As I’ve watched a friend play Skyrim over the last few days, I’ve been blown away by the immense world that Bethesda has created. Not only is it huge, but it’s rather beautiful as well. “Slap on an HMD,” I thought, “and this would be a wonderfully immersive virtual reality world.” But as I continued to watch my friend play, I noticed how the interactions between the player and the non-player characters seemed to lag years behind the graphics. They were stale and scripted, unlike the sandbox world that contained them.
Much of the dialogue in the game has a non-player character (NPC) talking to the player about the world. The player gets to interact by selecting from a list of canned responses. Sometimes, the questions you want to ask or the things you want to say just aren’t in that list, and this truly detracts from the immersion. You don’t feel like you are in control because you’re limited to just a few choices. Your character doesn’t even speak the lines aloud; you just pick an option and the NPC starts responding. It also makes the NPCs feel less real because they seem like they are just a robot reading a script (probably because that’s what they are).
A world like Skyrim would be far closer to immersive virtual reality if the NPCs were able to not only hear your voice (through a microphone) but understand it and respond appropriately. Not only would you be able to ask the questions you really wanted to, but you’d have to be more immersed in the lore of the game to even know what to ask.
Voice recognition difficulty aside, having an NPC respond naturally to nearly unpredictable input is definitely a huge challenge, but it’s certainly possible. Games will become far more real when we achieve a level of AI where this is possible, and we aren’t as far away as you might think.