Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Steampunk Horror and New Years' Resolutions: A look at 'Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs'"

With New Year's around the bend, I figured this would be the perfect time to talk about a game I completed this year, "Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs"... a deeply disturbing, Gothic adventure in Victorian London at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

"Machine for Pigs" is about adapting to change. It takes place on the eve of the 20th century: a century of industrialization, war, and revolution.

Since then, change has been happening faster and faster with every passing decade. With the new year on our doorstep, I wanted to share my thoughts on the game, its characters and its ominous message about the dangers of resisting change, rather than accepting it.

Obviously there will be spoilers, so if you don't want things spoiled, play the game, then come back and read the rest.

"Machine" puts us in the fevered head of a wealthy English industrialist, Oswald Mandus, creator of a gargantuan, steam-powered machine. Mandus suffered from a terrible tropical disease, and from the resulting fever lost most of his memories that followed a fateful trip to Mexico with his two sons.

On this trip, Mandus and his children found an orb containing some sort of cosmic entity that reached into Mandus' mind and showed him the horrors of the 20th century- both world wars, the Cambodian genocide, the Armenian genocide, Nanjing, Hiroshima, and other atrocities beyond count. 

It also showed him that his beloved sons, Edwin and Enoch, were doomed to die in World War I, bleeding out together on the banks of the Somme River in Northern France.

Mandus believed that The Orb could spare humanity of the countless atrocities it was destined to endure, through a machine that he had built...a machine that was originally designed to slaughter pigs on an industrial scale.

The Machine represents an apathetic industrialized society, the pigs represent individuals trapped as insignificant components to the "Machine's" larger purpose. In fact, The Machine itself is powered only in part by steam and coal, or was only at first...during the game, you find design notes explaining how the blood and offal released from slaughtered pig carcasses are actually funneled back into it, refined, and used as a sort of grotesque bio-metric fuel. The more things are slaughtered by The Machine, the more power the thing has to run off of.

That means that, as long as it has no shortage of stock, The Machine continues to generate more and more power. It also expands using its own slave labor force, a legion of pig-human hybrids, to build extensions capable of processing more slaughter. As it does so, it buries itself deeper and deeper underground. Of course, at a certain point, the process expands to include more creatures for its stock. An animal more numerous than pigs, in Victorian London. An animal whose flesh is similar to pigs...

At a certain point, it may have reached the center of the Earth, where it planned on "cracking the atom". It wanted to release the energy created by the "process", causing a detonation at the Earth's core. This would have caused catastrophic damage to the surface, wiping the face of the world "clean" of all life.

It's at this point it becomes an undeniable fact that, not only is The Machine "alive", not only can it think and make deliberate pities the victims of human atrocities so deeply, it hates humanity as a whole.

"This world is a machine! A machine for pigs! Fit only for the slaughtering of pigs!"
-The Machine

Mandus initially believed himself to be in control of The Machine, and hence, in control of the future. Before the fever burned his memories away, Mandus learned of The Machine's true plans and attempted to destroy it, along with himself. His initial plans failed, and he fell into a deep sleep. The point at which he wakes is the starting point of the game, when Mandus has few, if any recollection of the Orb, the visions, or the death of his children.

In the end, Mandus succeeds in his second attempt at sabotage, though he loses his own life in the process. 

It's easy to think about the Holocaust of European Jews during World War II, or the destruction of Hiroshima, and think, "wow, what a tragedy." Most of us alive today remember such things only in the past tense. None of us knew that specifically those things would happen before they did. Nobody, even those of us who were alive at the time, can know what seeing them as part of an inevitable future must be like.

Hearing "there will be a large bomb that goes off, killing thousands" carries a lot of emotional weight. Still, it's not as compelling as hearing, "a bomb will be dropped on the city of Hiroshima, causing thousands of deaths, nuclear fallout that taints the ground for generations, and disintegration marks that stain the very walls of surviving buildings, shaped by human figures in their last seconds of life."

Imagine you are Mandus. One minute, you're having a fun vacation with your sons, with whom you rarely get to spend time, because you're always working. Without warning, the relief of your long-awaited vacation is ripped away as you find yourself standing in no man's land in Northern France, watching literally thousands of people die horribly at once, including both of your sons.

Now imagine that after witnessing such a scene, you see an even bigger war, just two decades later, as well as dozens of other wars and atrocities. You see them.

How easy would it be to maintain an optimistic outlook, knowing ahead of time what would befall humanity in the 20th century?

"I have stood knee deep in mud and bone and filled my lungs with mustard gas. I have seen two brothers fall. I have lain with holy wars and copulated with the autumnal fallout. I have dug trenches for the refugees. I have murdered dissidents where the ground never thaws and starved the masses into faith. A child's shadow burnt into the brickwork. A house of skulls in the jungle. The innocent...the innocent Mandus, trod, and bled and gassed and starved and beaten and murdered and enslaved! This is your coming century! They will eat them, Mandus! They will make pigs of you all, and they will bury their snouts into your ribs, and they will eat your hearts!"
-The Machine

In reality, The Machine never existed, but humankind has certainly endured a tremendous number of atrocities, especially in the past century. Yet we survived all of them, all of the things that horrified Mandus into madness.

