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Posted by: thepinetree on 04/23/2009 02:39 PM Updated by: Kim_Hamilton on 04/24/2009 12:32 AM
Expires: 01/01/2014 12:00 AM
:



In Media Res, April 2009 Voice Commands and Video Games ~By Raven and Coyote

Sonora, CA...Greetings and salutations, video game fans! Your friendly Raven-lady here. I know it's been awhile since we last saw one another. Real-world chaos and some personal issues kept yours truly from being able to devote the time and energy necessary to put together much of anything coherent, much less one of my rants on video games, video gaming, and video game spin-offs. I have, with the always wonderful help of my assistant, Coyote, come back with a peace offering, friends. Light-weight, our topic today, but it's a fun one. Voice-interactive video games....


HEY YOU, PIKACHU

This was the first voice-recognition game I had the pleasure/pain of playing. It came out in the U.S. on November 6, 2000, two years after it's Japan release date. The premise behind this game was, at the request of Professor Oak, you were testing out a device that would allow you to communicate with wild Pokemon. During the introductory period, which was as much to set up the game's story as it was to teach you how to play it, you befriend a wild Pokemon, a Pikachu. Before long, the Pikachu's dragging you all over the place in search of fun things to do, and all the while, you're interacting with this Pikachu through voice-commands. Therefore, it becomes something of a virtual pet, as well as a mild adventure game.

Voice commands were given, walkie-talkie style, via a microphone attachment that hooked onto the N64 controller, and into the N64 console. You pressed a button, spoke your command, and released the button. Doing this prompted the game to throw a “speech bubble” (that looked suspiciously like a soap bubble to this humble writer) at Pikachu. If Pikachu understood, he'd respond to the order. If he didn't, then question marks would appear around his head, prompting the player to try again.

The earliest levels of this game, during this introduction period, got you used to giving commands to Pikachu, and presumably gave the game a chance calibrate itself to your voice. And during this time, the voice-recognition software worked pretty well. Some of the tasks were a touch complicated, but mostly, it was kept to one or two task-relevant commands, as well as one or two that just made Pikachu react to your words. As the game went on, though, the things you needed Pikachu to do got more complicated, and a nifty gameplay innovation quickly turned into a serious pain. Even aside from the voice-commands, there was the added bonus of needing to make sure that Pikachu was actually listening to you when you gave the commands to begin with. The voice recognition itself was pretty good about some things, but trying to utilize them sometimes gave you the feeling of talking to an easily-distracted three-year old, whose name you must keep repeating, and then hurriedly spit out your instructions in the second-and-a-half timespan you had before something more interesting caught the Pokemon's interest.

Still, for all the faults, the game was reasonably good for the time, and for the experimental nature of the hardware and software involved. Although the voice-recognition wasn't as precise as one could like, the simpler tasks were still fun, and some of the commands (“you're so cute!” for example) were, point blank, entertaining. For a 64-bit system, Hey You, Pikachu was ahead of its time.


LIFELINE

This is the one game in my little line-up that I've never actually played. Released on March 4, 2004 for the Playstation 2, this was a game I took a keen interest in because of the voice-interactive engine. A survivor-horror in the same general vein of the Resident Evil series, Lifeline put you in the position of a nameless “operator” stuck in the command room of a space station during an attack. This gives the operator access to all of the security cameras on the station, and through the feed from one of those cameras, you chance across Rio, a cocktail waitress who works for the station. Conveniently wearing a headset that allows you to communicate with her, Rio therefore becomes the game's offical protagonist, along with the nameless “operator.” Using the ship's cameras as your eyes and the headset as your link to Rio, the player guides her through the station, trying to discover the source of the attack, and perhaps find the Operator's girlfriend, who disappeared at the beginning of the game. Like Hey You, Pikachu, the voice commands were given walkie-talkie style. And like the previously mentioned title, the voice recognition software had some problems.

