Square Enix is using a classic adventure game for an AI tech preview

The Portopia Serial Murder Case returns with some extra functionality

Square Enix is showcasing some possibilities for AI tech, and it’s using an old classic to do so. The Portopia Serial Murder Case is getting a PC remaster on April 23 with its AI Tech Preview, with brand-new Natural Language Processing tech.

Artificial intelligence use in games has quickly become a hot-button topic, and for good reason. The rise of systems that generate text, images, or anything else has open a bit of a Pandora’s Box in terms of original sourcing, ethics, and specifically for games, how something gets made.

I’m starting here because, well, Square Enix has a history with new tech trends. So when I first saw “AI Tech Preview” appended to a re-release of 1983’s The Portopia Serial Murder Case, I was skeptical. And I still am. But I’m now, at least, a little bit curious too.

Machine learning

The AI tech Square is using aligns with Natural Language Processing, or NLP. In a very basic sense, think of it as a machine learning to understand language in a more conversational setting. Using deep learning and large text data sets, a system could start to understand complex text input, and generate responses.

The Portopia Serial Murder Case includes some of this in the tech preview releasing on April 23. Namely, NLU—Natural Language Understanding—is used to help computers understand natural language. Think of old adventure games that used text input, like Zork. Sometimes, you might have to get specific with your wording or phrasing to do the thing you’d want to do.

The goal of Portopia is to smooth some of that out. Rather than a direct adventure, you’re directing a detective around, conducting the investigation with them. You can see in this screenshot how the NLU interprets various responses, and then presents a response.

Portopia NLUVisualizer 042123
Image via Square Enix

While that’s NLU, NLG—Natural Language Generation—is a different story. This is where the idea of chatbots and the like come in; rather than delivering a set response, this is where the AI generates a reply. On the Steam store page, Square Enix says this feature was omitted from the AI tech preview of The Portopia Serial Murder Case because there was a risk of the AI generating “unethical replies.” Which, yeah, that can still happen sometimes. Square says it might reintroduce this function, “as soon as our research succeeds in creating an environment in which players can enjoy the experience with peace of mind.”

This has been explored before, perhaps most notably in games like 2005’s Facade. It’s interesting to see it incorporated here, to stand in for your standard text adventure parser that usually uses a set number of verbs.

Talk to me

Additionally, there’s an extra feature added too: Speech-to-Text. This tech, in Portopia, will let players use their own voice rather than the keyboard. It needs a CUDA-capable GPU and a large amount of VRAM for a “satisfactory experience,” but it’s an interesting addition. It reminds me of the fun, messy times I had with games like Tom Clancy’s EndWar. Remember EndWar? What a wild thing.

On top of all that, it’s also a full-on remaster of a Sharp X1 game from 1983, authored by Dragon Quest‘s own Yuji Horii. For comparison, here’s the PC-88 version (via MobyGames):

PortopiaOriginal ViaMoby 042123
Image via MobyGames

And here’s the new version:

PortopiaSerialMurderCase Typing 042123
Image via Square Enix

Granted, this is also the first time Portopia has seen an English release. There’s understandably a bit of tension around that, especially seeing it remastered as a tech preview rather than a direct adaptation, like Famicom Detective Club.

So I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, I think the tech is fascinating, and less egregious than I was worried it would be. On the other hand, seeing a classic adventure game get a re-release is a big deal. Having it tied into the tech preview would, for anyone who wanted to experience Portopia in its more-intended form, rub them the wrong way. For something that’s a notable piece of Square Enix’s history, it makes this all a bit fraught. It will be free to play, so I’ll probably check it out either way.

The Square Enix AI tech preview for The Portopia Serial Murder Case goes live on April 23 for PC via Steam.

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Eric Van Allen

Senior News Reporter – While Eric’s been writing about games since 2014, he’s been playing them for a lot longer. Usually found grinding RPG battles, digging into an indie gem, or hanging out around the Limsa Aethryte.

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