As AI gradually encroaches into every aspect of our lives, videogames have proven to be no exception. Almost all big publishers are starting to incorporate AI tools into parts of their process, in the hope the technology can automate tasks that would otherwise be labour-intensive. Modders have already started plugging things like ChatGPT into existing games (with very mixed results). And now John Ricitiello, CEO of major engine company Unity and former CEO of EA, reckons it could be used to replace things like Simlish.
"I was involved in launching The Sims in 2000, and it was wonderful game," said Ricitiello in a new interview with the Washington Post. "And you know how they used Simlish, right? Did you know why? Because there’s so many things you can do in The Sims, it’s like a crazy number of interactions you can have because you’re actually creating characters. Those characters interact with each other. No writer could ever write all the appropriate dialogue for that. It would be as big as the Library of Congress when you’re done.
"You know where I’m going, I’m sure. In the way that GPT 4 works, you can define the parameters. A player could do this or the game studio could do it. The game studio could allow the player to describe this character or their motivations, in the same way you write in prompts, to get dialogue back. And they could do this for all their characters in advance. And the AI could spawn in any language you want—English, Russian, Japanese, French, doesn’t matter. I think that’s a breakthrough. It is actually really hard to overstate how important that is. It’s alive."
It's alive! And it makes one think of that Ian Malcolm line from Jurassic Park: "your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Simlish is a unique element of the Sims and it's one of the game's real charms: if it didn't have that element the series would be nowhere near as popular as it is. It creates ambiguity by being a nonsense language you can put anything onto, it prompts your imagination, it's part of what makes these unknowable little digital creations feel alive.
Simlish may have just been an accident of history, but it's a fortunate one. Ricitiello's reflections do loosely line up with what Sims creator Will Wright has said in the past, telling GamesRadar+ in 2020:
"One of the key decisions was the fact that [Sims] wouldn't actually be speaking English, that we would actually have them speak their own language. This is one of those situations where the computer is pretty good at simulating certain things and really bad at simulating other things.
"We could have had them speaking pre-recorded lines or something like that, but it would have destroyed the illusion of reality pretty quickly just because we couldn't provide that level of AI," said Wright. "By having them speak this kind of gibberish, your human imagination actually fills in the blanks and will imagine the conversation. That's really an example of us offloading a portion of the simulation to the human imagination: the portion that the computer is very bad at."
I kinda think that computers are always going to be bad at that. And you just know that if EA announced some sort of AI integration on these lines then the Sims community would riot. When Ricitiello lists the various languages AI could add to something like Sims dialogue, it seems to me that misses a core element of the appeal: Sims players don't want their Sims talking to them in a language they can understand. Perhaps that's the real threat of AI. In its overwhelming productivity and bland formulae, it squeezes that little bit more magic and happenstance out of the world.