There are plenty of games that dabble in the ethical and moral dilemmas of AI, but few centre around a self-guiding vacuum cleaner. Actually, none of them do. Or at least they didn’t until now, because Rumu is just that: a point-and-click adventure game set in a smart home, with the nominal vacuum cleaner as protagonist.
Rumu has gained sentience, but how or why wasn’t explained to me by the Robot House crew when I spoke to them, presumably to avoid spoilers. As Rumu explores the isometrically-viewed smart home, it’ll contend with the all-seeing eyes of home AI Sabrina; encounter a freeriding (and organic) cat called Ada, and meet a bunch of ostensibly “smart” devices that are actually pretty dumb by Rumu’s measure: an ice maker, a coffee machine, a toaster. I look forward to discovering the social pecking order among these household appliances.
At PAX last week I spoke to lead designer Adam Matthews about Rumu. It's due to release "later" in 2017.
PC Gamer: So it’s a point-and-click adventure and you’re a vacuum cleaner. What’s the objective, why is the vacuum cleaner exploring?
Adam Matthews: You actually wake up on day one and you don’t have any context for why you’ve become self-aware or why you are sentient. Your only point of reference to the world is Sabrina, the home AI, which is based on an Amazon Alexa style character. She’s everywhere, and she’s also sentient. Your role is to piece together what’s going on in the world, where are the owners, and what Sabrina’s role in that relationship is. Over the course of the first few days, you’ll wonder “can she be trusted?” and that will propel you through the rest of the story. We dip you into a variety of AI tropes.
Both the antagonist, Sabrina, and the protagonist Rumu, are AI. There seems like a lot of potential for moral and ethical dilemmas.
There is a deep relationship between Sabrina and the player AI —the vacuum cleaner—and Sabrina rewards some more robotic behaviors. She assigns you tasks for cleaning. But when you do the human motions, like interacting with objects and going where you shouldn’t, that’s when Sabrina starts to become more of an antagonist. She becomes a bit more aggressive and you start to flesh out what that means for her character. Why she operates that way is a large part of the game.
What occurs for this vacuum cleaner to go from a connected household device to a sentient being? Do we learn why that happens?
Throughout the game, you will learn quite a bit about why Rumu is the way Rumu is. It’s not a product that was meant to be sentient—I don’t think anyone would want a vacuum cleaner that can feel, and which you then go and ask to clean up for you. That’s a potential hazard.
Do you think the game fits into a sci-fi mould or is its genre not that explicit?
It does touch on a bunch of sci-fi elements—we touched on movies like Ex Machina, as well as games that hone in on that. But we’re angling for more of a point-and-click experience that is about the home and human relationships. Technology does play a role in it, specifically how technology is used. You’ll be hacking into devices, but most of the time, that’ll take the form of a CAPTCHA puzzle—you’ll drag your mouse over “I am not a robot” and you’ll pass the test.
Is the game critical of where technology is headed?
I don’t think we’re overly critical about technology, we’re very tongue-in-cheek with a lot of the interactions that are in there. But we also do touch upon the implications of giving an appliance sentience, what that would mean morally, and whether that device would actually wish that upon itself or upon other things.
Do you think sentient vacuum cleaners could be genuinely dangerous to people? Are you scared of them?
Yeah, I think they would be a real problem. [Laughs] Giving a device that is explicitly supposed to clean up for you, which has one sole purpose, free will and choice [would be bad]. What does that mean when you’ve got something like that, cleaning up messes, which maybe decides it doesn’t want to? When the home is becoming much more inter-connected, surely that vacuum cleaner could do more.
Like collaborate with other appliances?
Yeah, that comes into play a little bit. You interact with a few more devices that are a bit dumber than Rumu: the toaster, the ice maker, the coffee machine.
Rumu releases "late 2017" on Steam.