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Activate your neurometric colloids and dive in, November 21, 2022
Solve a murder in a near future world by diving into the Wikipedia of that world
This is one of the coolest games I have played.
In Neurocracy, you explore a website called Omnipedia, the apparent replacement of Wikipedia, upon its release on September 28, 2049. Days later, tragedy strikes. Sift through the articles to piece together what really happened.
Neurocracy caught me off guard at first. I opened Omnipedia and was immediately hit by an intimidating wall of cookie privacy settings that seemed to request access to things I had never heard of before. What does it mean by asking to use my "neurometric colloid" for neurometric montages? That sounded like a big deal. But sometimes you have to take things in stride. I opted out of everything I could and continued the game. Later, I made the connection.
Neurometric colloids are a technology portrayed in this game, implanted inside the brain. If you, the player, are supposedly reading a Wikipedia-modeled website in the 2040s, then it is quite possible that you would have a neurometric colloid of your own. The “privacy setting” idea was as seamless as could be for immersing the player. If this were any indicator of the game’s worldbuilding then Omnipedia was just getting started...
You navigate the game like you would Wikipedia by clicking on hyperlinks that lead you to different pages. You can also type in search terms. The central gameplay mechanic used to solve the mystery is the change history feature located on the right side of the screen that allows you to observe edits throughout the timeline. This feature uses red, yellow, and green colour coding to keep track of changes, additions, and deletions which opens a window into new developments and content that is trying to be concealed.
Neurocracy is overflowing with content but designed so the player can keep up with the exposition. Hovering your mouse over words underlined with a grey dashed line spell out the word’s abbreviation whiles words underlined with a blue dashed line provide definitions via a black popup box. You really learn things. It is a great sampler of modern-day subjects paired with more speculative, fictional ideas. This game will not give you a working knowledge. But it does offer a micro bite-sized crash course for topics in real-world discussions about ethics and technology. Learn about AI, neuroscience, quantum computing, genetic engineering, genetics, biology, aquaculture, and even sushi.
There are some articles where if I scrolled down halfway to the page, covered all the dates, and then asked you to read it as if it were a Wikipedia entry, it would take you several minutes before you realized that it was fiction (consider the article titled, "Piscine transmissible amyloidotic encephalopathy”). There is even a convincing reference section at the bottom of the page. If only I could click on those articles. I was extremely impressed with the realism. The game also gives a shoutout to familiar topics such as COVID-19 or Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company, Neurolink. These topics are smoothly integrated into the gameplay and are fun to discover.
It takes a bit to adjust to the slick interface and gorgeous visuals before you stop flipping through articles excitedly and finally sit down to absorb the content inside them. Random curiosity-driven excursions through Wikipedia for me often consist of a mix of thoughtful reading and skimming. The deeper down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, the more I resort to skimming as my brain flits from topic to topic. Omnipedia was the opposite. Conjure up the idea of having so many presents you do not know which one to open first. That was me. I finally told myself to pick an article and read it, and for 20 minutes or so, that's all I did. The next step was piecing everything together.
Story + Characters
The lifeblood of this game. Here is an overview of the surface story:
The game’s overarching story focuses on Xu Shaoyong, founder of Zhupao, a huge technology conglomerate, and the wealthiest man in the world. On September 30th, two days after Omnipedia is released, Xu Shaoyong is assassinated when a security drone open fires at his private helicopter upon his arrival at an airport in China. Along with him was another prominent figure, Yuri Golitsyn, who ran a large-scale energy company. This ripples across the world in complex ways that you must decipher. The assassination narrative is spread across ten days, the tenth day still portrayed as being an ongoing event.
A major theme is the balance of biosecurity and personal privacy. The gameplay is filled with the aftermath of the CMD (Cariappa-Muren disease) pandemic where an entire stock of genetically engineered bluefish tuna was found to be a vector for a prion disease. The resulting CMD phobia only spurred an argument in favor of heightened biosecurity. We see the usage of quantum computing, neural networks, and other technological advances to conduct surveillance and collect vast amounts of consumer and personal data, justifying it for the sake of monitoring biological threats. While part of this reasoning has merit, we see major problems with this approach. Whistleblowers reveal a lack of transparency in data collection and unethical usage of consumer products, often for corporate advancement. Neurocracy takes this a step further asks about the implications of these practices in more futuristic technologies such as brain implants. Cyberattacks are already a familiar phenomenon in our world, but what about brainjacking?
