Back in the early days of computer gaming, one of my favorite activities was playing text adventure games. The Infocom games were the most fun for me, whether it was exploring a lost pyramid in Infidel, surviving a world filled with magic in Enchanter or going on a traditional dungeon adventure in Zork I: The Great Underground Empire. Even today, I still play a lot of text adventure games, especially those in the Vampire: The Masquerade’s World of Darkness setting, where titles like Night Road offer quite a few thrills with no graphics required.
So, when I ran across the AI Dungeon Traveler Edition on Steam, with its promise of unlimited and unrestricted text-based adventuring, needless to say, I was extremely curious. All of the aforementioned text games I have played before were programmed by someone to have a set path (or possible paths) for players to follow. By contrast, AI Dungeon offers the ability to do almost anything in any conceivable genre. It does this by replacing a human game maker with a sophisticated artificial intelligence, or AI, that attempts to create an adventure while people play. Because of this, instead of thinking of AI Dungeon as a standalone title, users should instead consider it a platform by which they can launch an unlimited number of adventures in any genre they choose. If a player can think up a setting and a plot, then there is a good chance that AI Dungeon will do a decent job of playing along.
AI Dungeon on Steam
Apparently, AI Dungeon has been around for a little while now, first getting life as a mobile game where users on the iOS or Android platforms could interact with the game engine and the AI on a limited basis using a finite, slowly regenerating energy resource. The AI Dungeon developers need to support an extremely powerful computer on the backend to drive the AI, and limiting user interactions was a way to throttle too many requests from overloading it. However, the Traveler Edition of the game on Steam offers unlimited access to the AI and unlimited adventuring for a single price, which is currently set at $30.
Getting unlimited access to cutting edge AI technology and being able to use it to play games is a wonderful deal. However, there is a caveat. Steam players only get access to one of the three AIs that AI Dungeon currently supports. It’s called Griffin and is generally thought of as the least intelligent of the three AIs, with the other two being Wyvern and Dragon. Steam players can opt for an additional monthly subscription (there are several tiers) to get access to the other AIs on top of their already-purchased Steam benefits. Developer Latitude was kind enough to grant me access to all three AIs for this review, so read on if you want to know how each performs, although I will mostly be dealing with Griffin since Steam players can interact with that AI as much as they like.
I will jump ahead a little bit to mention that the Griffin AI seems to be the best of the three at advancing a story or acting as the fuel for a traditional roleplaying setting. For instance, it doesn’t tend to plod along and concentrate on a bunch of dialogue or character development like Dragon. If the story settles into a lull, Griffin will very often toss something in to spice things back up and move the plot forward. Whether or not that new plot point actually makes sense in the overall concept of the story is the random factor, but Griffin seems to be a good AI for an active style of gaming, which is why it will appeal to Steam players, who of course are going to probably be gamers.
There are no ads in Steam’s Traveler tier, which apparently are present in some of the free mobile versions of the game. Steam players can also change some of the AI settings, allowing the AI to memorize up to 2,048 tokens of content (each token is basically a word in this context) of the story you are creating, which is double the default amount with standard Griffin. That means that the AI will be able to look back farther into the story and draw upon those events, items and characters you encountered earlier. So, for example, that odd tavern keeper you met a couple chapters ago might turn out to be an assassin trying to kill you, and the 2,048 token limit will give them more time to hunt you down before the AI forgets that they exist.
Steam users also have access to the Stable Diffusion AI sub-program, which can generate 3D images to go along with stories. Currently, there are a lot of problems with the graphics AI self-censoring itself for no good reason (and really, there should not be any censorship at all), but the graphics are the least interesting part of AI Dungeon, so that is really a minor point. There is also a 2D graphics engine which, I believe, simply pulls pixelated art from an existing stash instead of creating something on its own. The 3D art generation costs “credits” which Steam users get each month, while the 2D art is free.
How to Create and Play With AI Dungeon
I mentioned at the start that AI Dungeon was more of a platform for games than a game itself, and from what I have found, there are two main ways to interact with AI Dungeon. The first is to simply jump in and start playing. The platform gives users the ability to do a quick start, which then gives several choices about what kind of world they want to play in, be it cyberpunk, medieval, fantasy or whatever. Thereafter, the platform will generate a capable adventure for players, although the Griffin AI can be more than a little bit sporadic in its presentation, so don’t expect to get a ton of value out of that experience every time.
I am not saying that it won’t be fun, but the AI tends to thrive when you give it more information, so a quick start game might feel a bit limited or may have too many random elements to make a good story. It’s kind of a roll of the dice when playing that way. I wrote a column for another magazine where I presented an AI-generated story that was created using the Quick Start option with Griffin. And while that tale had a complete storyline, it was not exactly high literature or quality fiction.
Another option is to jump into a game world that has been created by other players. AI Dungeon lets players build worlds by seeding the AI with locations, characters, plot points, factions, races and other story elements for the AI to draw from. World creators don’t control the story itself but give the AI much more context to work from, meaning that it is much less likely to pull some random idea and put it into a story where it does not belong. I played in many player-created worlds and my experience was all over the place in terms of quality. Some players are quite good at it, while others need more practice.
