Interview: Event[0] game designer Sergey Mohov on the game's talkative A.I.

Editor's note: Due to a technical issue, this article displays the name of the game Event{0}​ using curly brackets, rather than square brackets as should be the case. The correct stylization of the name can be found in the article headline. 

The dream is that we'll one day we able to talk to our computers, to ask them to do things for us. But the nightmare is that when we do, the computers will tell us stick it where the sun don't shine, and will then lock the pod bay doors with us outside.

In Event{0}, a just-released sci-fi adventure game for PC and Mac, your survival depends on how well you talk to a computer...a computer that can be a bit emotional. So how does it all work, and why the heck are the developers tempting fate like this? To find out, we spoke to an organic computer (otherwise known as a human) called Sergey Mohov, the co-founder of Ocelot Society and game designer of Event{0}, to get the lowdown on what we hope isn't a simulation.

GameCrate: To start, what is Event{0}?

Sergey Mohov: Event{0} is a first-person, dialogue-based, narrative exploration game. Which means that your actions as a player are the main driving force for the story. You will spend most of your time talking to Kaizen, the A.I. of an abandoned spaceship. And when I say "talking," I mean typing. All of the dialogue in the game is procedural. You can just type whatever you want into the computer, and Kaizen will answer based on its emotional state and the situation at hand. It's not your typical multiple choice dialogue system: it plays more like an old-school text adventure, except you have an actual 3D environment to explore.

GC: What games would you compare it to, and what makes Event{0} different from them?

SM: It's hard for me to say what Event{0} is most like. It's experimental, so very different from most of the games. People have compared it to such games as Captain Blood, Starship Titanic, Zork, and even Firewatch. Event{0} is a game that combines chatbot text input with 3D exploration, which makes it a very different kind of experience.

GC: You mentioned that you can type whatever you want and the A.I. will react. Did you ever experiment with a different input system?

SM: We never tried to do anything else, because chatbot gameplay was the original pitch for Event{0}. Though we do all play and love games that have other dialogue systems. For example, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games did something fascinating where they prioritized choices over the actual vocabulary the character will use. We love those games, but we thought we'd kick it up a notch and make our dialogue system completely open and procedural.

GC: Why did you decide that the A.I. in the game would be unstable?

SM: We're all big fans of classic science fiction, and 2001: A Space Odyssey was a big source of inspiration for Event{0}. Same as Moon, Neuromancer, and Her. More often than not, the A.I. gets the short end of the stick in fiction. It tends to be evil. But these movies and books make the A.I. interesting because it's the human interaction with the A.I. that makes the A.I. act weird.

Fundamentally, the A.I. is and should be whatever we, the humans, make it, and we wanted Kaizen to reflect that as much as possible. Its personality and opinions have been formed as a result of its interactions with the former crew members of the Nautilus, which is the name of the ship. You will learn a lot about these characters through conversations with Kaizen. But what's especially interesting is that you will be able to change the A.I.'s emotional states and personality traits yourself as you play, shaping the outcome of the story.

GC: How hard was it to get this mechanic to not only work, but to also be fun?

SM: It took us three years, multiple reboots, and a whole bunch of playtesting to get this to work. The trick was to avoid making a universal A.I. that could be on your phone and instead focus on making something very specific for the game, making sure that it makes sense in the game's context.

It was really hard to see whether or not people were having fun with the A.I. without actually testing it. Everybody interacts with Kaizen differently: some people just type commands, others use text message abbreviations, some are nice to it, others insult it right away. The first thing we did – even before we had a functional A.I. – was a Wizard of Oz test: we sat a player in front of a computer with a chat box connected to another computer. The player was told that they were interacting with an A.I., and that their goal was to open the airlock door. But I was the other A.I. they were talking to. It was a fun test to put in place, and it taught us a lot about the way people interact with chatbots and the kinds of things they say in different situations.

GC: What about the computer's voice, why did you decide to go with what sounds like an old computer speech program as opposed to something that's a bit more human sounding?

SM: The main reason is narrative: The Nautilus was built in the 1980s, and back then we didn't have all of the fancy text-to-speech tech we have today. It is important to us that the player is fully immersed in this world, and to accomplish that, we tried to make it as believable as we could while telling an interesting sci-fi story. We took some liberties for dramatic purposes, but, as a general rule, most of the things you see on the Nautilus originate from the 1970s and '80s.

GC: It occurs to me that you could've made this game as a text adventure, kind of like Zork. Did you ever consider that?

SM: If you have ever talked to Siri, ALICE, or Cleverbot, you know that the inherent limitation of all chatbots is that they can't possibly know everything about everything. And in a text adventure, there's this problem where you are not sure what command the game will understand, so you keep trying all of the different things, but it always turns out that most won't work. We sought to address this problem in Event{0} by introducing a 3D environment that can serve as context.

Kaizen won't help you schedule a meeting or look up a quote on Wikipedia, but it knows everything about the spaceship, the characters of the game, and the history of this world. As you walk around the ship, you'll see objects left behind by the crew, and, when you ask Kaizen about them, it'll know what to say. By limiting ourselves to this set of subjects, we could polish the dialogue quite a bit and make sure that Kaizen knows what to say at any given moment in the game.

Besides, having a 3D environment helps the immersion a lot: it allowed us to create this mysterious atmosphere of a derelict spaceship.

Event{0} is out now for PC and Mac.