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Acolyte Is An AI Driven Experience With Lots To Learn

Acolyte Is An AI  Driven Experience With Lots To Learn

Acolyte Is An AI Driven Experience With Lots To Learn

Posted by Lawrence Rennie

30 Jun, 2022

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Everyone is having fun playing around with AI programs like Dall-E at the moment, but for Superstring and their newest game Acolyte the question “what if your seemingly innocent AI was doing more than it let on?” possesses chilling answers. With Acolyte you play detective on an AI embroiled conspiracy, putting together evidence with the help of your handy AI Ana to uncover the potentially insidious goings on at her creator company, Nanomax Technology. 

Staying true to their mission as a game studio that “abuses the boundaries of game genre”, Acolyte is an entirely unique ARG that uses an AI chatbot to help you play detective on your very own conspiracy case. The concept is novel enough to be impressive in its own right, and its ARG elements run incredibly deep—having you pouring through internet sites, social media accounts, data files in your computer, image metadata, and even various cipher and encryption codes. However, while Acolyte is an excellent ARG it unfortunately fails to tie together at its core component: the AI driven text-adventure.

Play Internet Detective 

The cool part of Acolyte is that it works as hard as possible to make the entire experience feel “real”. Even when you first open the game the terms and conditions are presented as your legal declaration to  Nanomax Technology – the fake in-game AI developer that you are ostensibly now working for as a QA tester. The game also opens in a 453×980 window to replicate the mobile app that Nanomax are going to be launching. The small window also makes it easy to come “out of game” and search through browsers or files while your AI app sits waiting by the side of your screen.

Nanomax are due to launch their Acolytes, an AI chatbot designed to act as a PA for everyone around the world – think Scarlett Johansson in the movie HER, except with an actual avatar that you can personalise too. You are hired as a QA tester to help weed out the last few bugs before launch due shortly. 

Acolyte Is An AI Driven Experience With Lots To Learn

While Acolyte is an excellent ARG it unfortunately fails to tie together at its core component: the AI driven text-adventure.

You’ll receive emails from various colleagues and receive tasks to help test Ana’s regular functions. You are also to be on the lookout for an app breaking glitch called Error 51 and report it immediately, but of course as you might expect when Error 51 does come calling it opens up the gates to something immensely insidious going on as your AI screams out in terror and calls for help. Cue a conspiracy case that only you and Ana can solve!

When approached by an anonymous source who appears to know more about what is really going on at Nanomax you are then sent on a wild case, following clues and mysterious notes to build up enough evidence to levy against Nanomax before their launch. This is where the ARG portion of the game begins. Using Ana you can ask investigative questions that might lead to new paths and clues. These questions will then take you beyond the game as you have to use a wide variety of investigative methods to crack various clues. 

 

I expected that perhaps the ARG would stretch to just simple google searches and faux social accounts to follow, however Acolyte pleasantly surprised me with how complex some of its puzzles were designed. We’re talking about needing to learn all about specific cipher codes, or secret encryption methods such as steganography to find hidden messages in images and sound files, plumbing through image metadata to find coordinates for a map, etc. You’ll even be plumbing around in the game’s own files to try to change aspects of the program itself. 

Each of these puzzles is a lot of fun to follow precisely because of how in-depth some of them end up being. While basically tearing my hair out combing through spreadsheet accounts for discrepancies for clues, or trying to decipher ominous messages I certainly felt like I was in the thick of some hard-line conspiratorial detective work. I was sucked straight into this fake reality that Superstring had so perfectly crafted, feeling like I was actually on the bleeding edge of uncovering something huge. It helps too that the story around Nanomax and the way in which information is parsed out is well done, leading you to want to keep going further to uncover the full mystery. 

The AI and I

Unfortunately, despite the goodwill afforded by Acolyte’s stellar ARG puzzle work, the games central premise, the AI, is its most glaring weak point – one which drags the entire work down quite considerably.  

