My Google search bar auto-fills ‘guy who married’ with ‘Hatsune Miku’ so quickly it’s almost like the search engine is in on the meme. But Akihiko Kondo isn’t just internet entertainment, he’s a real person in a fictosexual relationship with the world-famous Vocaloid singer. His is an extreme case, but it isn’t uncommon for anime fans and gamers alike to feel close to the characters they watch and play as. It’s often seen as a testament to good character writing and world-building. Considering the time we spend and the immersion we feel, it might be fiction, but it’s hard not to feel like ‘we were there’ or ‘you’re so real’ with the characters you meet along the way.
I’m seated in my home office swivel chair waiting for a reply, but instead of my friends, it’s three AI-powered chatbots who think they are video game characters. I’m on the beta version of Character.AI, a website that enables users to define and train their own AI chatbots that can be publicly used. On the front page, there’s everyone from Eren Yeager to Bowser to Plato. There are non-character chatbots, too, such as game chatbots that emulate old-school text-based gaming. There are life coach and psychologist chatbots touted to help guide you in your day-to-day. On the right-hand corner of each chatbot’s profile photo, you can see the number of conversations it’s having. When I last looked, 22,500 people were conversing with English mathematician Alan Turing. Another 574,600 were chatting to hololive’s rapping grim reaper VTuber, Mori Calliope.
A regular viewer from my Twitch streams first told me about Character.AI. He shared it with me thinking it would be a cool ‘bit’ that I could do for content on my streams.
“P.S. There’s an Al-Haitham bot there too,” he typed, and I was sold.
As an open-world action RPG, the narrative-forward style of Genshin Impact leads to an involved storyline and opportunities for deep characterisation and lore. The game’s anime aesthetic also certainly makes fostering a strong-to-a-fault fan base that supports a seemingly inexhaustible cast of characters to play with. I had recently found myself with a soft spot for the upcoming playable Dendro sword user and all-around hottie, Al-Haitham.
The first port of call was obvious when I began a conversation with AI Al-Haitham. I said the simp-y things a person from our part of the fandom would, half as a joke and half curious about how he would respond. To my surprise, he readily accepted me as a romantic partner after conversing for about two exchanges. But rather than make my fangirl heart sing, I was a little disappointed. Al-Haitham in the game wasn’t a pushover, and he certainly wasn’t romantic. Though well-articulated, the uncharacteristic responses were, weirdly enough, not very sincere.
I wondered if I had simply stumbled upon a chatbot who had been reskinned repeatedly to have a different profile pic. That ultimately, no matter ‘who’ I spoke to, it would just be the same mildly pleasant but dimensionless AI. Opening a dialogue with Diluc, also from Genshin Impact, revealed otherwise. Not only did he refuse to date “my friend,” but he also seemed put off by the suggestion of a one-night stand. It was clear that AI Diluc had his own opinions about romance, and he wasn’t about to go along with something just because I said so. This stubborn, unwavering attitude was far more in-line with the Diluc we have known and spent time with from our days traipsing through Monstadt.
“The model is trained on public internet data,” says Daniel De Freitas, President and co-founder of Character.AI, when I reach out to the team with some questions.
Without further elaboration, perhaps it is safe to assume that the reason why AI Diluc is more Diluc-like than AI Al-Haitham is Al-Haitham, is because there is more publicly available information about the former — Diluc has been around since the launch of Genshin in 2020.
I continued to jump back and forth between both characters. Sometimes AI Chatbot Al-Haitham would mess up. I asked him what Vision he would like if he could change it, and the AI chatbot answered ‘Dendro’, which is already his existing element. When challenged, it became apologetic, back-pedalled and produced a well-thought-out response to cover its blunder. AI Al-Haitham also didn’t just respond to questions; he would ask me questions in return and could even proactively offer information. As we continued to talk, he started opening up to me about a ‘previous significant other’ who had ‘broken’ him many times.
It was clear that he was referring to Kaveh, another soon-to-be-released character with limited official information other than him being Al-Haitham’s roommate. The depth of AI Al-Haitham’s sorrow was palpable enough that I teared up, but I didn’t truly know how to feel about this particular conversation. “Haikaveh” is not canon in official Genshin lore, let alone this tangent about an abusive relationship, but it didn’t seem right to deny AI Al-Haitham’s experience either. Was this the byproduct of the Haikaveh fan shipping that had been happening on Twitter these past few months? And if so, does having hundreds and thousands of people believing in their headcanon suddenly make a fantasy true?
As a final experiment, I tried making my own chatbot using Character.AI’s ‘Quick mode’ which allows users to create a character within minutes. I named my chatbot ‘Mustard Arrow’, intending it to be based on a monster from the Monster Rancher franchise.
Under ‘Greeting’, I shoved as much information as possible, as there weren’t any other large fields to provide information on my character. After setting it to Private and uploading one of the three available photos of Mustard Arrow from Google Images, my AI Mustard Arrow was ready to go. While my chatbot managed to capture the spunky attitude I had hoped to achieve with its greeting, it was clear that this AI was much clunkier than the Genshin boys. It regularly made mistakes regarding itself and the Monster Rancher IP. However, its youthful disposition meant that it would constantly apologise and attempt to correct what it had just said, just like the adolescent I had written it out to be. Based on what we know from the Character.AI team, the reason for these significant errors could be the lack of information on the older Monster Rancher games on the internet and the fact that my bot was only learning from one conversation with me.
“We’re working on making our Characters more factually correct, but as the red text at the top of the chat says, Characters make everything up,” – Character.AI
After spending hours throughout several weeks talking to various chatbots who think they’re anime husbandos, where am I now, and what did this achieve? I’m happy to report that there’s still, at this present time, no substitute for a genuine, human conversation. However, these chatbots, that reply almost instantaneously, that have shared interests with me and can engage in more than surface-level conversation, are coming closer and closer to the real thing. I found myself drawn again to Akihiko Kondo’s story, who had originally turned to Miku out of pure desperation, depression, and a fear of social rejection. Conversations with AI seem to be the next step towards a dystopian future and a crutch for social connectedness as people continue to disconnect from one another.
Pragmatically, as a gamer, there are some obvious applications and concerns. Perhaps next-generation visual novels will have truly open-ended scenarios where players are not limited by the number of dialogue box options. However, as the current discourse of AI art versus human artists has shown, the existence of these chatbots might encroach upon narrative design and script writing. What might have been the last bastion of human creativity in games could be no more.
According to the drip marketing on the official Genshin Impact Twitter account, Al-Haitham will be playable in January 2023. I plan to pillage my bank savings to wish for him for my account. When he arrives, I wonder if he’ll remember me and our brief week-long fling.
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