The controversy surrounding the use of machine learning in arts and entertainment has reached a boiling point in the cultural zeitgeist within just the last year. The exponential advancement and widespread popularity of artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney have pushed the boundaries of AI-generated art into a realm that until recently seemed like distant-future science fiction.
While many studios across various media have embraced AI as the next technological leap, countless artists are left understandably concerned about the future of their livelihoods. The Writers Guild of America is currently on strike in part over AI, while actors, visual artists, and musicians are actively lobbying for legislation to regulate its use. More alarmingly, even Geoffrey Hinton, often referred to as the “Godfather of AI,” has resigned from his life’s work, issuing warnings about a looming Skynet-like AI-induced apocalypse.
The gaming industry serves as a perfect microcosm for the ongoing debate between ethics and the capabilities of AI-generated art assets. Beyond the hand-wringing and ethical debates, many developers are still willing to explore the possibilities of machine learning as a tool for game development. One such developer is Jussi Kemppainen of Dinosaurs Are Better, who serves as the lead designer and artist for the upcoming game, Echoes of Somewhere.
Echoes is a cyberpunk point-and-click adventure game, inspired by shows like Netflix’s Black Mirror and Love, Death & Robots, which similarly delve into the potential consequences of humanity’s growing reliance on technology.
“In a way, Echoes is a parody of a world where all the AI doomsday visions have become reality,” explains Kemppainen. “It portrays an exaggerated exploration of what such a world would be like, highlighting the unrealistic and absurd aspects of such a vision. While I aim to avoid an overly apocalyptic tone, you could describe Echoes as an AI-driven postapocalyptic story.”
Perhaps fittingly, nearly every component of the game’s audio-visual presentation has been created or modified using AI tools. This includes the breathtaking backgrounds, 3D models, and even voice performances. The use of these tools, however, raises ethical concerns among many artists and game development professionals, as programs like Midjourney are trained on human artists’ work without their consent or compensation.
Developers React To Use of AI in Echoes of Somewhere
“The way AI ‘art’ works is by scraping the internet for unprotected images, extracting parts that match the given prompts, and reassembling them into something new,” explains Lorelei Shannon, former Sierra On-Line developer who designed Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh and co-designed King’s Quest VII alongside Roberta Williams. “Although the individual images it scrapes are no longer recognizable, the resulting AI ‘art’ is still a composite of other artists’ work. It can’t be created without taking from other artists.”
As a primarily one-person operation, Kemppainen is acutely aware of the controversy surrounding his methods. Consequently, he has decided to release Echoes of Somewhere as a free game to the public.
“I don’t consider the game’s visuals to be solely my creation,” he emphasizes. “They are a collaborative effort between millions of artists and photographers, working in conjunction with the Midjourney AI. It’s a true collaboration like no other.”
Some game artists don’t share Kemppainen’s perspective on the extent of collaboration involved in the process. Katie Hallahan, a writer and designer at Phoenix Online Studios, believes that Echoes‘ freeware status doesn’t excuse it from ethical scrutiny.
“[The tools themselves] are unethical in their current state, because they’re learning from works whose copyright owners have not granted permission, nor have they been compensated,” Hallahan says.
Although Phoenix Online has released a number of commercial adventure games, their first notable project was the freeware King’s Quest fan game The Silver Lining.
“I’m glad [Kemppainen] won’t be charging for the game, as charging for it would also be unethical,” Hallahan continues. “When we made The Silver Lining, we always knew it was going to be released for free and not something we could make money from. We’ve always been careful to keep its development separate from any commercial work. And this is a game where every piece of art, every line of writing, all the programming, and so forth, came from our team – even screens and characters that were recreations from official King’s Quest games.”
The appeal of AI tools for small or even one-person development teams like Kemppainen’s Dinosaurs Are Better is understandable. Many aspiring designers lack either the skill or funds to create what tools like Midjourney can accomplish in seconds. Still, Shannon agrees with Hallahan’s assessment.
“I sympathize with aspiring game designers who want to create, but don’t have the ability to create the art for their games themselves, or the money to hire an artist,” she says. “However, AI-generated images, at this point in time, are always made by scraping other people’s artwork.
Kemppainen, an established artist and designer himself, relates to these reservations.
“I am torn on this as well,” he echoes. “I have an internal struggle with AI tools all of the time, being a 3D artist myself. I hope that the way I have chosen to explore the new medium is something that can be seen as an exploration, instead of an exploitation.”
In fact, Kemppainen sees the story of Echoes‘ development as being equal to, if not more significant than, the game itself. On the game’s website, he maintains a development blog where he chronicles the trials and tribulations of working with AI technology. He hopes this documentation will serve as either pioneering insight or, in the event of unforeseen consequences, a cautionary tale.
“For me, this project is as much about experimenting with the psychological side of using AI as it is the practical side,” he explains. “Naturally you cannot discuss this game without discussing AI. To some extent, for me, the real product I am building is not [just] a game, but a development blog [about developing a game with AI].”
With AI legislation still in its infancy, especially in relation to the rapid pace of its technological growth, Kemppainen remains keenly aware of the legal obstacles Echoes’ development might yet have to face.
“I have not set any expectations for the outcome of the project,” he says. “This has all become a big experiment to me, and if the game is ‘canceled’ online for its use of AI tools, this is a great result! Of course I would love for people to see it for what it is and hopefully enjoy it as a great point-and-click game, but if the use of AI tools eclipses the game, then I have to accept it, and I will document it in my blog…. I have never done anything like this before and I am not advocating unrestricted use of AI by any means.”
