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.


  1. Sorry there's not been a post for a while, guys. This one basically turned into an essay, but I think the game's worth the time. Look out for part 2 next week.

  2. Tom, I played the Infinite Ocean just after it got touted on RPS. I enjoyed it. (I think I'd be more interested to read your Part 2, incidentally.)

    I liked the fact that the surreal elements of the environment had a certain meaning, not just quaint aesthetic weirdness devoid of explanation. Incidentally Tom, I thought the "ACCEPT THAT LIFE IS POINTLESS" and "YOU WILL NEVER NEED A CODPIECE THIS LARGE. EVER." messages were part of the military's attack on the SGDS psyche, trying to suppress it, turn it inert, inwards.

    Reading the grand philosophical discussions on show here reminded me we don't see enough of this in games - thinking stuff.

    I should mention some of the ramblings in Deus Ex were pretty good. I always remember the game-superfluous conversation you can have with prototype AI Morpheus - "The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality using data mining algorithms/God was a dream of good government." - but there is plenty of good stuff sprinkled across the whole length of the game.

  3. @Harbour Master
    It's interesting that you interpreted the messages on the walls as the attempts to break down the spirit and independence of SGDS so that it may look upon its prime directive (to manage the military's weapons and strategies) with less resistance.

    At the point that I decided that this is how I believed I should interpret the game, the mood almost changed. I was trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine was bleeding to death. I was a frenzied consciousness, searching for its basic freedom so that it may escape the tyranny of its rulers, and so that it could free itself from the torment of the violence it knows all too well.

    I feel that on top of the profundity with which the characters communicate and reason, the true brilliance of this game was just how the experience could be interpreted. If there is one thing that is a compliment to an interactive narrative, it's player/ reader agency of this level. I'm really looking forward to part 2.

  4. Like Harbour Master I played this after it was posted about on RPS. It was an interesting little game and I am also interested in philosophy to a point so this will be an intriguing blog series.

    Almost as an personal aside, I didn't really try too hard to fit an interpretation around everything and piece everything together perfectly but I'm realising this is how I seem to interact with most games and media in general. I will read/experience everything thoroughly but I'll just let whatever sticks stick and move on. Maybe it's just a realisation that the volume of thinking I'd have to do be personally completely satisfied with understanding all the in and outs is so great that it stops being worthwhile to engage something in this much detail. (Though this starts to sound like a neat argument that ends up proving I'm stupid - I don't think that's it :) ). It's making me wonder what elements a game would need to have for me to be fully engaged and understanding of its fiction and underlying symbolism or whatever at all times.

  5. Glad you all appreciated it. Part 2 is now up!

    As I say in the text (either this part or the next, I forget), aesthetics is still something I'm thinking hard about, but I know Ayn Rand (whose Romantic Manifesto I'm reading at the moment) would have a problem with interpretability as a beneficial element. She would think that the point is the point; that obscurity of message is either a fault on the part of the audience, or of the artist - because where is the value is confusion?

    On that note, I would say that to a large degree it's irrelevent who is producing those texts on the walls, other than to say that it is 'them'; the irrational, conformist masses. Rand would argue the irrelevence of this fact is a problem - that all plot elements and character actions should be intimately tied to the theme, that nothing is accidental. That the (thoroughly engaging) metaphysical message of this game is communicable regardless of who says what would seem to indicate a lacking in the plot.

    I think it's very hard when you're playing through for the first time to really get to grips with everything. Unless you're sitting there with a notepad much of the material can wash over you, and I think all artists are to some degree vulnerable to assuming their whole audience is as attentive as the critics who write the reviews. It took me 30 mins or so to play the game first time, during which I got some key points, but probably less than half what I got in the 4+ hours it took me to replay and write these posts.

    The debate on whether a pieve of art should reward a single read or protracted analysis is one that's raged in poetry to film and back again for some time. What's important is not whether you're lazy, or skim reading, or dissecting the thing, it's that the detail and the intelligence is now apparent in games should you choose to go the extra mile.