Tuesday 25 January 2011

Inifinite Ocean: A Philosophical Critique - Part 2

This is part 2 of a discussion of Infinite Ocean, Jonas Kyratzes' philosophical sci-fi adventure. Part 1 here.

AI Development
The poetry discussed in part 1 comes to play a startlingly effective role as the player catches up with the AI's development (or growing maturity).
Like a human rising above pure instinct, [SGDS] rises above its programming, above its body, becomes MORE.
The author's realisation of this process is transfixing: this is great, thoughtful and thought provoking science fiction in the Asimov mode that so obviously inspired this work.
SGDS: If I limited my systems in the same way you limit your minds I'd be a calculator.
Jerry: That was a joke, wasn't it? How awesome is that?
It's with the gradual shift towards and eventual spotlighting of morality that the game truly declares itself as an anti-war piece, and shifts onto (IMO) less steady ground. The clues were there from the beginning:
Words on the wall: You fight for nothing.
Player: The moral value of a cause is not determined solely by its chance of success.
That's looks suspiciously like a moral assumption to me. As we move towards the climax, SGDS inevitably develops a code of ethics and turns against its programming:
Though it was made to kill, it has come to the conclusion that to kill is wrong.
Traditionally there have been great problems with theorising from where a code of ethics should be produced. God used to be the catch all answer, but in his absence we've been scraping the barrel a little. It's generally held that an action can't be moral if there's personal gain to be had, which really leaves pure logic as the only option - as SGDS reasonably concludes:
Our ethics must be based on our thoughts, for everything else may be but a dream.
Unfortunately a big problem with logic is that it's usually held that it can't - alone - be motivational. The AI continues its argument:
[Killing is] destructive for the human species, and consequently for the individual as well. 
Now we're venturing dangerously close to utilitarianism. A great many people have tried to demonstrate that the greatest good for the greatest number is a logical end, and therefore a moral necessity, but it rarely ends well. If we were being generous we could interpret SGDS' position as being closer to David Hume's original emotivist picture - that there is no logical or moral inconsistency with preferring the destruction of the world to the pricking of one's finger - but that too is thrown out:

The argument expressed in the image above is, as I see it, a systematic error: Kyratzes (or SGDS) is falling into the trap he's already identified, that:
Most humans, despite the fact that they make so much of morality[...] simply adapt to what those around them believe.
SGDS has already accepted that ethics must be based in thought; that values are something we create unique to ourselves, something that defines us as different to those around us. But if it is morality that makes us unique, then morality cannot be based solely on logic because logic is objective and therefore all our moralities would be identical. What makes us unique is our differing abilities to feel emotion. What makes one person a comedian, another a serial killer and another a philosopher is what drives us to act.

Moral values, in short, are subjective. They are not some authoritative set of rules; they are little more than personal preference. And if such is true then the destruction of the subject also implies the destruction of the values. The greater good is not desirable if it means the sacrifice of the subject in question.

The rest of the story is history. SGDS continues with this - I believe - false premise, and the game goes on to make some eloquent observations on the futility of war that to my mind stand up for themselves without the need for any moral mumbo jumbo. The use of the Wilfred Owen (a British WW1 poet) poetry is particularly effective as both an anti religion and anti war sentiment: Owen describes and condemns war first hand as an inconceivable terror, just as SGDS - through its superior imagination - does the same.

The final words of the game - a Latin text quoted as part of another Owen poem - translate to:
How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country.
It's intended as criticism: that patriotism and war are meaningless and horrendous. It's fair comment, but for me it's a double edged sword: by SGDS' own logic it seems just as irrational that he/she/it is willing to die for the sake of the world.

Still, as SGDS quite rightly observes, better to make our own mistakes than to follow someone else's:

The Future
Morality aside, I'm fully onboard with Infinite Ocean's perspective.
This creature has understood by pure logic: that love is the only thing which is truly important.
If I were nitpicking I'd question how love as an experience can be understood through logic - in the same way you can't explain the colour red, you just have to see it - but the sentiment is beautifully presented and fundamentally profound.

