Mathilde Huron recently used [fingers] on [keyboard] to unlock [article on Technobabylon]. She now has access to the rest of her life. The game was so refreshingly good that we decided to contact James Dearden (creator of Technocrat Games and Technobabylon) to ask him questions about cyborgs, getting super high on virtual reality, and dining on human flesh.
The Existential Gamer: Technology is complex, overwhelming, and now irrevocably embedded into our daily lives. What is the role of science fiction in this increasingly-hard-to-grasp era?
James Dearden: At its most basic, even in its beginnings, the role of science fiction has been, consciously or otherwise, to provide society with a reflection of itself. By altering an element of the status quo or introducing something new, science fiction allows us to speculate about how people will respond to future societal and technological developments. In many cases, especially with the classics like Philip K. Dick, it serves as a warning that we run the risk of losing or diluting our humanity. Personally, I’m more of an optimist—I like the idea of showing what is possible to humanity by focusing on our potential. I don’t think change is something we ought to fear, since we’re always changing.
TEG: Is handing over the administration of major urban center to an artificial intelligence an innovation or a form of “giving up” on humanity’s part?
JD: In a sense, any kind of technological innovation is “giving up” in some field, though it’s usually a hardship that we leave behind. The washing machine’s invention meant that we could give up spending three hours a day banging clothes against a washboard, for example. There’s arguably a difference when it comes to handing over power to an AI, though—it’s something that’s never been tried before on such a scale. I believe our main concern would stem from our fear of the unknown, but if the AI were allowed to simply carry out its work in the background as society continued to operate normally, people probably wouldn’t even notice the change. On the other hand, as human communities have grown, we’ve always handed control to a specialised organisation: the government, elected or otherwise. Historically, their responsibility has been to run our cities and nations, and they have done so with varying degrees of success. Giving control to a competent AI would, in my opinion, be an improvement on this—it would not be susceptible to the same flaws so many human rulers often are.
TEG: Merriam-Webster defines a “cyborg” as “a person whose body contains mechanical or electrical devices and whose abilities are greater than the abilities of normal human.” Smartphones have essentially become an integral part of the human body, and they effectively augment our cognitive abilities and capacity to navigate the world (among other things). Are we now cyborgs?
JD: I think that we’re getting to the stage where people would be a lot more comfortable with the idea of truly becoming cyborgs when that technology becomes available. This is thanks to the ubiquity of the electronic tools you’ve mentioned. I don’t think we’ve quite crossed that threshold yet. Until these technologies interact seamlessly with our own bodies, we can’t really be “cyborgs”. Right now, we have a degree of separation: we all require the conscious usage of our external manipulation organs (i.e. hands) to make the technologies work. Otherwise, I think arguments could be made that we’ve been cyborgs since tools and spectacles came into being.
TEG: What attracted you to the “point-and-click” adventure format? Did you grow up playing LucasArts classics? What does the genre’s structure bring to the table?
JD: When my family acquired our first computer, the first game we played was Doom. The second, Fate of Atlantis. I still play both, but FoA showed me the depth of storytelling games were capable of—even at 320×200 resolution with MIDI music and very compressed audio. In most other kinds of games, the narrative works in service of the rest of the activity; it acts as flavour or colouring, giving a reason for why the player is slaying/building/exploring their way through the environment. In an adventure, the primary aspect is the story itself, and all other things work to support it. There are players for whom the story of a game is what they’re most interested in, and adventure games hit that spot.
TEG: The game has an indisputable cinematic quality—the dialogue, atmosphere, and narrative rhythm often feel like a movie. What are some of your favorite science fiction films, and did they inspire you to make Technobabylon?
JD: Blade Runner and Minority Report are two of my favourites, both of which are great at showing society operating “in the background”, completely independently of the protagonist’s story. Their styles also say a great deal about their individual era’s vision of the future—from “pollution-wracked urban crowds” in Blade Runner to “glass and holograms” in Minority Report. It’s not just movies though—anime’s a big influence as well, especially Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass. Since they’ve got a lot more playtime than a single movie, they’ve a lot more opportunity to explore science fiction concepts more explicitly.