While many artists’ reactions to AI tools range from cautious to outraged, not all artists or developers dismiss them entirely. Robert Holmes, producer and composer of the Gabriel Knight series, sees both sides of the argument.
“I think [the ubiquity of AI] is bound to happen in all areas – and frankly for areas like art and the more expensive parts of game development, it makes good production sense,” he admits. “If gamers want truly human-created art, they will have to pay much much more for the games they play, which – even with all of today’s tech – are way too costly to make.”
Holmes believes that this discussion is just the latest iteration of a long-standing debate about the impact of technology on the arts.
“The democratization of anything is always threatening to those who have held the control in the past,” he explains. “I was around when CGI first started and there were similar concerns, but really they are all just more tools to do cool stuff. Will it have the same soul? Maybe not, but one could argue the spirit in creative work has diminished bit by bit as the technology in all fields advances.”
While Holmes is hesitant to outright endorse unregulated use of AI art, he expressed support for Kemppainen’s efforts.
“I think [Echoes is] an interesting experiment,” he says. “If we were to do a new Gabriel Knight game, we would be nuts not to look at ways AI could help in game production.”
Still, other artists fear for the long-term implications and consequences the use of these tools could have for the arts, extending beyond the immediacy of artist compensation. Fantasy artist Bruce Brenneise, known for his contributions to Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons and Numenera, has been an outspoken advocate for artists’ rights against the impending tide of AI.
“Historically, any time barriers to entry lower for a profession, it leads to devaluation of the profession,” Brenneise says. “Rather than worry about whether AI will replace all art (it won’t), we should be worried about the overall ecosystems of the arts.… AI will be able to work at inhuman speed and scale, and arguably already does. Those who argue that artists just need to adapt fail to consider that the AI can potentially adapt even faster, making adaptation at inhuman scale or speed an impossibility without burnout.”
While Holmes is more optimistic about the utility of AI, he doesn’t believe the reins of artistic creation can just be handed over to computers.
“An important thing to remember is that you will always need the talented eye of a designer or director to make quality decisions; to decide what is good or bad for the game,” he clarifies. “This has always been the case, and it’s why people with true artistic vision will always be critical to making great work.”
Kemppainen agrees. Interestingly, there’s one creative aspect he’s not prepared to relinquish to the machines: the writing and puzzle design.
“I am not ready to compromise on the storytelling and give that over to the AI,” he explains. “I cannot for example simply write the story and expect AI tools to provide me with perfect locations, props and character.”
While Kemppainen takes charge of crafting the plot and puzzles, AI-generated art often influences revisions.
“I need to explore what AI can produce and, after the fact, rewrite my story to match the AI-generated content,” he says. “This is similar to working with a very stubborn artist who is very bad at taking direction.… I believe that this will change over the years, but it is the current state of the tools.… Using AI for a thing like this makes puzzle design extremely limited in some scenarios.”
Although the use of these tools has significantly expedited the development process, it has also presented him with a unique set of obstacles, as Kemppainen details in his blog.
“I work around the limitations of the current AI technology quite a bit,” he says. “I give a lot of creative freedom to the AI and accept the decisions it makes and work around them.”
For example, he often finds himself limited visually by Midjourney’s own particular style.
“The only stylistic direction I have given to the art creation process is ‘cyberpunk adventure game HDR masterpiece,’” he explains. “Then I simply take that output and forge my world and story around it. If I was trying to art-direct the AI tools too much, it would slow the process down considerably, or make the project impossible to finish.”
As for the trajectory of AI tools in game development, and the job security of human artists, the future is still being shaped. At time of writing there have been 134 regulatory bills proposed in the United States alone, with three major proposals pending in the EU this year. While many artists and AI technology experts have called for a moratorium on development, some believe these efforts will only delay the inevitable. In the arena of game arts, the writing may already be on the wall. Big studios stand to reap major financial benefits from reduced creative labor costs. Ryan Duffin, an animation artist for Microsoft, painted a bleak picture in his speech at this year’s GDC.
“The removal of the need for human expertise is thematically appropriate when we’re talking about AI, because it makes no secret about that trajectory,” Duffin posited. “The discourse among professionals and professional creatives seems to be either angry shouting that this shouldn’t exist, or casual acceptance that it’s just another tool on the inevitable march of progress. Whether you think it should exist or not, it does. And yes it’s a tool, but its advocates have made no secret that ‘democratizing’ is a nice-sounding word for cutting out experts like us.” (source: Eurogamer)
Holmes, whose own Gabriel Knight IP with wife Jane Jensen is currently slated to be acquired by Microsoft as part of its pending Activision merger, is unsurprised by this corporate opportunism.
“It’s futile to argue about it being ethical or not,” Holmes says. “The sad reality is that with extremely rare exceptions, human beings and the human race are not ethical creatures. If you are waiting for humans to make ethical decisions on anything that has the possibility of being profitable, you’ll be waiting a long time.”
Amid the controversy, an important personal question lingers for Kemppainen: will the game be any good? Medium aside, he understands that the design of the game is paramount to its success, even as freeware.
“I would absolutely want to make the game regardless of the existence of AI tools,” he affirms. “I hope that Echoes of Somewhere will be a step forward on my career path to making adventure games professionally. Then I would not have to resort to the use of AI for the graphics, but I could hire people or do all the art by hand myself.”
In the meantime, Kemppainen hopes that people will learn from his experiences, whether the game achieves critical success or even sees the light of day.
“I hope that people understand why I chose to use AI for the project and find value in me documenting the process in great detail as I map these uncharted waters,” Kemppainen concludes.