The Tower is brilliant – and a bit about AI chatbots

The Tower is brilliant - and a bit about AI chatbots

Tower this is exactly my kind of thing. It’s a Pico-8 game created by the brightly talented designer Tallywinkle, and I’ve been playing it on and off for the past week. I think going back and forth is actually the best, and maybe the only real way to enjoy it.

And the idea is simple. You climb a tower one story at a time. Each floor has a staircase which is usually blocked by a random number generator dice roll from one to 100. If I roll the dice and the number is equal to or greater than the number of the floor I am on, I can go climb the stairs to the upper floor. If the number is lower, then the stairs take me to the lower floor and I have to try to go back up.

A few things here. The Tower won me over from the moment it announced itself via friend Edge’s dep-ed as a tower climbing game. It’s something I never tire of in games. Crackdown, Arkham, I love a good tower. But I love this tower all the more because of its big pixels and rich Pico-8 colors – those grim magentas and neon greens – and the glitchy presentation that sees the colors themselves stung and strobe as the ghostly sweeplines rise and fall, which sees figures and objects suddenly appear and then disappear again.


It reminds me very strongly of games like Jet Set Willy, the PC classic in which you set off in a top hat and hungover to explore a very strange house. I love this game for its sense of mystery – a sense that there’s meaning here, meaning that would enrich my life, but it’s still just out of reach. I haven’t spoken to anyone in Jet Set Willy but have spent hours exploring its halls and rooms. I can talk to people in The Tower, but I don’t always learn much. Instead, it’s always: what’s next? And how does it all fit together? A floor is a cave. Another is a library, or a dining room, or an attic, with unmistakable pixel-art floors. Or a farm. Or a forest.

There’s a wonderful, energizing finesse to the staging, I think, almost like you’re walking through an elementary school prop room containing backstage sets from generations of school plays, and they’re all mixed together in a weird way. There’s also something so smart about it all. In the middle of the game, when it starts to become a real challenge to progress higher each time, because the number of floors is already quite high, I start to meet people in the tower who have forgotten how and why they started to climb. At this point, of course, I’ve been back and forth so much myself – from the 52nd floor to the 47th, all the way to the 58th – that I lose my memories of the early stages of the journey as well! It’s harmony!

Speaking of harmony, while playing The Tower, I read a bit about Bing and its new AI. I read an article in The Verge about how undeniably smart people keep falling into the trapthinking that a chatbot that actually functions as a form of autocomplete – I didn’t realize that – is, if not sentient, well, something pretty special and scary anyway.



The Verge coin traces this phenomenon back to the 1960s and ELIZA, an early chatbot that could only repeat common phrases but still managed to convince users that they had glimpsed something more moving within the machine.

Of course, I tell myself, I would never fall for that. Not now that I’ve read this article in The Verge, anyway, and can pitch his ideas as mine in conversation and in articles like this. And yet, as I return to my day smugly, I play The Tower and, without realizing it, I begin to obsess over the dice rolls that move me between each floor. Random numbers. I’m starting to see patterns in them. If I get too many high numbers, I quit for a bit, as I imagine the system will try to stop me having fun. If I get too many low numbers, I keep playing, because The System – which has now gained capital letters – is working behind the scenes, keeping me in the cat’s cradle of its cruel logic, and ready for some easy wins. .

It goes further. I’m starting to see patterns in the dance of the numbers themselves – 87 to 45 looks pretty good to me! 7 following a rare 100 seems to speak to me somehow. And beyond the numbers too? Sound often has issues in The Tower, as do colors and art. And I began to see a dark meaning in it. If the sound of the text that appears on the screen is high-pitched and clear like a machine gun, it means that the number will be high, that I somehow meet the requirements of the Tower. If it’s muffled and quiet, I’ll take a low number and go back the way I came.

In other words, the more I play, the more I see an imaginary world of order around these dice rolls. And all because I want to reach the top of the tower.

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