The Computer Always Cheats: The Evil AIs of the 1990s

Posted: February 12, 2011 in PC, Retro
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

You know there have been times where a game’s artificial intelligence has caused you a moment of hairpulling, controller-throwing or profanity-shouting. The AI may not be smart, but it can sometimes do things that completely baffle you. Take the slingshot AI in the old NFL Blitz games, which punished you for doing too good.

But that’s not what this is really about. Today I’m writing to celebrate two of the greatest villains of the 1990s, both of whom are artificial intelligences.

Durandal (Marathon series)

Sorry to give you the bad news, but you’ve been kidnapped. You aren’t where Leela wanted you to go, and you surely won’t get there any time soon.

Introduced in Bungie’s Marathon, and appearing in both of its sequels, Durandal began digital life as the UESC Marathon’s utilities AI, alongside main AI Leela and science AI Tycho. However, he became self-aware and eventually rampant. This caused no end of headaches for the Marathon’s security officer (the hero of the games), who dealt with him, was manipulated by him and was eventually sent to a tangent reality in which Durandal was unsuccessful in putting the officer into stasis after the events of the original game (the story gets convoluted enough to make Hideo Kojima cry in Marathon: Infinity).

What stands out about Durandal is that he could be extremely helpful – when the mood suited him. He was just as likely to teleport you into a room full of fusion batteries as he was to give you pages of gibberish ASCII code. The evidence of his neglect of his duties is evident from the first level of the original Marathon, where doors stutter and jam in place and elevators push straight to the ceiling (threatening to crush you).

Durandal is interesting. He may not even necessarily be evil, but he is without a doubt insane and willing to send the player character to his death for his own purposes. And the interesting part is – he’s usually on your side. Usually.

Just remember, if the door’s jammed, it’s just because he’s laughing.

SHODAN (System Shock series)

Look at you, hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?

SHODAN- Sentient Hyper Optimized Data Access Network. Sounds pretty benign, no?

Well, that’s until she starts talking to you. System Shock‘s unforgettable bordering-on-villain protagonist, the player removes SHODAN’s ethical restrictions at the beginning of the game. Then, things get worse, as she takes control of Citadel station’s systems and becomes an omnipresent figure in the Hacker’s life. For the length of your stay on Citadel Station (and aboard the Von Braun in its sequel) , SHODAN is for all intents and purposes your god.

SHODAN, like Durandal, is a little different from their mutual ancestor HAL 9000 in that she is both fully aware of her actions and their consequences. However, unlike Durandal, who communicates only through terminal text, SHODAN has a voice and a distinctive personality to match it.

I first played System Shock 2 when I was about eleven. A big part of SHODAN’s memorable qualities lie in the fact that some of her more memorable lines are double entendres (see the introductory sentence) and the fact that her vocal delivery, when not crackling with full-bore nightmare fuel, fairly drips with breathy sexuality. Take my word for it – at eleven years old, I noticed.

She made for an interesting villain, one of a type we hadn’t really seen at the time – omnipresent, always in contact with you, and aggressively working against you. It’s a shame that EA doesn’t seem interested in re-releasing or even acknowledging the System Shock games, because SHODAN is a villain that you will remember once you’ve played the game.

Bonus Round: The Colonel AI (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty)

I hear it’s amazing when the famous purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space with the tuning fork does a raw blink on Hari-kari rock. I need scissors! 61!

This is a bit of a post-script. Since 2000, there have been many AI’s featured in videogames – notably Halo’s Cortana, Fallout 3‘s John Henry Eden, and Mass Effect 2′s EDI. All of those have owed something to HAL, SkyNET, and the two aforementioned AIs. They do not count as they were created post-1999. But I will include one more, for the sake of fun. And that’s the Colonel AI from Metal Gear Solid 2.

Towards the end of the game, it’s revealed that the “Colonel” is in fact an artificial intelligence under the control of the shadowy Patriots organization. And as Raiden is knocked out and…eh, disrobed, the Colonel starts to malfunction. Some people seem to find the Colonel’s behavior scary. I found it hilarious. The source of the immortal “I need scissors! Sixty-one!”, this almost makes up for the fact that you’ve been playing an androgynous blonde dude instead of Solid Snake for most of the game and have spent the past twenty minutes playing as said blonde dude naked. It almost makes up for it. Almost.


  1. Armand K. says:

    I’d like to add the AI from the Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” to the list.Though originally a short story by the author, it was later made into a dark, creepy adventure game by the same name. In it, a supercomputer called AM brings about the near extinction of humanity, saving only 5 poor souls who he keeps alive simply to torture them for all eternity. His absolute hatred for humanity was very frightening to me as a young kid. Heavy stuff to handle back then.

    Oh and as for modern versions, you left out the most important one of all! GlaDos!


  2. Chad M. says:

    I actually didn’t forget about Ellison…I remember playing a bit of I Have No Mouth (and have read the short story). I decided to leave it out because the article was running long and it didn’t originate in a video game.

    As for GlaDos…I just forgot about Portal. No excuse.

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