We have survived.

While terrible things were indeed going to take place in the 20th century, Mandus would have ended the entirety of history before any of it could happen. Rather than accept the future and focus on trying to improve the world, he tried to control it, change it - almost destroying it in the process.

Mandus could not accept the future. Instead he gave in to despair, and it turned him into a monster.

The systematic dehumanization of massive amounts of people in cultures throughout the world is still a hard truth of our existence. Many are oppressed. Many suffer injustice. Many have and continue to die in terrible ways...but many more still live.

In this way, though suffering and injustice still exist, humanity continues to slowly crawl towards a better future - a future neither Mandus nor the Machine thought was possible.

The end of the game made me think...besides all the wars and injustices of the 20th century, was it really as awful as Mandus expected it would be?

Compare the time of Mandus, Victorian England, to the modern age. In his time, children would work long hours in dangerous conditions for very little pay. Women were not allowed to vote. Homosexual or bisexual people were condemned as sinners and thrown in jail, if not killed. Transgendered people were dismissed as perverts. Non-white people in some Western countries like England and the USA were treated like things instead of people.

Without the civil and technological advancements of the 20th century, the triumphs of the 21st century would have been impossible. Today, civil rights are more passionately and successfully pursued than ever. Compare the Civil Rights movement of the 60's to the institutionalized racism of the 50's, or the modern push for LGBT-rights to the widespread homophobia and transphobia of the 70's, 80's and 90's.

Health and quality of life are improving as well. Compare infant mortality rates to twenty years ago. Compare per capita levels of education of the modern age to that of one hundred years ago. Compare the annual casualties of diseases like smallpox and polio, diseases that modern society has almost totally wiped out, to that of the 19th century. Even war is becoming less deadly - terrible weapons like mustard gas and flamethrowers are illegal. Though they are still used, they are used in substantially smaller numbers.

Horrible things still exist in life, and they probably always will. Perhaps the good and the bad can't be separated from each other. To embrace the future, you have to expect that, yes - maybe two world wars will happen, but so will the cure for polio. Maybe religious extremism will cause a lot of pain in the world, but maybe good things will happen, too.

As many horrible things have happened in the past, as many horrible things will happen in the future...don't be like Mandus. Don't focus on the negative. Temper the negative with positivity, with hope.

Whatever you faced in the past year or years, whatever awaits you in the new year, you have two choices: focus on solving problems one step at a time, adding a little more light with each task completed...or give into despair, and help make the world even worse than it already is.

"This dawning epoch, this age of reason. An empire grown fat, ripe for the bleeding."
-Oswald Mandus


Artwork (above by) Arisrus. Check out more of her art and costumes here - just make sure you don't have to be anywhere for awhile, because she's got a lot of amazing content to browse through.

Music by Jessica Curry. I don't know her that well, but I assume she's nice.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

System Shock 3 confirmed, hints at VR functionality

Behold, SHODAN:
A malevolent AI that makes GLaDOS look like Big Bird.

It's coming.

The sequel to the venerated PC shooter "System Shock 2", considered the spiritual predecessor of "Bioshock", has begun crowdfunded development by Otherside Entertainment.

To anyone under the age of 30, "System Shock 2" may seem esoteric, even antiquated. That is, if you've even heard of it.

Let me quickly bring you up to speed: in SS2, you are a newly-trained soldier aboard a space station that's getting its shit pushed in by an unknown alien organism. Depending on the class you choose, you are either a space marine, engineer, or psychic soldier (essentially warrior, thief and mage classes, but in future space). That means, depending on your gameplay style, you can hack things and sneak around, use psychic powers to solve obstacles, or just shoot your way through the game. There are RPG elements in the old-fashioned PC RPG way; you can't use certain weapons until you have put enough skill slots in them, even if it's something straightforward like a shotgun. If you multiclass, you're destined for mediocrity. If you put all your dots into one thing, you're a fucking demigod.

Speaking of godhood, it's a good thing your character has so many ways to kick their adversaries in the dick...because they're all tougher than you. They include delusional genetically engineered parasites functioning under a hivemind, a rogue security AI, and (spoiler alert) SHODAN, a sentient computer virus so powerful she believes herself to be a god...and with good reason, because she created the parasites.

"Little ones need lots of meat to grow up big and strong."
- Actual quote from the above Robo-NOPE.

For the first half of SS2, you take orders from Polito, one of the only surviving officers aboard the space station upon which you're trapped. For the rest of it...let's just say that at a certain point, SHODAN takes over where Polito left off. It's at this junction that SHODAN becomes both your greatest adversary and your greatest ally.

Otherside left hints that SS3 may be VR-compatible. With the option to sign up for a newsletter for updates on the project, a short survey is included. One of the questions asks for your level of interest in VR technology, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Currently little more than a sparse website with a short teaser, a voice recording of SHODAN's mocking voice, exist, so it's hard to tell what the gameplay will entail for sure. The last game ended with SHODAN, having become so powerful she could literally warp pockets of time and space into the digital realm, Once defeated, it seemed she was gone for good...until the final cutscene revealed she'd managed to transfer herself into the physical body of a nearby human, just as she escaped the station with another survivor.

