Making ‘Ultraworld,’ a Smart AI’s Plea for Help

April 16, 2015 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with James Beech of Neon Serpent LLC about Ultraworld, the story of an artificial intelligence paralyzed by uncertainty.

Lots of video games break the fourth wall, but rarely is that the entire premise. Then there’s Ultraworld, a game, designed by a human named James Beech, about a game designed by an artificial intelligence named Ultra.


Ultra has invited players to the colorful and alien world it built so we can help it answer some of the basic questions that have plagued sentient life for millennia: what is reality? Is there a purpose to anything? Who are we? The AI describes its own quandaries as exercises in “dime store philosophy,” but it’s stuck on them nonetheless, and it can’t decide what to do with its immense computing power until it figures out who it is and what’s real. So it made a game world and invited players to explore, all the while peppering us with questions and conundrums.


Beech’s paintings

Beech has a BFA in drawing and a background in fine art in addition to a career crafting levels in blockbuster video games. When he left big budget studio Crytek after working on Crysis 3, he threw away the rule book that often bogs down triple-A game development. “I never particularly liked design documents,” he said. “Most of my notes for [Ultraworld] are just, like, scribbles on notepads and drawings that, if I were to show people, it would just look like nothing.”


The world map

But those scribbles and sketches formed the basis for Ultraworld, a loosely connected network of writhing dreamscapes made of neon colors and shifting geometry. It looks like modern art in screenshots.


Players explore these spaces looking for 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque black triangles that reveal piecemeal Ultra’s inner turmoil: with the AI’s limited experiences, how could it possibly know whether our world or its is more real? “To [Ultra], viewing our world is like us viewing a game,” Beech said. He designed every aspect of Ultraworld with the idea that it was actually designed by this AI, with its minimal understanding of the physical world. The game is remarkably cohesive, its story, environments and game mechanics all tying into that idea.


Beech also trimmed away almost all traditional game mechanics. “If you take the story at face value and this AI has invited you here to its home, why would it have you solve puzzles and stuff like that?” he said.


Early Ultra sketches, inspired by Takashi Murakami’s “Flowers & Skulls”

We modern folk are spending more and more time barking orders at programs like Siri and Google Now, which might be the beginnings of future AI. But Beech isn’t convinced that artificial intelligence will be all science fiction has built it up as.

“We treat them almost like these gods we expect to appear in the future and fix all our problems,” he said. “But if they’re truly thinking beings like us—and yet supposedly more logical—it would be interesting if they got stuck on what to us is like background noise.”


Ultraworld has one other character, a second, more secretive AI who speaks to players from Ultra’s “blind spots” and describes its counterpart’s origins. Finding these blind spots in every level and learning more about Ultra is one of the game’s most intriguing aspects. But during development the AI storyline was secondary to Beech’s ideas for the world itself.

“I’ve always considered these virtual worlds as kind of equivalent or equal to real worlds,” he said. “In my mind I remember them the same way I remember, like, Paris, or Hawaii, places that I’ve visited in real life. And just like those places I can go revisit these virtual spaces any time I want.” That thought process led him to create a character who believed wholeheartedly in the reality of its own game world, and the story of Ultra was born.


The original, larger hub area

Beech created everything in the game, from the script to the graphics and music—a compelling soundtrack comprising both electronic and classical instrumentation. But with his background in level design, he began by building the world, a long and iterative process. The original version of the game’s main area was much larger, so massive that he kept increasing the player’s movement speed so it could be navigated more quickly. Eventually he simply compacted the space instead. And it originally had more complex graphics. “The more and more I stripped out the better it looked,” he said.

The script went through plenty of changes, too. “The first iteration of the other artificial intelligence was kind of like the critic guys from The Muppets,” Beech said. “He was basically going to sit there and make fun of everything the other AI was saying, like ‘Listen to this pretentious asshole!'”


An early version in a different game engine

At the end of the game Ultra asks that players send advice and help—whatever form it might take—via email to a real address that Beech has been monitoring since the game’s release late in 2014. It’s “AI crowdsourcing of human intelligence,” as he told ANIMAL, but also the game developer crowdsourcing player imagination, because Beech is using players’ responses to craft a downloadable epilogue for Ultraworld.

“I haven’t really told anyone this yet but there’s a second part to the game that I’m working on, that I had to wait before I could even start,” he said. “Because the end is basically asking for the world to respond, and the idea has always been that there would be a response from Ultra based on how the world responds to the game.”


Ultraworld wasn’t wildly popular, but he did get enough emails to work with. “Not nearly as many a I would have liked. Certainly not as many as Ultra would have liked, and he will definitely mention that,” he said. “I don’t want to say too much, but more or less it’s going to be a free add-on because I feel like this is something that everybody who played through the game deserves to see the conclusion of. It was always intended to be the final piece of the puzzle.”

What were the responses from players like? “It’s a love it or hate it game,” Beech said. “I definitely like hearing when people really loved it more than when people hated it, but those people have to exist so that the epilogue can be more interesting.”

There’s no release date for the epilogue yet, since Beech only recently started work on it, but you can play the rest of Ultraworld on Steam or at visit-ultraworld.com.