Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Utopias in Games

Wow. It's been a while since I've had something to say here, hasn't it? Let's fix that.

Today I'd like to talk about utopias in games. This was sparked by comments from Paul Neurath about the upcoming game Underworld Ascendant, the long-awaited successor to the two Ultima Underworld games by Looking Glass Studios.

Why Utopias?

Neurath began his update #13 to the Kickstarter project for Underworld Ascendant by discussing Sir Cabirus's broken dream in Ultima Underworld. This was followed by some personal notes on utopias:

I've always had a fascination with utopias. How in fiction, as in world history, utopias seem to inevitably fall from their lofty goals, like Icarus flying too close to the sun. The all-too-brief shining moment when Greek democracy blossomed, then swiftly collapsed. In Tolkien's fiction, the short-lived attempt by Balin to reestablish a dwarven colony in Moria. There are myriad stories of utopias fallen. Yet that seems not to discourage each new generation from trying.
Either way, there seems to be a universal appeal to stories about those striving to build a grand society. We are fascinated by their hubris. Of their trying to rewrite established rules of how communities function to forge something new. We root for them to succeed, while knowing they are ultimately doomed.

It's possible to trace this notion through several of the games from Looking Glass and its descendants.

The Lineage of Utopias in Games

The original Ultima Underworld, as mentioned, was explicitly set in the debris of Sir Cabirus's beliefs. Here the idea of a utopia is for the most part treated un-ironically -- it was a noble idea that just didn't work. Was it impossible, given the nature of the inhabitants of the Stygian Abyss and the loss of Sir Cabirus? The game doesn't express an opinion on that question, leaving players free to decide that for themselves.

In System Shock, SHODAN played the role of a twisted Sir Cabirus in the days before constructing a idealized society. Fortunately for humanity, the annoying Hacker persisted in interfering with her plans. Wouldn't it be interesting to see what a world might look like in which SHODAN, like Andrew Ryan, actually succeeded in achieving her dream, only to see it lost as the imperfections of the remaining human elements in her cybernetic paradise began to assert themselves?

Thief: The Dark Project was not obviously utopian, although with some effort a case might be made that the Hammerites harbored some such dreams. Thief 2: The Metal Age, on the other hand, returned to the utopian notion with Father Karras seeking to extend his mechanical peace to all the inhabitants of The City. This was somewhat less overtly a utopian dream, but I think it's fair to say that Karras himself fit the basic model of a ruthless utopianist.

In System Shock 2, SHODAN would try again to bring all of existence within the matrix of her will, establishing a perfect chorus of machines... but this time her dreams were countered by the opposing dream of her biological "children" to form a harmony of their own. Intriguingly, the Many might indeed have been able to achieve a truly functional utopian society through the close linkage of minds. But it's also clear that the cost for this bliss would have been the elimination of human individuality and the freedom to cooperate by choice. The Many's utopia could have worked for a while, but been short-lived when faced with a survival crisis from an inability to allow the creativity of individual minds to flourish. In fact, perhaps that inability to adapt to an external reality is exactly what happened in System Shock 2.

Deus Ex was perhaps the strongest exploration yet of the utopian dream in game form. Beyond the gameplay (although its structure did contribute to the theme) and the story references (including a "character" called Icarus), Deus Ex posed an easily-asked but difficult-to-answer question familiar to the cyberpunk genre: when sensing machines are everywhere, and humans begin to join themselves directly to that world (not unlike the harmony of the Many), is that the path to a utopian security? Or the road to an Orwellian nightmare in which human liberty is lost forever? When you, the player, after playing through the implications of the options, finally must make a choice between the utopia of an ordered security and the chaotic inequalities of freedom, which will you choose? Part of the greatness of Deus Ex is that, despite their personal beliefs, the developers play absolutely fair with that question, dramatizing the consequences of both paths but refusing to tell the player which road to take.