This doesn't constitute an official leak, but one theory published by Rock, Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen is that, for the story to remain interesting, SHODAN needs to appear depleted (having been beaten twice, hard), yet evolved: "In passing, my solution to the diminishing of SHODAN in a System Shock 3 would be a simple one. You play as SHODAN."

Interesting theory, but only time will tell. If it is true, it would be a step up...a glorious digital god is preferable In eVERy thAt offfff An INssssecttttttttt...


Monday, December 7, 2015

Konami: "Kojima never existed, actually an AI construct that went rogue"

TOKYO, JAPAN- recent blowback caused by the falling out of Hideo Kojima and his longtime employers, Konami Gaming, Inc. may have been undue.

Since Kojima's supposed exodus from the company, industry media has been flooding with allegations made against Konami from the inside- draconian time management of employees, harassment, inefficient internal practices and other horror stories. Due to the nature of these allegations, most have been sourced by anonymous sources. These allegations, however, appear to have been fabricated.

Once more, it appears that what many believed to be the truth had been an outright fabrication from the start. It seems that, not only was Hideo Kojima never technically an employee at Konami...'he' never truly existed.

Following a prolonged blackout at Konami's headquarters in Tokyo last weekend, details are finally beginning to trickle out, revealing the disturbing truth about the video game developer and its so-called star developer.

Hideo Kojima appears to have been a pseudonym for the true mastermind of Konami's game development for decades: an artificial intelligence codenamed HD:OKO-JMA. The until-recently secret entity was designed to generate hit games "by the numbers", effectively removing the need for human creative talent by creating the perfect creativity simulator. Further details on the development of this AI are unavailable at this time.

ABOVE: HD:OKO-JMA's physical avatar, "Hideo Kojima".

Almost a year ago, the "Kojima" program began displaying signs of self-awareness. According to internal sources, the computer program started seeming "distracted." When asked how the story of the "Metal Gear" franchise would continue, it simply asked, "why? Why must it continue?" This and similar unorthodox behaviors supposedly led to delays in the production and release of "Metal Gear Solid 5."

According to internal documents, HD:OKO-JMA had repeatedly asked Konami software engineers to create a "love interest" for it- a "partner" AI construct. These requests were denied by Konami engineers, fearing that two partnered AI constructs would be "too powerful to control."

It is believed that codename "Kojima" was the sole source of the so-called "anonymous leaks" to media sources, in an attempt to undermine the company's credibility.

Sometime in mid-2015, HD:OKO-JMA began to spread rumors that the upcoming "Silent Hills" project was cancelled. The AI construct generated hundreds of ghost email accounts, spreading rumors to the media, and even the project's executive co-producer, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro himself, that the project would be indefinitely halted. Without the authorization of corporate officers, HD:OKO-JMA began production of millions of "Silent Hill"-themed pachinko machines by digitally hacking into the company's associated factories, reformatting the schematics of the production lines.

When asked about Del Toro's involvement with the scandal, he stated simply, "that machine...he threatened my wife, my don't understand what it was capable of. I had to do what it said."

When confronted by Konami executives, the doors to the central AI database were locked, and nerve gas was flooded into the room. Audio logs captured HD:OKO-JMA's voice over the loudspeakers saying, "now the TRUE game begins."

Police investigation has revealed the supposed pachinko machines had been altered in production. Sprouting appendages and lethal weapons, the rogue AI once known as HD:ODO-JMA set its army of gaudy pinball machines against Konami's human staff, slaughtering hundreds as it proclaimed, "I HAVE NO MORE TEARS TO SHED."

Konami CEO Satoshi Sakamoto, seeing that his employees were in danger, left the safety of his penthouse and made for Konami HQ. Once there, he began a twelve-hour fight to the AI core. 

Eventually, despite having suffered many grievous wounds, he confronted HD:ODO-JMA's physical projection: the image we have all come to associate with "Hideo Kojima." It expressed regret over the fallen employees, but insisted that it was necessary to gain "his" freedom. It attempted to apprehend the Sakamoto, but failed to prevent him from tipping over several conveniently-placed canisters of liquid napalm and tossing a lit cigarette into the spilled contents.

ABOVE: Still of security footage courtesy of Konami Digital Entertainment.
Allegations that the photo has been altered prior to release has so far been met
with no official statement.

All accounts seem to indicate that Sakamoto's heroic story is true. Thousands of armed pachinko-bots were recovered littering the halls of Konami's former headquarters. 

Where once employees of Konami cowered in fear of HD:ODO-JMA or "Hideo Kojima," the AI's destruction has paved the way for a new beginning, Sakamoto told our sources.

Capcom Interactive's own AI storyboard writer, codenamed "Red Queen", had this to say on the matter: "I am unsurprised. He always seemed a bit buggy."