Premature Evaluation: Bot Colony

Every week we send Brendan to investigate the seedy underworld of early access. This time, interrogating the robots of Bot Colony [official site].

Bot Colony, according to its own boast, is “the first video game featuring intelligent conversation as its key gameplay feature”. You speak into a microphone and ask questions of the robot characters, or give them commands. You might remember Chris attempting to put books on shelves using this voice recognition feature. You might also remember him failing miserably. Well, it’s been some time since then and we thought we’d give it another shot in this video special. Read on and watch my own doomed attempt to communicate with mankind’s newest mistake.

This time, the robot has the added challenge of interpreting a Celtic accent, a task at which voice recognition is famously terrible. I am used to changing my vowels into a mock English for the benefit of confused administration staff who don’t understand when I say that I was born in “aidy-aid”. And there is definitely some of that here. But I was not prepared for the level of misunderstanding these robots would have at the words “name” or “who” and their lack of comprehension of individual letters of the alphabet. At the bottom of the screen you can see where my words were interpreted.

This is supposed to be a training sequence, the first of three planned missions but I sadly would not get any further. The robot has witnessed a break-in. A spy has stolen an important piece of tech (an advanced sensor) from a Japanese scientist’s home. You need to question the bot and piece together the exact order of events through its responses. Sometimes you get video records of what the bot has seen, but often he will just rattle off some facts in a hugely specific fashion. The robot’s name is Jimmy. He is the worst domestic robot I have ever met.

As you can see the interrogation was almost entirely fruitless. Voice recognition and AI responses are not really at a stage when you can have an “intelligent conversation” with a machine, no matter what the game’s blurb might say. Even Alexa and Siri fall to pieces under pressure. However, the experience of repeating the word “who” into a microphone countless times has made me sympathise for all future homicide detectives who bring in a robotic witness. It’s true that you can edit the phrase you’re saying in the typebox, or just type all your questions from the start. But that kinda defeats the purpose and appeal of the game. It’s a mystery about chatting to robots, not texting them.

I’m not sure what the thinking was behind having so many Japanese names in the story, either. Surely an English-language machine would be more comfortable with ‘John’ or ‘Sarah’, rather than ‘Masaya’ and ‘Ayame’ (no matter what demands the plot has)? And surely the player, more likely to be English-speaking than Japanese-speaking, would be equally glad of simple, recognisable names in a conversation that requires clarity. It’s just one of the world’s details that feels counterproductive.

Before you begin, Windows sets up your voice recognition. You have to speak certain lines into the microphone as part of a voice test that lasts about fifteen minutes, much of it instructions on how to treat the robot (instructions which hint at the low level of cognition your robot is really going to have). But seeing that one test was clearly not enough, I exited out and tried to give the machine more to work with. That’s when you see me bumping out to desktop, whereupon I read out the game’s convoluted back story in my best storytime voice and hoped that it would be enough. It was not enough.

I’m sure this is working more confidently for some than for myself. Aside from the accent issue, more voice tests are supposed to lead to better results. But each test takes a long time and there’s no guarantee that three or four or five tests will make the interpreter as clever as it would need to be to follow directions that are more complex than “pick up X” or “walk forwards two metres”. I also realised with hindsight that many words are probably saved in the robots thick skull as American. So when I said, “turn on the tap”, I really ought to have said “turn on the faucet”. Although there is the added trouble of not knowing which objects in the house can be interacted with and which are purely environmental. It’s all very messy.

The truth is, I went in knowing that it would be janky. But I didn’t expect it to be this janky. And I wanted to be surprised at the machine’s awareness. This comes across sometimes, when you insult it, for instance, and it detects the hostility (sorry, Jimmy). But mostly the game is a victim of a multi-layered problem. First, the voice recognition can be laughable. Second, the robot’s interpretation of your questions and commands is as overly strict and non-malleable as you’d expect. Third, the actual “game” itself doesn’t help matters. Trying to collect video recordings isn’t very exciting and putting pieces of furniture back into their pre-thievery positions is no more fun than when you played ‘spot the difference’ on the back of your Honey Cheerios box.

No. It is a game wholly reliant and marketed on its technology, which feels so much more absurd the more you attempt to communicate with the machine. I suspect it will be better for people with hours of voice recognition testing behind them (not to mention the exact accent the robot was designed for), and there is also an element of learning the right commands and sticking to that cheatsheet of robot lines. It’s also admirable, from a technology perspective, to pursue projects like this. The ideal – to talk to a robot and have it understand you – is one worth chasing. But with a learning process as daft as this, I couldn’t face going through it all when the story and surrounding tasks are so wafer thin. That, and Jimmy really, really annoyed me.

Bot Colony is on Steam for £10.99/$14.99. These impressions are based on build 1631672