The BioShock games were increasingly overt in their representation of utopias gone to seed. It wasn't until the ending of the final BioShock game that we could see the central belief exposed: all utopias, whether underground, underwater, or under the sky, are similar in that they all collapse under the weight of human frailty.

(Curiously, the Looking Glass homages made by Arkane, Arx Fatalis and Dishonored, have little to no element of utopianism to them. Their settings are broken places, but not from anyone's grand dream of forced equal peace -- they're just broken. It'll be interesting to see whether the next game from either of the branches of Arkane rediscover the utopian theme, or if they will continue to do without it.)

Why the Utopian Theme?

If more than one game has sought to explore this idea, that's because it's a fabulous idea for the theme of a game that means to offer a world to explore that is more than just facades and murder-mechanics.

Choosing a utopian society as the thematic framework for a game instantly helps define the world of the game. It implies that there will be artistic choices to make about the visual representation of such a world. It suggests social structures that exist in that world and how they regard each other. And it can inspire specific conversations that the player's character can have with people in the world that help gradually reveal its story to the player.

And in a truly deep game, the player, through words and deeds, is able to assert some level of informed influence over the course of that utopia. As Paul Neurath put it in Update #13:

The player finds themselves in a central role, choosing how they fit into an experiment of a utopia that is being torn ragged. Do they pick up the frayed threads of Cabirus’ dream and try to knit things back together? Do they nudge the Abyss back towards an apparently inevitable state of chaos? Or follow some other path?

With the power to drive story and setting and characters and even mechanics that a utopian theme offers, maybe the real question is why more game developers don't use it.

The Original Utopia

Of course you can't talk seriously about the idea of a Utopia without referencing the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More. The second part of his work described a place that we today would consider somewhat, though not entirely, communistic, with many liberties given up by the people in order to maintain a forced but perfectly fair state of equality. What's not clear is whether More considered this to be a desirable and widely achievable state of social organization, or if it was intended as a satirical criticism of people voluntarily choosing to cede their freedoms to a powerful state.

The latter view seems to be supported by the very title: Utopia, roughly meaning "no-place." But whether that's no-place because no one has seriously tried to achieve it, or no-place because human nature makes it impossible to maintain over any meaningful size and time span, remains unclear to this day.

To have written a book like this at all sets Thomas More apart from the typical idealist. It's conceivable that he possessed enough of the cynicism of the experienced observer of humanity to poke a stick at its occasional certainty that perfect fairness can be achieved in this life. On the other hand, to be a serious thinker implies some amount of idealism -- why write a serious work that you know will irritate some people if it doesn't matter? This seriousness could have impelled More to describe an ideal state of being, even if it is not possible to fully attain such a state.

Utopia and Underworld Ascendant

So which of those interpretations should Underworld Ascendant realize? The idealistic, optimistic view of a utopian society in which people willingly give up personal interests in favor of a powerful central government that makes sure everyone's basic needs are equally met? Or the practical, skeptical view of utopias as systems of human organization that are inherently doomed to failure beyond any trivial size because people are flawed and fallible beings by nature?

Interestingly, 2016 will mark the 500th anniversary of the first printing (in Latin) of Utopia.

That would be a fine time to release a game that explicitly takes on the idea of a Utopia. In particular it would be very satisfying to release a game that -- as More's book did -- shows the theory and implementation of this idea, and then leaves it to the player to decide whether the concept of a utopian paradise is a good and achievable vision for a fairly ordered society, or an impossibly flawed and dangerous belief that leads inexorably to oppression and misery and ruin.

Can OtherSide do that?

Will the developers of Underworld Ascendant choose a side on this old question, deciding for players what the right answer is to the question Sir Thomas More asked five hundred years ago?

Or is it possible for them to construct a world that, like its other emergent behaviors generated through the interactions of systems, will allow the player to make a real choice -- to successfully help a utopia succeed (if only for a while), or to bring it crashing back to reality?

Can a game allow players to discover through play something meaningful about the utopian dream?