I come to you, PC Gamer reader, hat in hand to report once again that Fallout/Outer Worlds co-creator and Troika Games co-founder, Tim Cain, has said something in a YouTube vlog that blew my damn mind. He's already regaled us with tales of a Lord of the Rings RPG that never was, "the true purpose of the Vaults in Fallout," and the rough plans for a Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines sequel/expansion set in Barstow and Vegas. A few days ago, he also dished on helping train a US Department of Defense AI to play grognard holy grail and "The Most D&D" D&D game, The Temple of Elemental Evil.
According to Cain, in 2004 he was approached by a former graduate school classmate who had moved on to working for the DoD. "He wanted to know if I could take Temple of Elemental Evil and write an API (a programming interface) so that an external AI could run the game," Cain explains in the video.
The contract paid for Cain and ToEE's original lead programmer, Steven Moret, to produce this version of ToEE in the waning days of Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines' development. Cain says that they never actually witnessed the DoD's AI first hand—he and Moret would work on the compatible version of ToEE, ship it off, then receive notes from their client to adjust it. "We made it so that an external program could control the basic functions of Temple of Elemental Evil," Cain elaborates.
In order to test their API in-house, Cain and Moret made a simple AI that largely made choices at random, with positive reinforcement from gaining XP, and negative reinforcement from character death. In the video, Cain recounts an anecdote of even this simple test AI surprising him with its capacity. After popping off for lunch, Cain and Moret returned an hour later to discover their program had "made a party, wandered around Hommlet into buildings, talked to people, managed to acquire a follower and equipment, left the Hommlet map, went to another map, and was fighting giant spiders."
"If that's what a random AI can do in an hour," Cain continues, "I can't imagine what an AI with state memory and learning algorithms can do."
Though the developer is hazy on the exact timing, it looks like Cain and Moret delivered the final iteration of ToEE for robots in the first half of 2005, some time in the midst of Troika's untimely demise. Cain never heard about it again, though he characterizes this version of ToEE as Troika's fourth shipped project alongside the original game, Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines.
My big takeaway? Somewhere under the Pentagon or Area 51, there's a hard drive with an AI on it that's just ludicrously good at CRPGs, some kind of fiend with D&D 3.5e. Some say it's still playing The Temple of Elemental Evil to this day, honing its tactical mastery and inching ever closer to bursting out of its subterranean gaol and unleashing the final Attack of Opportunity on the meatbags who created it.
Also? God bless it, for a six-month period between '04 and '05, American tax dollars went to supporting one of the best RPG studios to ever do it. Is this patriotism I'm feeling? It wasn't enough to save Troika, but god damn it, Uncle Sam tried. As I write this, I notice Tim Cain has uploaded a 20 minute deep dive on the development of The Temple of Elemental Evil. He may never run out of these.