The Portopia Serial Murder Case, a Japan-only PC and NES game that indirectly led to the creation of such notable franchises as Dragon Quest and Metal Gear, is being revived by Square Enix in the form of a free-to-play AI chatbot.
April 23 will see the free-to-play Steam launch of – lemme make sure to get the full title here – Square Enix AI Tech Preview: The Portopia Serial Murder Case. As the title implies, this project will marry natural language processing technology to that original game, allowing you to more intuitively interact with the game’s NPCs in what appears to be the style of AI chatbots.
Portopia was never released outside of Japan, and if you’re not familiar with this period of gaming history, you might not realize just how influential it truly is. Published by Enix, it was the first megahit designed by Yuji Horii. Horii would take many of its interface and storytelling techniques into Dragon Quest, the game that set the blueprint for pretty much the entire Japanese RPG genre and whose success led Square to greenlight the original Final Fantasy, years before Square Enix merged into a single entity.
Hideo Kojima says (opens in new tab) Portopia and Super Mario Bros. were the games that inspired him to join the industry, and Metal Gear Solid V even includes portions of a Portopia ROM buried deep in its code. Portopia was one of the first games played by modern-day Zelda boss Eiji Aonuma (opens in new tab). And, while Portopia certainly wasn’t the first Japanese adventure game, its success did influence what would become the visual novel genre, up through modern descendents like Phoenix Wright.
Portopia is a detective mystery game where you have to solve a murder. In its original PC incarnation, you had to type in your commands, which – if the game understood what you were trying to say – would then be carried out by your assistant. Square Enix is attempting to use AI tech to give the old text parser a modern shine.
“Free text input systems like these allowed players to feel a great deal of freedom,” Square Enix says of the old system on the game’s store page (opens in new tab). “However, they did come with one common source of frustration: players knowing what action they wanted to perform but being unable to do so because they could not find the right wording. This problem was caused by the limitations of PC performance and [natural language processing] technology of the time.”
Square Enix says that “using ‘The Portopia Serial Murder Case’ as a test case, we’d like to show you the capabilities of modern NLP and the impact it can have on adventure games, as well as deepen your understanding of NLP technologies.”
While AI content generation is controversial – with good reason – for its potential to replace human artists and writers, a game designed around using AI language models to more realistically interact with NPCs makes a lot of sense, and we’ve already seen the tech used in one Chinese MMO to make NPCs more lifelike. Square Enix has certainly backed some bad ideas in the past, like the NFT game Symbiogenesis that’s somehow still on the way, but this one, at least, has my curiosity.
Check out the best mystery games if you need something not driven by AI to get your Sherlock hat out for.