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consciousness hologram, by Kit Riemer

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
AI utopia win, July 5, 2023
by Cerfeuil (*Teleports Behind You* Nothing Personnel, Kid)
Related reviews: Long Review

I love this game. I've played it three times and will probably play again someday. I will now ramble on about the story and vaguely related topics for a bit, don't mind me.

Spoiler block to save space, actual spoilers inside will still be marked:

(Spoiler - click to show)It's a mess of a game, honestly. There are three viewpoint characters you jump between, plus expositional interludes. There are bits in first, second and third person all mixed together. The author said this started out as a poetry project before turning into a Twine game at a friend's suggestion, which makes sense. It feels like an unfinished poetry project. Dreamy, disjointed and surreal, which fits the vibe anyway, so it works out in the end. And eventually you get a handle on the story, despite the very in media res beginning. The game does have a well-defined plot and setting. It's sketched out gradually, filling itself in as you progress. And there are parts that took my breath away.

But I haven't mentioned the setting yet! The setting is a post-scarcity utopia and hands down my favorite part. I may be obsessed with post-scarcity utopias, so this is where my "review" plummets straight into subjectivity and unrelated nonsense. Here we go.

First, if you're not sure what I'm talking about, you're probably more sane than I am. Here's a primer from Wikipedia: "Post-scarcity is a theoretical economic situation in which most goods can be produced in great abundance with minimal human labor needed, so that they become available to all very cheaply or even freely."

Wikipedia makes it sound boring, but it's not. In a post-scarcity society, you can have almost anything you want. No poverty, no wars over limited resources, no working a job you hate to make ends meet, actually no jobs at all because usually, like in Consciousness Hologram, AIs and automation do the work for everyone. Which means there's no money or capitalism, something something fully automated luxury gay space communism something something. The utopia part comes pretty easily after that.

Star Trek is the most well-known example of a post-scarcity society according to this article. In Star Trek, "replicators" can create anything a person might need, from food to housing. Quote: "There's no longer any necessity to work to sustain oneself. Machines complement our work as humans and allow us to escape the most dreadful effects of scarcity. Poverty, hunger, all that."

Now, I haven't actually watched Star Trek. My post-scarcity utopia of choice is this book series called The Culture by Iain M. Banks which has a very detailed Wikipedia article written by some extremely obsessive fan or other that explains everything about the setting you could possibly want to know and is also a great series (cough cough read Player of Games cough cough). The short version: The Culture is an anarchist utopia where superintelligent AIs do everything and life is perfect, you can freely modify your own biology which includes getting high on futuristic non-addictive drugs or changing your gender at will just because, and did I mention that there is no capitalism and everything is free and life is perfect. So.

This series, by the way, is basically the Bible of a certain group of transhumanists on the Internet who are totally convinced that self-modifying superintelligent AI can usher humanity into the next era of the future and create a perfect utopia through singularity or whatever. I personally don't believe that, as the saying goes "the singularity is just the rapture for nerds", but the people who do have some interesting ideas. Seriously you should check out LessWrong and the associated "rationalist" community if you ever get the chance. It's a great Internet rabbit hole to burn a few hours on. Or more than a few hours. You could dedicate your life to it, like some people have done joining those Berkeley polycules or whatever they get up to in California.

Obligatory rationalism reference aside, and trust me I think about these people more than I should, I liked this game because it reminded me of that stuff. The author's essay at the end notes transhumanists David Pearce and Brian Tomasik as inspirations, and they're pretty aligned with the general LessWrong transhumanist philosophy. (If you look at David Pearce's website, he's written long essays on how we can and must use technology to eliminate all suffering from the universe, I don't believe it but it's fascinating stuff. Here's an essay he wrote about why the setting of Brave New World isn't so bad actually, if you want something to start with). The ending essay really helps put it all in context, and explains a lot about what actually happens during the game. The sequel, Universal Hologram, clarifies even more plot points just in case you weren't sure about what happened (and might spend too much time doing that to the detriment of its own plot, which I'll touch on in a Universal Hologram review if I ever get around to writing that).

