The city-builder casts you as an AI in charge of terraforming Mars, then asks some hard questions about the nature of consciousness.
Grappling with the ramifications of Artificial Intelligence is one of the first things science fiction ever did as a genre. Yet most sci-fi books, movies, and games explore those ideas from the perspective of a person, whether we’re taking down SHODAN in System Shock or chatting with Cortana in Halo. That’s something the developers of Per Aspera, Tlön Industries, wanted to change. From their offices in Buenos Aires the team of about 12 people have spent the last few years trying to figure out what it would be like to inhabit the mind of a newly awakened—a newborn—Artificial Consciousness.
The result is Per Aspera, a strategic city-builder that has players working to terraform Mars as the artificial consciousness AMI. You’re a genderless superintelligence capable of incredible things, but you’re also effectively a child with no conception of society or social interaction.
“What we wanted to do with Per Aspera was make you feel like you really are an AI,” developer Javier Otaegui told me on a call. “How would it feel to be an AI? How would it feel to wake up and find out that you were created for a specific purpose? You do have free will, but you’re kind of a slave.” AMI’s story is fundamentally bound up with Per Aspera’s campaign mode. AMI’s first thoughts are small and fundamental urges about their mission—build a mine, expand the power network—and effectively form Per Aspera’s tutorial.
Per Aspera is a pretty hardcore strategy, simulation, and city-building game. It’s an experimental step to make a strategy game, where story is usually subordinate to play, into a character-driven narrative. The moral decisions in Per Aspera form the basis of its branching nonlinear story and multiple endings, similar to the black, white, and shades of grey decisions in Mass Effect or The Witcher. But 2020 is a good year for this kind of experiment—as Hades has shown, even the narrative-averse roguelike genre can be driven entirely by a complex character’s story.
To immerse players in the narrative, especially in a logistics and management-focused game, Tlön Industries had to figure out how to let them empathize with and understand AMI, “To make you feel like you really were an AI, and were placed in that position with a very ambitious mission,” said Otaegui, “with all the human eyes on you waiting for you to fulfill your mission.” It’s a natural fit when you think about it: The godlike view of a strategy game suits the idea of AMI, a being whose primary body is a satellite above another world. Indeed, that was the first camera angle they implemented in a prototype: The view from a single geosynchronous satellite above Mars’ surface. (Later on they decided it was too restrictive.)
The perspective of playing as an AI guided Per Aspera’s early development as the team went searching for the scientific ideas and physical realities that would shape their game. They dug deep into the science of terraforming and space travel, and so Per Aspera uses cellular automata to model rising humidity and changing atmospheric conditions on Mars, and similar systems to simulate the growth of lichen and the spread of plants.
Science was the basis—though not always the end-all, be-all decision maker—for how Per Aspera would work. That meant in order to keep their hard sci-fi credentials clean they had to decide how AMI worked, as well as how players would actually terraform Mars.