence and coming up at the most unsuspecting times. I don’t think I’ve ever been so creeped out throughout an entire game.
Malevolent A.I. tend to be very manipulative to the protagonist of a story, and SHODAN is no exception. Even though eliminating the alien scourge is a good thing, you know something is up when SHODAN is making you do it.
- Patrick Kulikowski
Best A.I.: The Colonel A.I. – Metal Gear Solid 2
Spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 2 follow!
During the Big Shell incident, Raiden gets support from “The Colonel.” Colonel Roy Campbell also helped the famous Solid Snake through the Shadow Moses Incident and previous missions.
Throughout Metal Gear Solid 2, everything seems pretty normal (as far as normal can get in a Hideo Kojima) until Emma Emmerich uploads a virus into Arsenal Gear, at which point The Colonel, along with Raiden’s love interest Rose, begin to glitch out. What results are fun codec calls from Campbell, spouting lines like “I hear it’s amazing when the Purple-stuffed worm in Flap-jaw space, with the tuning fork, does a raw-blink on Hara-kiri Rock! I need scissors! 61!” along with references to previous Metal Gear games.
The idea that the Colonel is an AI is unique even for a Metal Gear Solid game and was a very unexpected twist. In the end, it was explained by way of the AI having access to Raiden’s nanomachines and playing on his expectations.
- Allain Richard
Best A.I.: President Eden – Fallout 3
“But for now, my America, we must part. Restoring the greatest country in the world to its former glory, well, well, heh, heh… Well, that takes time, even for the Enclave.“
As the almost comforting voice echoed out of my Pipboy while traveling the Capital Wasteland, I imagined a wizened, 50-ish year old man sitting at a desk, one of those old-timey microphones sitting in front of his face. His stories of a past America, though sometimes flawed, were comforting and served as a deep contrast to my hellish surroundings.
Yet when I finally entered the Enclave’s compound and met with Eden face-to-face, or rather, face-to-screen, I was shocked.
The reveal that the down home man from Kentucky I’d been listening to was nothing more than a computer screen completely blindsided me. I’d played the previous Fallout games and had brushes with the U.S. Government before. I’d met President Dick Richardson and stared him down. I was ready to do it again, albeit as a different Vault Dweller on the complete opposite side of the continent.
However, what shocked me the most was how reasonable he seemed. As an amalgam of every past president, Eden spoke with a level of civility that had been missing in my nearly 40 hours in the wastes. His request though, would have led to thousands of deaths – something I couldn’t abide.
So with his army beginning to defy him and his inability to stop them, I convinced him to do the only logical thing – kill himself. After all, a machine’s biggest weakness is logic.
Well, that and a high speech stat.
- Andrew Martins
Best A.I.: Aura – .Hack Series
.hack is an impressive and oftentimes deeply existential multimedia franchise revolving around players in a virtual reality MMO called The World.
Not to spoil any mysteries, but the plot of most .hack games focuses on the hidden truths and buried histories in The World. One of these reoccurring mysteries is Aura, a benevolent and elegant A.I. character who guides many of .hack’s heroes and heroines throughout the genre-spanning saga.
Though Aura starts out as passive, she comes to represent a mythic, goddess-like figure that manifests in different forms: daughter, mother, protector, destroyer and ultimately an omniscient force for good. Her origins concern the ever-thinning boundaries between affection and artificial intelligence; similar themes of which can be explored in games such as Digital: A Love Story.