While the controls involved in giving Rio the commands were simple enough, the voice-recognition software didn't seem to be very precise, often leading her off in unexpected directions. Since the player has no other way of directing or commanding Rio, this led to difficulties. These problems weren't limited only to solving the game's puzzles, but voice commands also directed Rio in combat. The general consensus of the game was that it had a lot of ambition, but fell short of delivering. Game Informer magazine rated it as one of the worst horror games of all time.


NINTENDOGS

Nintendogs was originally released for the Nintendo DS on August 22, 2005. While never touted as a “voice-activated” game, it nonetheless had voice-interactive elements, courtesy of the DS's integrated microphone. As you name each puppy, and as you teach them tricks, you mst repeat them for a certain number of times, matching the words and tone each time, before the puppy “understands” them, and they're added to the list of tricks the puppy can perform. And if you have the bubble-blower toy, blowing across the mic blows bubbles that let you play with your chosen pet or pets. Unlike the last two games we've talked about so far, Nintendogs doesn't require a walkie-talkie method of entering your voice commands. You simply have to get the puppy's attention, and then speak to it.

The voice-recognition in this game is actually pretty good, although it has a few faults. Matching your tone and pronunciation of a word, or words, every single time you want to give a command can be difficult. If you're not careful about how you phrase your commands, they may perform the wrong one. As a personal example, I made the mistake of teaching my puppy the commands “lay down” and “stay.” Unfortunately, “lay” and “stay” were toned just similarly enough when I taught my puppy that neither command produced consistent results. I eventually had to re-teach the puppy one of the tricks, and once I said “lie down” instead of “lay down,” the problem was more or less resolved. All in all, though, the voice recognition in this game was decent, and the short-comings were things relatively easy to work around.


TOM CLANCY'S ENDWAR

As the newest game of lineup of voice-interactive video games, Tom Clancy's EndWar was released in the U.S. on November 4, 2008, and takes place in the same universe as Clancy's Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Splinter Cell games. The premise behind the game is that you, as a Colonel in one of three major world superpowers (The Russian Spetsnaz Guards Brigade, the European Federation Enforcers Corps, and the United States Joint Strike Force) through a computer program called Overlord, have been called on to command troops through what is, essentially, World War Three. Through the Overlord battle system, the Colonel (who is presumably somewhere safe and sound) can watch the goings-on in the battlefield via cameras all the units are carrying, and give commands to the troops out there through a voice-activated system. The game employs the same walkie-talkie style of command input that Lifeline and Hey You, Pikachu employs, but this is where the resemblance to any other voice activated game ends.

Instead of earlier games, which expected you to keep a list of commands written, or memorized, EndWar has given the player a unique tool. As you push the button to input your commands, a dialogue tree appears on screen to guide the player through the command process. The commands are broken down into a simple Who – What – Where format. As you speak each part of the order you want to give, the tree expands, showing you the next set of options. Still, this is only a guide. If you know which order you want to give, you can simply press the button, speak your selection in a natural tone at a natural speed, and release the button. There are also more advanced commands that can be used that aren't mentioned in the on-screen tree that make commanding your units both easy and efficent. It's also possible to control the game with the game controller, but for me, it's been a lot faster to give the orders verbally, and use the controller to pick up on the few for which I don't yet know the voice commands.

Unlike Hey You, Pikachu, the voice-recognition aspect of the game is very good. If a player decides to take the time to go through the “tutorial” campaign (which also acts as a prologue to the story), there's a short section at the beginning which instructs the player how to use the Overlord system, and gives you some practice giving commands. While going through this section, I had only one small hang-up with the voice-recognition system. If I speak too quickly, it sometimes interprets my “Alpha” as “Delta.” It originally gave me a little reason to worry, but when I actually started the battles themselves, any worries I had were quickly eliminated. The voice system in this game is very smooth, and very efficient, which leads to a wonderfully immersive environment. This is more than can be said for the other games I've reviewed so far.

The Raven-lady's conclusion? While voice-interactive games got off to a rough start, recent advances in gaming technology seems to be steering the genre in a positive direction. I, personally, would like to see more games come out with this kind of voice-commanded interface. A remake of Lifeline, perhaps? Something new entirely? I think more games like this might be on the horizon, if the quality stays as high as Tom Clancy's EndWar.


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