What Does It Take to Give Video Game Drivers Road Rage?
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What Does It Take to Give Video Game Drivers Road Rage?

AAA video games are loaded with AI commuters, but what are the limits of their street smarts?
May 8, 2015, 2:55pm

You don't think too much of the virtual drivers inhabiting AAA video game cities as much more than collateral damage or chauffeurs for your next stolen ride. But this one little night in fake-Chicago turned into an incident, the start of a bold quest to really fuck with these simulated commuters, just to see how flexible they can be on the road.

I was in the east end of Watch Dogs' version of Chicago, working on a side mission that would make my map more detailed. I got there on a motorcycle, which I stole (not like that's any of your business) and parked it at an angle between the road and the sidewalk. I didn't think much of it. Vehicles in these games are dispensable, so you pay as much mind to ditching one as you would a gum wrapper.

I needed to get on the roof of a warehouse, so I snooped and sulked about looking for a door when I heard a commotion. I wasn't doing anything other than climbing stairs. My gun, which naturally spooks pedestrians, was even holstered. But I heard honking, screaming, screeching, snapping, breaking, tearing, explosions. I spent a few more minutes completing what I came to do and went back outside to survey what the hell had happened.

It appeared my parked motorcycle, still where I left it, had accomplished the following:

A few vehicles tried to keep their distance from the parked bike and take a large swerve around it before starting to nudge each other. Then one computer car, in an artificial frustration, drove straight through a bus shelter, some fences, and a power line. There was a pedestrian collapsed and twisted on a patch of grass, meaning that we also had an AI hit-and-run.

What a spectacle. It was like I shook up an ant farm, and all I did was improperly park a cycle. You can't even get parking tickets in the game.

For the better part of this decade, AAA video game releases have tasked themselves with an unruly goal. Create an entire city, fill it with people, cars, and guns, and let the player roam and wreak havoc as he or she sees fit. That formula worked out great for Grand Theft Auto III, and continues to work out great.

Most of a player's time is spent on the road, which means commuting, as law abiding or destructive as it might get, is an integral part of the experience. The drivers have evolved quite a bit since the feather-light bumper cars of Crazy Taxi's town. They fill a pretty tall order when you think about it: Not only do they have to believably look like they are coming and going, but they also have to react to you, you menace, and be living obstacle courses for any given chase.

More pressingly, they need to be programmed to react in a functional, believable way. They're designed to overcome dangers of the road and look like they're either trying to escape, react, or continue on their merry way, but the flexibility of their mind is not nearly as finessed as the brain of actual drivers. They are the actors in your Truman Show, all mannequins to make you the star while pushing the illusion you're part of a bigger picture.

The Grand Theft Auto series is often observed as the magnum opus of open world games, so I want to compare its drivers to that of Watch Dogs. You can do and drive almost anything under the sun in these finely tuned playsets, and especially under the sun in Grand Theft Auto V, because it takes place in a mock Los Angeles. Because it can't be understated how much work goes into GTA games, I wasn't surprised that these drivers seemed more versatile than Watch Dogs', but I was taken back by how much more graceful it looked.

I drove around Capital Boulevard looking to rock some boats. I parked in the middle of intersections, directly in front of laneway exits, but the cars would either patiently sit still or, more impressively, glaze by, neatly weaving around me no matter how intrusively I plotted myself. The most dramatic reaction I could find, at first, were from people on foot. They would stroll across the street, but suddenly bolt the moment they walked in front of me. I suppose they're programmed to assume I'm ready to mow them down.

But don't worry readers, I found something strange. A regular car alone wasn't doing the trick. I picked up a tow truck and started dragging around my original car, plopping myself sprawled and curved along one side of a stoplight. At first it seemed like nothing was going to happen. The cars on my end just idled. Then a white convertible appeared from the other side and started to get funky.

It approached me, stalled, and then started ramming me. The AI wasn't trying to destroy me—it was trying to drive between the tow-truck and the towed car, unable to realize this was unfeasible. It pressed itself against me, backed up, and proceeded to slam into me four more times before knocking the towed car back enough that it could scratch against it until it got by. A red convertible then started trying the same maneuver on my other side, so maybe it's a droptop thing.

My last experiment was in 2010's Just Cause 2, a game centered on havoc and explosions. I was hoping for something radical, and at first things seemed promising. Along a backwoods road, I struggled to get up a hill in a garbage truck, so I waited to see if anyone would come my way. No one's drive was interrupted, but computer controlled government officers from the in-game country of Panau (a thinly-veiled riff on North Korea) skeeted towards me, just as a rebellion faction did the same, and engaged in a gunfight completely independent of me. The action took place only a few feet from my driver's seat.

The game might have been worried that parking a garbage truck on a hill wasn't thrilling enough for this high octane thrillcoaster, so it brought the fight to me, like a mascot who got the job to hop around in front of crying children.

But that felt like I cheated, as I didn't really cause any mayhem. I flew into Panau's capital city (via grappling hook and parachute), lifted the nicest, biggest car I saw, and tore up the pavement. To my surprise, the city had far fewer people than the countryside, but I was determined.

I pulled up against a lane exit and waited. Eventually a man who looked like he just finished a shift from a rice paddy came along on a scooter, stopped two yards from my car, and just honked repeatedly. It started to rain immediately, and I felt a little bad about everything I had done.

I like to think I have more faith in the computer controlled driverless cars we have in development in the real world than the ones in Watch Dogs. However—and call me a Luddite if you want—I think I have more faith in humans. Yes, humans can be real stupid dumbo idiots on the road, but it just seems that you can only program a driver to react to so many things. Would a real driver have a list of choices to deal with road hazards the way digital ones do? Or will they just freak out and total an innocent bus shelter.