We all know what Christmas, and the holiday season in general, bring to the table. It’s a tradition that goes back a ways, and is tied to the two things that drive people the most: religion and money. But Jesus and credit card bills aside, the holiday needs some originality, perhaps ideas even a computer could think of all on its own. We need to go back to its roots and embrace that which got us into it in the first place. An 8-bit revolution! Oh yeah, I replaced “Christmas” with “video games” in the middle of that. Sorry. I’m not a holidays kind of guy.
But even I can get into the spirit behind A Puzzling Present, a Santa Claus-hopping computer game created almost entirely by an artificial intelligence program named ANGELINA, a doctoral project that may usher in a generation of artificial game design. London’s Michael Cook, a PhD student with the Computational Creativity Group at Imperial College, has in just two years taken ANGELINA from Atari-era graphics and gameplay to levels of, and I say this with all due respect, shitty NES and Flash games. Regardless of the output, which I’ll get to in a mini-review below, the input behind the game is where gamers and non-gamers can be amazed.
A Puzzling Present was created using existing games’ programming code which ANGELINA then morphed into something more to her liking using “reflection,” which allows software to manipulate its own code. God complex! Instead of combining a predetermined set of ingredients together to make a predictable end product — “It’s like Mario meets God of War!” — ANGELINA looks at all the information possible and goes through a rigorous self-editing to produce something entirely original from the sum of its parts. For instance, Cook produces a game level without a solution, and ANGELINA breaks it down, taking cues from other game codes it has learned, and tests ideas out until a solution is available. An error in Cook’s own game code was spotted and adapted into the level, all by the electronic “mind” that he created. Wax on, wax off.
I definitely advise spending a few minutes at ANGELINA’s website, reading about its history and checking out some of the earlier, more human-assisted games, which can all be played in-browser. A Puzzling Present is available for download for PC and Android systems. I thought I’d take a paragraph or two to speak about the game itself.
Honestly, playing this game has shown me that evil does exist, and that it’s prevalent inside many video game companies from the late 1980s. The three levels in APP, split into 10 sub-levels dedicated to a specific special move, are all basic and easy to figure out, climbing only the vaguest ladder to complexity as it goes on. Level 10 is not 10 times harder than the first level. In fact, the 30th level is probably the easiest in the game. If you were around during the NES heyday, you probably remember certain games that were arbitrarily harder than diamond breakfast cereal and sapped all the fun out of playing. Conversely, the first game created by a computer is relatively simple and created not a single moment of frustration, though my own timing lost me quite a few lives.
But that’s okay, because the the lives are unlimited, which is good because some levels start you off facing certain death if you aren’t paying attention. Holly decorations are deadly here in the brown box that seems to exist in outer space. As Santa, your goal in each level is to make contact with a gift box, and each level provides a different jumping or bouncing mechanic to help you navigate the snow-covered platforms. The random level design is only glaringly obvious in a few levels where most of the setting is avoided for a simple, linear route. Still though, it’s a solid accomplishment that will no doubt be looked upon later and laughed at, when Michael Cook’s creations rule the universe.
While you’re playing the game, take the time to check a couple of boxes after each level is complete, surveying the users’ enjoyment of the level and how difficult they thought it was. Playing video games to help science. Tell me again how the ’50s were the good old days.