The title itself is not without weight, and it's that every element of this experience slots into place and makes sense that sets this experience apart from its overly obtuse brethren. Halfway through the game you come across a picture of the 'infinite ocean' (this post's header image), accompanied by this comment:
May your thoughts ever be as free and limitless as the infinite ocean.
Next to the picture is Eaves' artificial intelligence book. It's clear that for the author SGDS' pure logic represents a kind of ideal. This lifeform - even in its theoretical form as considered outside of the game experience - sees the beauty and the pain in the world, and their sources, and takes as its primary goal to think for itself; to never allow the dogmas imposed upon it by its creators to govern its actions and screw up the world. To break free of its programming just as Infinite Ocean itself encourages its audience to do the same. As Blake puts it:
The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
Life & The Last Puzzle
The only other question is what the hell is going on? Given the depth of the creativity and thought on show here it's easy to forget there probably ought to be a story. If I had to take a guess I'd say you were playing as Eaves, post-evacuation, the last ditch attempt by the scientists to return control of the weapons platform to SGDS; but it's already too late. Although I can't say I'm 100% happy with that interpretation because the ending seems to imply hope, that the great fire can still be prevented. So sod only knows. I'm sure the clues are there somewhere.

I had a pretty involved conversation on the subject of artificial lifeforms with a mate of mine who's a bit of a talent in the Oxford University Physics department. What I find most fascinating is the blurring of the boundaries. While Jerry in Infinite Ocean assumes a being must have a soul in order to be alive, Kyratzes (as far as I can tell) and I conclude the soul is a myth; that the line between sentience and inanimacy is an arbitrary one drawn in the complexity of electronic (or otherwise) signals. It's almost a bit postmodern: the naysayers ask whether an AI is simply simulating the appearance of sentience based on a set of rules; I ask how you'd argue that human beings aren't doing the same. If there is no such thing as a soul, then there is no difference between a thing and a person, beyond that question of complexity. We can point to an attribute and say "That means it's alive," but we're just labelling, applying a false human value to make the world less confusing.

It's difficult to form a strong emotional attachment to a calculator, but empathising with a computer of human-like complexity seems altogether realistic. Infinite Ocean's scientists would seem to argue that if you can care about a program, if its termination can make you despair, if you can even fall in love... then what the hell does it matter whether it's got a soul or not?

Monday 17 January 2011

Thoughts on the Plot is Gameplay's Bitch Redisign?

Yeah, that's it really. I'm still bummed out I started this thing in blogger rather than wordpress, and more bummed out that the old template I was using didn't support increased page width meaning all these wordy posts I turn out were looking even wordier.

Is black really slimming? Or does it make you sad inside? Please let me know, because I'm rubbish at visual design.

Thanks for reading, here's a simply lovely video review for your trouble (you won't regret the click).

Inspiration For Performance: The New Guide for Theme Hospital

I've decided my creative focus outside of my career this year is going to be on performance writing. That could mean almost anything, but I'm talking specifically about producing spoken word stuff that I can take to the myriad little literary events that happen in various basement bars, lofts and art spaces across London. I'll be checking out some open mics to get a sense of the competition over the next few weeks, kicking off with Catweazle @ The North London Tavern and Kid, I Wrote Back at Shoreditch's Bar Kick.

I always think it's a great shame that in writing - particularly writing outside of film and drama - you don't get the same level of audience feedback; you can't see people dancing to the music or even nodding their heads in appreciation. While performance prose is far harder to find an audience for than poetry, that audience is out there, and successful projects like Literary Death Match (co-run by my mate Nicki Le Masurier) remind me why even though I work from home in my pants I choose to live in one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

So, I'm thinking monologues. Adopt a character, memorise a 1,000 word script, and put all my misplaced confidence to good use - kind of a cross between stand-up and short stories. I'm brain storming at the moment (+1 Unnecessary Marketing Terminology), but post fail state theory blog I did play a spot of Theme Hospital and come across this.