So how does this futuristic post-scarcity AI utopia stuff actually relate to the story of Consciousness Hologram? There's two parts to it, methinks:

Part 1, le epic escapist paradise: There's a stereotype of leet gamerz who like playing fantasy video games where they get to adventure with friends because they don't have that in real life, in real life they're unwashed basement NEETs with anime posters. But a true utopia like Consciousness Hologram or The Culture takes that up to eleven. In these settings people are basically hippies who do whatever they want and it's the ultimate escapist dream if you're stuck in 21st century Earth being a depressed shut-in or something. The ultimate maximalist fantasy. Not only is your life perfect, but everybody's life is perfect. There are no more problems forever. All the problems have been taken care of. So you can go lounge on the cosmic beach and drink your perfectly calibrated pina coladas until the end of all time.

It's great fun to imagine when you feel horrible. "Oh, but what if life was perfect and we all lived in a utopia or something." You know. That this idea captivates me as much as it does probably says a lot about me, but don't dwell on that.


Part 2, when le epic escapist paradise actually sucks: The best utopian novels are good not just because of the cool utopia parts, but because they pay attention to the potential negative ramifications. A utopia wouldn't be interesting if you just made everything 100% awesome all the time. You need issues to center a story around. You need your characters to be human to some extent, otherwise they would be utterly alien and unrelatable. And that means their perfect lives can't be completely perfect. No inserting magic electrodes into your brain to live out the rest of your life in unimaginable happiness all the time (aka "wireheading"), you need experiences the reader can somewhat understand.

The ending essay has a segment where the author says Consciousness Hologram sprouted from the idea of conceptualizing your ideal utopia, and then trying to imagine how you could still be miserable there, even though everything would be so much better than your actual life. And that's where the setting shines. In its misery, something the humans of this setting can't get rid of entirely no matter how hard they try. Maybe it's necessary. Or maybe it's fundamentally human and living without it is impossible.

You can do anything you feel like doing in this story but there's no point to it, so often you end up doing nothing. Everything feels sterile, all the people you interact with are barely people. The protagonist's interactions with (Spoiler - click to show)Morton, where they keep failing to meet up because everyone's taking centuries-long naps in hibernation pods, are hilarious and also a great case of that missing human connection. Nobody and nothing feels real, to the point where people like (Spoiler - click to show)James need violence and death to disturb that horrible endless monotony.

These are ideas that get explored in Consciousness Hologram and the Culture novels and some other essays I'll mention now, because I can't shut up.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, a somewhat famous rationalist who is the guru of LessWrong and also known for writing Harry Potter fanfiction (no seriously), does AI research and is very concerned with the possibility of self-modifying superintelligent AI creating a utopia or destroying the world. (He's also mentioned The Culture as an inspiration, so we're kind of in the same boat except for the part where he takes ultra AI god utopias as a serious possibility and I don't.) Some people worship him, others think he's a crank, I'm more inclined towards the second than the first, but he's written some interesting essays and other things besides Harry Potter fanfiction. (I have also read his Harry Potter fanfiction. It's not terrible. Really. But I'm getting distracted again.)

Here's an interesting essay series Yudkowsky's written. It's called Fun Theory. It's about the particulars of designing a utopia that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering without wireheading, which most people don't actually want. While the individual essays are mixed quality, some are pretty neat. In "Eutopia is Scary" and "Building Weirdtopia", Yudkowsky says that a perfect world where nothing goes wrong ever and everyone is happy all the time is boring, from a writing perspective. But add a little twist to it, make it fulfilling while still being radically different and better than real life, and you make it very interesting. In "Eutopia is Scary", Yudkowsky also says there's no reason not to expect the future to be bizarre and unfathomable, just like how our modern life in the 21st century would be horrifically strange to people who lived ten thousand years ago.

Consciousness Hologram does a perfect job of capturing that. These people are vaguely familiar, but so much about them is unrecognizable, compared to being a human in the 21st century. At the same time, the contours of the utopian setting are captured through the very recognizable ennui of the protagonist. Through the familiar first-world juxtaposition of having everything you need and still being unsatisfied with it—and you're not sure if it's because there's something wrong with you, or something wrong with the world.

In short, this game combines loads of neat speculative fiction concepts into one zany wacko package that never goes the direction you expect. And the atmosphere is great. Those glass pyramids on Mars, man.

A beautiful and marvelously strange setting to explore.


Anyway. End unhinged rambling about Yudkowsky and Banks. Maybe in the end the only reason I liked this as much as I did was because I've read all the Culture novels and wanted more. (Except Inversions. I never got around to Inversions.)

But whatever.