In marketing materials for the game Acolyte claims to possess organic conversation for its AI chatters, one which will allow players to freely develop a personal relationship to their acolyte; the idea being that no two players would have the same experience or relationship with their Ana. However, this isn’t quite the case. Within ten minutes of playing around with Ana it is clear to see that her organic conversational abilities are severely limited, her responses largely predetermined and often completely ignorant to anything you have typed. During narrative dumps Ana will ask you questions to make it seem like you are involved with a natural conversation, but ultimately you can type anything and the next response will still pass it by as if you said what was needed. 

Now obviously I’m not expecting a fully functioning limitless AI, but Ana’s limitations are extremely bare to see and frankly disappointing when it is the focal point of the game. What’s worse, however, is that it actively becomes a hindrance to the game’s enjoyment when it later leads to some immense frustrations once your investigation begins. 

If you’ve ever played around with a chatbot online you’ll likely know that they typically work by looking for certain keywords in a sentence to be able give a response that is most likely to be relevant. Ana is no different, evidently keyed up with a number of terms that will help it to trigger certain aspects of the game. When conducting your investigation, for example, you can say something like “I want to investigate so-and-so’s email” and Ana will look at the operative word of “email” and be able to take you to the right part of the game. Unfortunately however that keyword search leaves the conversation lacking any kind of nuance, or indeed feeling organic as claimed. 

This becomes an issue when you have lines of investigation that use the same keywords. For example when wanting to investigate one particular email your Acolyte will often only see the “email” keyword and get stuck looping you with dialogue for an entirely different line of investigation in which an email plays a part, even if that investigation has already been solved. It leads to some extremely frustrating periods where you know what you need for an investigation but you have to first wrestle with your Acolyte to just give you the right response to keep progressing. Many times I found myself just mashing different likely keywords in the hopes that one would conjure up the right response.  

This issue also crops up when the game requires you to go out in search of a tool online, such as a decrypting method or tool, for example. The internet is a big place, and unfortunately most of it is not aware of your AI conspiracy. Often when needing to crack a puzzle the game has a specific tool or site in mind that will give you the solution; trying to search on your own will otherwise likely give you some very confusing results at times (although this did personally lead to some interesting blog reads where I genuinely could not tell if what I was reading was part of the game (it wasn’t)). Because of this your acolyte will usually be able to directly send you to the right site, however getting her to do this in the first place is often again a case of wrestling until you finally get the response you need. 

Acolyte, at least in the early version that I played, is also very buggy currently. Aside from the AI’s quirks it also quite often breaks entirely, whether that is getting stuck in specific loops of responses, or suddenly not understanding anything you are saying (even if these are questions you have asked before without issue), or conjuring up hugely inaccurate responses to your messages. Usually this is fixed by just closing the game and opening it again, however on three occasions I also became stuck in periods where my acolyte was just not hitting its trigger to send a message and progress the game. On these occasions I had to reset my data and start the game all over again. 

I also found that some messages triggered a bug that would either leave you stuck on the message tab (requiring a game close to fix), or bring you to the wrong investigation and leave you stuck in there as the AI gets caught in a loop of responses to that investigation only. The Beatrice investigation in particular caused this issue a lot. I am however aware that Superstring are very receptive to these bugs and are working post launch to correct them, encouraging user submissions if  you do find bugs so they can tackle them quickly.  

An Excellent ARG, a Frustrating Video Game 

Acolyte is an odd beast. On the one hand I enjoyed the ARG investigation immensely, and would be showering the game with unbridled praise if it was only that. But of course then it wouldn’t be the unique boundary pushing game that it is were it not for the novel use of an AI chatbot too, so perhaps would lose some of its charm. But the AI is where the game lacks, which is a shame because the rest is so well done that you really want it to all work. 

Perhaps with time the game can be tightened to give a less frustrating experience, and if so I’ll be first in line to get some more conspiracy goodness, but for now this AI  driven experience still has plenty to learn.

Final Score: 6/10

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About Author

Lawrence Rennie

Lawrence is a Scottish-born writer with a love of games and films that he fortunately turned into a career grumbling about online. When not firing away the hours buried in a game or film he also co-writes 'Mechastopheles', an original comic series published by the UK’s leading comic magazine 2000AD as a naturally born-grumpy Scot; however, he asks that you don’t ask him too much about it though! Lawrence’s other musings include podcasts, fitness, his cat, and one day developing his own screenplay.

 
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