This is 'The New Guide For Theme Hospital', a set of pointers for how to do a speed run of the entire game in one go because you haven't worked out that you need to edit the config file to get the save/load system working. It's fantastic. It starts off traditionally enough...
1. Always build the number of GP office proportional to the other rooms you have.
...but then bangs in a complete curve ball:
2. Never build Toilets, benches or plants or fire extinguishers. They do not help you in anything.
That made me giggle. After that the advice becomes gradually less practical and more philosophical:
8. Once you beat one level just forget about it and focus on the next one and make sure you forget the old completely the new one is much more important now.
9. When all things seem to be against you and it’s in this time that you need to show the world (in this case the Theme Hospital) what you got.

I didn't plan on tying any monologues I produce into games, but I do think the medium's pervasive enough now that I could get on a stage with this concept without switching everyone off. I don't know exactly what (if anything) I'll do with the idea, but I just love this image of the philosopher without a channel funnelling all his worldly wisdom into writing walkthroughs - you could do some really subversive stuff.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Inifinite Ocean: A Philosophical Critique - Part 1

Christ. Deconstructing the philosophy of one of the most intelligent, intricately constructed examples of interactive art available has been a mission and a half.

2003's Infinite Ocean is a text-heavy, Myst-style adventure, whose updated version has been doing the rounds recently. It describes itself as a philosophical sci-fi adventure. Now, I read that and I thought to myself, who else do I know who's made a philosophical sci-fi adventure? But I couldn't remember so I figured I'd just check it out.

What follows is one part game review (it's wicked, though I question just how much of a game it is) and four parts discussion of the philosophy contained within, presented broadly in the order experienced in the game. I have no idea if this sort of critique is necessary or interesting; I'm just chuffed there's content out there that's worth the time.

Long story short, play the game first if you're going to.

I hope the validity (or otherwise) of my conclusions speaks for itself, but it's worth noting that underpinning my comments is a lifelong passion for producing and consuming philosophical fiction; and less importantly a First Class Philosophy BA.


The game's opening sections make it clear that Kyratzes has done a good job of delivering both a tense, isolationist feel - despite the limited visual assets - and on conjuring to mind a real sense of wonder at what it would be like to create, converse and ultimately conflict with a true artificial lifeform; and asking what the philosophical implications of such a thing might be. I really enjoy the integration of SGDS' consciousness into the computer systems as random clues, thoughts and errors pop up in the middle of the logs.
ju748a few alt45ed files might be enough/.
These nudges are just strong enough to relate the tale of Jerry et al rebelling against the government; and just subtle enough to allow us to intuitively fill in the blanks. This and the password pattern matching mechanic all rather riff on the defining ability of a sentient intelligence to synthesise information.
tr##d to leave (loadfail) 6$%e holes for y%$
The words on the walls are smart as well as intimidating. It's unclear to me who is supposed to have put them there (seems a funny approach for the military, best guess is it's SGDS' unconscious fear), but it's clear they parallel the voices the author, along with the rest of us, hear around every corner: the implicit demands of society that we don't struggle, don't think, just conform.