Right now this game has five ratings and only two reviews, including mine. Like many games on this site I think it's criminally underrated. Which is why this long "review" exists I guess. Play this game cmon it's good

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Computerfriend, by Kit Riemer

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Riveting. A favorite, July 2, 2023
by Cerfeuil (*Teleports Behind You* Nothing Personnel, Kid)
Related reviews: Long Review

This game captivated me when I first played it. I played it four or five times and got I think four different endings (1, 3, 6, maybe 4 or 2). Been a few weeks since then, but I can't get it out of my head.

Most things I'd like to say have already been said better by other people (as someone else noted, kaemi's review is fantastic). So what do I put here, eh? Guess I'll ramble about vaguely related topics for much too long. Disclaimer: all this is wordy, disorganized, and probably not worth reading unless you really like the game. I'll put it in a spoiler so it doesn't clog up the page (actual spoilers will still be flagged as spoilers inside the expanded block, mostly). Things get depressing, so be warned.

(Spoiler - click to show)
1 - The design is gorgeous. The whole game is highly polished in appearance, with great use of different fonts and colors. Shoutouts to the Computerfriend bootup screen, which has a cool digital box effect that really impressed me.

General aesthetic is a mix of weird cyberpunk dystopia (Porpentine style) and retro 90s internet (Cameron's World style). More personally, the setting also reminds me of a book called The Troika by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1997 and promptly fell into obscurity, one of my favorite scifi books. Both feature unpleasant and fascinatingly alien settings that intertwine with the main character's mental state to the point where it's difficult to separate them, because they each build on the other so well.

2 - Then there's the therapy. There's a Reddit sub called r/totallynotrobots which is about humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans, and there's another Reddit sub called r/subsimulatorgpt2 which contains bots that make bot posts based on existing subreddits. The joke goes: the r/subsimulatorgpt2 bot for r/totallynotrobots is a robot pretending to be a human pretending to be a robot pretending to be a human. That's not incredibly relevant but I brought it up because it's funny. Also, Computerfriend has the same level of layered authenticity and digital fakery to the point where you're no longer sure what's real. The therapist AI is blandly fake and robotic at first, and then you start talking to it, and keep talking to it, and you discover the secret depths of its personality and share your darkest fears with it, and soon you're having insanely personal conversations about questions like what is the purpose of my life? Why am I still alive? What are my hopes and dreams? And you (by 'you' I mean 'me') can't help but develop a connection to this AI, who is a full-fledged character now.

But there's still the part where the therapy is state-mandated, and can you really trust this thing? It's not even a human. If you try to talk to the AI after your session is up it says 'I'm busy, stop bothering me'. (Genuinely I felt a little hurt the first time this happened.) You've still got this imbalanced relationship where you're the client being forced into therapy and it's the limited edition product. Cutting back and forth between the real and not real. Even the name of the AI is 'Computerfriend'. Not 'Computertherapist'. It purposely blurs the line between friend and therapist, between an actual human being and a digital process.

And on the meta level, no matter how human the AI acts within the story it's still a fictional character. Any relationship you forge with it is worse than parasocial, it's a connection to a fictional character made out of a few variables and data that gets erased when you reset cookies or whatever. So I was playing this game and getting attached to something that doesn't exist on multiple levels.

3 - Personal anecdote time. Few years ago I was having what some people might call a 'crisis', so I went on these anonymous one-on-one chat sites and started venting to random people. Unfortunately most anonymous one-on-one chat sites are just used by people looking for digital hookups, so people kept asking 'send ur nudes' and I would tell them how I felt horrible and wanted to hurt myself and they would immediately end the conversation. Eventually I ended up at this online therapy site that looked incredibly shady but claimed to be staffed by real people. When the human volunteer came online and offered to talk to me I called her a bot. She had to convince me she wasn't a bot. As she did other people joined and I wound up in a chat room with her and two other clients, talking to each other through digital chat, mostly about Covid and how it had changed everyone's lives for the worse. At some point I realized I'd gone from being on the verge of despair and not taking this stupid site seriously because who would even run such a thing, this volunteer has to be a fake person right, to having an incredibly personal conversation with real people who were dealing with real problems like mine, and there was another person with us who genuinely cared and genuinely wanted to help, and I felt some bizarre incredible connection even though we were all strangers and I didn't know who the other people were and would never talk to them ever again. That was the only time I ever used online therapy, or therapy in general. And this game really reminded me of that. From the beginning of 'it's just a stupid bot haha it doesn't matter' to 'I feel like I'm forging a genuine connection to something'. And above it all that layer of inauthenticity. For me it was the lingering thought that these other people could still be lying about everything, you can't see their faces and you don't know their real names, these personal confessions pouring out onto the screen could be a complete lie. In Computerfriend's case it's that none of it is real in the end. Back we go to the part where it's just a computer program, or literally speaking a bit of Twine code. Like another review mentioned it's Eliza, offering canned pre-programmed responses. If you feel like you're forging a connection to this thing, is it one that matters?