Again, the AI is so much better when fed more information, so those who take the time to really flesh out their worlds with interesting places and characters really boost the quality of those stories and thus the gameplay. AI Dungeon lets players see all of the story elements that a creator has added, so you can kind of tell how detailed a world will be by looking at that information. You can also edit the world info and add elements that apply to your own personal instance of that world, so you could use someone else’s story as a base and then add your own unique content.
Make Your Own Worlds With Words
The other interesting way that players can interact with AI Dungeon, and the method where I found the most value, was to simply create your own worlds. Why rely on the skills of others when you probably have lots of interesting ideas and worlds in your own head just waiting to spring to life?
Creating your own world is not too difficult, but there is a learning curve. It’s almost like a simple form of programming. You probably need to read some of the tutorials and guides to figure out how different characteristics like factions interact with other elements like characters or locations.
When playing in a world you generated, it’s also helpful to know how the AI thinks. For example, while the AI can randomly pull any of the characters you create into the story, you can also use a keyword to force it to do so. For example, if you create a royal family in your game, then the AI may still toss in its own randomly generated characters when you visit their castle. However, if when playing, you mention that you are looking forward to seeing Princess Amelia when you arrive, that will trigger the AI to scan for Amelia in your character section. If her name is a keyword (any characters you create should have their name as a keyword) then the AI will read that description along with any other plot elements you have assigned to her (like her motivations, faction memberships, likes and dislikes) and then present Amelia in the story as best as it can.
Note that the AI will evaluate Amelia’s biography and come up with its own take on her, so you might not experience the exact character you envisioned. However, here again, the AI is much better when given more info, so adding a lot of details about Amelia should make her evolve into the character you want her to become.
Flying Along with Griffin, Wyvern and Dragon
Most of my testing for this review was done with the Griffin AI since that is the unlimited version that you get with the Steam Traveler edition. What I discovered is that because Griffin is pretty good at advancing a story, it worked best with well-crafted, player created worlds. And it did wonderfully with my own worlds which were very finely detailed. One of my worlds had over 50 characters, and it was delightful to meet them as I played. Being able to “talk” with characters who until now only existed in static book pages was a real treat.
Where Griffin is not so good is when playing in more sparsely designed worlds. Without a lot of content to draw from, Griffin can quickly go off the rails. You might be talking with a person about a serious police investigation in a modern setting and suddenly Griffin will have a purple monster smash through the window and start tossing fruit around the room while laughing maniacally. While surprising and sometimes funny, something like that hardly advances the story. Thankfully, there is an Undo button and also a Redo button which Steam users, with their unlimited access, can use as much as they like to try and put things back on track. If Griffin is really acting up, you can simply take control and type in what you want the other characters to say, or what you want to happen in the story, and that will hopefully rein in the AI after a bit. When you are forced to do that, however, the experience becomes more like traditional story writing and much less like gaming.
I was super excited to be able to interact with Dragon, which is billed as the most advanced AI of the three. However, I was actually not very impressed with Dragon, especially in terms of trying to play a game. Dragon is kind of like a stuffy college professor who knows a lot but says very little and expects you to do most of the work. While it does not go off the rails nearly as much as Griffin, it also does not tend to advance the story very quickly. It seems to try and concentrate on dialogue and character building, which is great, but plays poorly in the middle of a fight or action sequence. Dragon would probably be a good tool to use as a writing partner for serious fiction authors. But Dragon is not such a great playmate when gaming.
By contrast, Wyvern, which is kind of the middle-of-the-road AI, was the one that impressed me the most. It seems to have the best qualities of Griffin with its ability to advance the plot of a story and successfully introduce new ideas and themes when necessary to keep things interesting. But Wyvern also has the thoughtfulness of Dragon where you know that the AI is actually reading the provided background, scanning for keywords and trying to present its part of the story in ways that don’t break your established canon. Steam users who already have unlimited access to Griffin can pay for one of the less expensive extra tiers to get access to Wyvern, which might be a good investment for gaming with an AI without having to worry about the pricy cost of Dragon access.
If you have access to more than one AI, then you can switch them on the fly. So, if you are using Wyvern, and it’s just not quite getting things right, you can switch to Griffin and let it try. Also, there are experimental AI variants for both Wyvern and Griffin right now called Hydras which forces the AI to pull multiple answers through its engine before trying to pick the correct one. At times, users get to see multiple answers and can choose which one looks best, which advances the story and also helps to train the AI for the future.
AI Dungeon is like nothing that I have ever played before. It puts gamers in the driver’s seat by letting them create fantastic new worlds and then explore them – sometimes at the same time. Anyone who likes the idea of writing their own stories and playing distinctive text adventures can have an enjoyable time with AI Dungeon. Yes, the technology is not quite perfect yet, but it does offer a fantastic and unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else. And with the Steam Traveler edition, you can lock in your unlimited access perk so that you can keep playing and creating even as the platform and the AI technology it’s based on continues to evolve.