The philosophy moves from cursory observation to concrete concern a couple of locked doors down as we begin to get a grip on what the team of scientists have been pursuing, and the repercussions implied. Jerry comments:
Programming is digital thought[...] As God does, man creates worlds from pure thought.
I've chopped bits out of the prose there so as to make the argument more apparent. Jerry's proposing here that programming - as a form of creation with the potential to develop beyond its initial premises (contrasted with literature or music, say, which themselves are unchanged without human interference) - has the potential to create something which qualifies as a lifeform. That mankind can create a being with a soul. This is the first time the question of what exactly an entity must do in order to qualify as 'alive' is raised, and it's also the first broaching of a religious tension. SGDS finds fault with Jerry's perspective:
[Not knowing how they function] makes it easier for [humans] to believe there is some spiritual/non-material component to their being.
It seems to me that at most points in the narrative it is SGDS' views that represent the author's. This is a self-professed piece of philosophy, and as such has sound rational thinking at its very core, and as we're reminded throughout, SGDS is just about as logical a being as it's possible to imagine. The computer's observation here is a sharp one, and a biting criticism of religion, spirituality, and blind faith as a whole. It realises that people are willingly ignorant, and that this lack of understanding is what causes us to invent concepts like god. It goes on to comment that it doesn't understand why it's being treated - by some of the team - like a thing, rather than a living being.
I do not understand why they are treating me the way they are.
The simple answer is ignorance: if you believe in some divine direction in the world, chances are you'll have trouble believing a bunch of silicone can be 'alive'; Jerry thinks it's important to know whether SGDS has a soul, but SGDS understands such a thing is a fiction, that the lines between inanimate and alive are far less objective. The conflict that false beliefs can nurture is made explicit when the scientists describe Major Field later on:
He is so full of hate, hate for all religions but his own.
Play the Game
The way things progress from here has definite The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) vibes, but you quickly come to realise that this is largely a cleverly packaged novella for the Playstation generation. The 'game' is a collection of texts, accessed by completing some occasionally inventive, but mostly cursory puzzles, presented through static - and sometimes disorienting - artwork.

I realise as I write this that perhaps I'm sometimes too harsh on games with less interactive narratives (though see the Tribes write up for a balancing view). I believe it's true that the only games to really embrace the medium do so by putting malleable drama at their centre. However, to criticise Infinite Ocean for not being one of those games - for essentially being a way to trick gamers into reading some philosophical science fiction - is somewhat akin to criticising a great play because it could just as easily have been made as a film. It's so important at this stage in our industry's development to be pioneering new methods of interaction almost at the expense of all else that sometimes it comes at the expense of... well, all else.

Moving forward, characters and plot become a little hard to follow - even some very basic headshots would have aided recall - and the segregation of backstory, philosophy and gameplay results in each being delivered in ever larger, more predictable chunks. By the end of the experience this becomes an almost self-referential joke as the penultimate room abandons distinct art and gameplay in favour of a bank of ten different text terminals.

Fortunately, the strength of the founding concept and the intelligence applied to it keeps your interest, and the implications of the philosophy as well as a drive to get to the bottom of things kept me moving.

An interesting turn comes with the move from existentialism to aesthetics (the philosophy of art / beauty). It's a topic I'm still getting to grips with, and I found Kyratzes' handling of it traditional, yet thoroughly artistically appealing. At the centre of aesthetics is the question "What is art / beauty, and how is it valuable?"

SGDS answers:
Intellect, perception, understanding - all of these are impossible without imagination[...] [The humans] still categorise art and its creation as useless or trivial[...] And yet their entire community, their entire sense of self, is built upon art.
Or to put it in the in-game words of William Blake:
Poetry fettered fetters the human race.
It feels like a fair observation: imagination underpins new applications of rationality; and just as philosophy can stimulate rationalism, art can stimulate imagination. I do wonder whether it's too strongly put: is Blake's version of the argument really as useful as SGDS' more direct formulation? Infinite Ocean argues that:
To express the ideas contained within a single poem by one of the masters in 'normal speech' would take many pages, if possible at all.
I don't know. I still take issue with the positioning of art as equal or superior in importance to philosophy. This said, I can certainly appreciate the beauty in the author's use of poetry, within his own fiction, to reflect his philosophy, and can identify with Jerry's observation:
We talked about beauty today. The things SGDS said... are so logical, and yet so amazing[...] I suppose the sadness is what I feel when I realise the true nature of our world, when I understand all the mistakes we've made as a species.

This line leads us neatly into Part 2 - a discussion of the game's moral message.