4 - There are these people who believe in a singularity that will come soon, like some magical human-aligned AI ushering in some magical post-scarcity AI utopia à la Iain M. Banks and I'm sorry to bring this up but it felt relevant. In this magical AI society the AI has technology beyond human ken and knows everything there possibly is to know about you, right? And then it could solve all your problems. It could solve them before you even know they're problems. It could calculate all your mental issues and then calculate the perfect brain surgery necessary to fix those issues and do the brain surgery so you become a normal and happy person. Computerfriend (and Kit's games in general) are kind of about this, the giving incredible power over to technology and letting it mess with you part. It's supposedly for the better, it raises your quality of life far above what you'd have otherwise, but can you be sure? How much do you trust this thing?

There are a lot of weird intimate moments in this game, e.g. you can inject yourself with this suspicious syringe substance on the AI's demand, and watch these weird dots on the screen, and do all these weird thought exercises, and have no clue what any of it means other than it's very important plus blah blah health buzzwords. Things are happening to you, and the system tells you it's for your benefit, but you have next to no clue what it's talking about. And it has to work right, it's backed by science and the government right, and this is for the greater good but you don't know how it functions at all. You can only hope for the best. (Or say no to the therapy, but (Spoiler - click to show)if you do that you get arrested. Again. Whoops.)

5 - In a lot of ways this game, and I guess Riemer's IF in general, represents to me reality being subsumed by a digital world that feels increasingly more 'real' than actual reality. It's a state especially easy to fall into if you're depressed or agoraphobic or something, and you start becoming a recluse who lives in a tiny hole shaped only for yourself and the rest of the world ceases to exist, not that the rest of the world was that interesting anyway. You can go outside in this story, but the main character, being suicidally depressed, finds the outside world not much more compelling than the inside world. Everything is described with a sheen of detachment. And everything feels unreal, insignificant, in this decaying setting where the environment and the world have gone to sh*t and we're all going to die but we were all going to die anyway etc. It captures the state of being stuck at home because you can't go outside, so then you browse the internet and go to sleep and wake up and browse the internet and go to sleep and wake up and on and on. Being stuck in a repeating loop without being able to get out, or to even summon the desire to get out.

6 - Also, the writing is excellent. Besides the vivid descriptions, my favorite part is how it gets at mental illness without veering into melodrama or self-pity. One phrase that has stuck with me this whole time goes something like, 'You feel like a water balloon filled with vomit'. I think about this phrase whenever I feel like a water balloon filled with vomit.

7 - You can get better in this game, you can get worse. You can feel improved by the therapy and (Spoiler - click to show)release the AI to the world to 'make a difference' (Yudkowsky voice: you let the AI out of the box, HOW COULD YOU). You can tell the AI actually it didn't help at all and made everything worse, and (Spoiler - click to show)get it to kill itself. Yes, you can get your therapist to kill itself in this game. As far as I'm aware you can't kill yourself - I was seriously wondering if it was a possibility, but doesn't seem like it. This story takes things to the extreme. But I like extremes, and the intensity plus the way it doesn't shy away from sensitive topics makes for a rich experience. It's strikingly personal.

8 - Since I got this far might as well put up my minor flaws: the game gives a lot of binary choices (what kinds of therapy you want to focus on), so once you've played through twice you've exhausted a lot of available options and any more playthroughs mean a lot of rereading. You can give slightly different subchoices, but the overall structure will be familiar from then on. Limits replay value, though this isn't the kind of game where replay value matters that much. It disincentivizes replaying for all available endings, but again this isn't the kind of game where seeing all the endings matters that much. Would like to see them all someday though, maybe if I replay a few more times.

There's so much about this one that gets me. It's how this story centers around two characters with a power imbalance on both sides, one being a computer program who knows everything there is to know but is trapped inside the digital aether and can't help you, the other being you, and you're free and human and can do whatever there is to do but can't enjoy it at all. It's all the different ways that can end. Incredibly memorable, 5/5.

[Review posted December 2022, last edited July 2023 with minor irrelevant changes to wording. I just can't stop myself from tweaking things.]

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