As technological advancements emerge, the realm of ethics only continues to grow. Even Omnipedia is shrouded in controversy. Wikipedia fizzled out and Omnipedia stepped in among criticisms of its supposed corporate favoritism. But by utilizing the revision history feature you can come to your own conclusions.
As for the characters, I found them to be intriguing even if we only learn about them through the pages of a website. (Spoiler - click to show) Connie Muren's death was especially saddening given her commitment to her work although her posthumous comeback against Spencer Hagen was quite moving. The characters themselves were just as interesting as the story.
The best part. I could say that about most things in this game, but the visuals really are a defining feature. This goes beyond the visual interface which already boasts of a clean-cut design with a blue Wikipedia reminiscent logo at the top left-hand corner of the screen. Neurocracy also features plenty of artwork of people, logos, locations, and technologies commissioned by artists. As is the case with Wikipedia each page only has a few visuals, but the quality of the art makes each piece shine. I can recall at least one article that had a small video imbedded in the page, which was a cool surprise.
Thoughts on structural design
After a long while I reached the point where I had viewed and analyzed a large chunk of the story’s content and wondered what to do next. I went online to learn more about the game, only to make a startling (to me, at least) discovery: (Spoiler - click to show) the player’s investigation is independent from the gameplay. I thought that the act of going through the content, of digging deep, would have some payoff within the game. A payoff beyond the deductive reasoning that occurs from article to article. Excalibur comes to mind.
Excalibur is another excellent and ambitious interactive fiction game. It is made with Twine and designed to look like a wiki fandom page for a fictional TV show by the same name. You read the articles to spot the controversies behind the show while pondering fandom culture and the dynamics of shared memories of media content. It too is open ended, but the twist is that content surfaces as a result of your explorations. For instance, reading about certain material results in more material being “posted.” The pinnacle moment of the game’s interactivity (go play the game) comes later, but even after that, the game never ends. There is no winning or losing or a congratulations for “completing” the game. You dive below the surface, and the game quietly acknowledges your participation.
I was anticipating something similar for Neurocracy. But Neurocracy is not Excalibur. They are two different games. And quite frankly, this game does not revolve around me. I decided to see it from the authors’ approach. Originally, the game was released episode by episode in 2021 to the public where players were encouraged to take notes and share theories with each other while waiting eagerly for the next episode to be released. That is the true investigation of game’s story. You take the investigation out of the game and into the audience. Meanwhile, I play all of it in one go a year later without any attention to this structure. There is also something to be said about accepting that sometimes games do not intend to give you all the answers. That in itself is part of the experience. And on that note, if anyone wants toss around theories, do not hesitate to comment on this review.
I must admit, the game’s design cleverly maintains the illusion that you are in fact sitting at your computer in 2049 leisurely browsing Omnipedia. Having the game act like a game would risk breaking this. Briefly, I wondered if there was an angle with the neurometric colloid privacy permissions. If you had such a thing would your browsing experience with Omnipedia be different? I opted into the privacy to setting to see if it changed the gameplay. It did not, but that type of experimentation is also part of the fun. The game entices players to invent ways of interacting with it.
Ultimately, (Spoiler - click to show) my sadness was about not being able to learn more about certain subjects. I was deeply disappointed because I was drooling for more. I felt like I had barely scraped the surface of this story’s vivid universe. As I described earlier, blue words with an underlined dash have popup definition boxes, but later in the story, some words turn into links with their own pages. I had my eye on several character names and terms that I hoped would become articles. Learning otherwise was a bummer, but it also made me appreciate the sheer volume of content- writing, artwork, user interface- went into this game to produce over thirty detailed pages of glossy, futuristic wiki material. It remains, without a doubt, one of the coolest games I have ever played. That is nothing to sneeze at.
Now that you have (finally) reached the end of this review, all I can do is recommend playing Neurocracy. It will blow you away. Its story is fascinating and deep, the artwork beautiful, and the interface is effectively convincing. You do not need to be an interactive fiction fan or a sci-fi fan or a Wikipedia fan to enjoy this game. And even if you don’t, the game’s discussions about the intersections of technological advancement, personal rights, and societal ethics will still linger in your mind as you draw parallels from today’s world. I thank the game’s creators for creating and sharing such a fascinating piece.
(As a formality, I found and accessed the game through its listing on IFDB which took me right to the game’s website.)