TEG: Would you ever consider making a movie, or adapting one of your games to the movie format?
JD: Technobabylon: The Movie is my current “unrealistic best-case scenario”. Considering that “get game published on Steam with Wadjet Eye” was my last unrealistic best-case, I’m always optimistic! I personally think it’d be better served by a series, though.
TEG: In the game, people shoot up with deadly diseases and virtually re-live nuclear disasters—all for the thrill. If you had access to this level of technology, what would be the strange thrills you’d like to experience?
JD: People already are, in a sense—the old Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games allowed people to “enjoy” taking part in the Normandy landings of the Second World War. Personally, I think I’d enjoy taking a look at the world before animal life came into being.
TEG: I saw on Twitter that you’ve been experimenting with 3d graphics. What are the pro’s and con’s of moving away from 2d and pixel art, and how do these formats interact with your personal aesthetic tastes?
JD: 3D art is kind of where I started with games, many years ago, building levels for Half Life in Worldcraft/Hammer. I think finally I’m in kind of a position where I understand what makes a game work with 3D, and I know the right kind of people to fill the gaps left by areas that I’m not quite competent at yet (much like with 2D). I think a lot of people like pixel art because it evokes their own early play-history, and I’ve got a lot of good memories of the early days of 3D. This was the time of Deus Ex, Half Life and Quake, and I think it could work as an indie style today.
TEG: How much research was done to support the science fiction in the game, particularly the scenes in the laboratory and all of the terminology surrounding genetics and artificial intelligence?
JD: I like to be as scientifically rigorous as possible, though I’m certainly willing to make compromises for the sake of a decent story. Genetics is something that’s always held a lot of interest for me, so I read up in New Scientist on the topic quite a bit, but the artificial intelligence aspects of Technobabylon came more from a philosophical point of view than a rigorous knowledge of engineering. In terms of what can be accomplished with technology, I was probably talking out of my backside, my primary intention being to to create a story that would make players think about the implications of the topic.
TEG: If you, James Dearden, were a citizen of Newton, what would your day-to-day be like? What kind of a person would you be?
JD: Honestly, I’d probably be hanging around in my state-provided apartment all day, hooked into the virtual world of the Trance. I can wholly sympathise with the kind of people who’d find more to do within it.
TEG: The concept of virtual reality, or “Trance”, is central to Technobabylon‘s universe. How far off are we from this? Will we remember 2015 and 2016 (the introduction of the Oculus Rift et al.) as the beginning of a new world?
JD: There’ve already been a few conscious attempts at it with things like Second Life and a number of MMO games. I think it’ll continue to be a gradual transition before we end up with a virtual reality subsuming the functions of the internet. Oculus et al. are an impressive change in perspective for interactivity, but I think it’ll have to be either a great deal more rewarding for the average user, or easier to get into before it starts to change the way we experience the net at large.
TEG: In your opinion, how is the global increase in disparity of wealth going to interact with technological advances in the next few decades?
JD: In a way, the difference in wealth causes peculiar leapfrogs in technology in developing nations. In Africa, many people who have never had access to a computer or landline telephone have managed to jump straight to smartphones, since mobiles were an easier technology to get started with (both for the individual and the infrastructure). I suspect that we’re going to see more incremental changes in developed countries, with similar jumps as other nations opt for what they can/need to use.
TEG: Do you think the world is going to end? When and how? (Has it already?)
JD: Everything will end eventually, thanks to our old pal entropy, when the Universe runs out of energy. Personally, I’m an optimist about the ability for life (and humans) to work through obstacles.
TEG: One of the haute cuisine trends in Newton is eating human flesh. If forced, which part of the human body would you eat and why?
JD: Leg (lots of muscle and fat), minced as a bolognese or burger. I get squicky with eating things that remind me they were once alive, so I don’t care for bones or crustaceans. Cloned human meat doesn’t bother me just because it came from people—as long as it’s prepared deliciously.