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This is definitely not a game
Neurocracy is an alternate reality game (ARG) presented as a sci-fi Wikipedia from 2049 called Omnipedia. By reading it, players investigate the murder of the richest man in the world, Xu Shaoyong. Most will begin with the page on his murder but will end up following links to dozens more, covering everything from futuristic reality TV shows to deadly pandemics.
Pages are filled with two kinds of hyperlinks. Solid underlined links lead to full pages (e.g. to Zhupao, the tech conglomerate founded by Shaoyong), whereas dotted links only pop up a short summary (e.g. a paragraph on the genetically engineered Lassgard tuna). Omnipedia’s dotted links allow it to give the sense of a detailed world despite only having a few dozen pages in total.
You can send paragraphs from Omnipedia pages to the game’s “Pipeline” evidence board with a couple of clicks. These can be linked and highlighted to construct your very own crazy wall, though I didn’t end up doing this myself.
The Pipeline is pre-populated with the question “Who is Adira?”, the suspected killer of Xu Shaoyong. This is the full extent of Neurocracy’s hand-holding; like many ARGs, Neurocracy does not acknowledge it is a work of fiction, meaning there are no hints or no tutorials. In fact, there are no characters to talk to, no quizzes to test your theories, the Pipeline won’t tell you if you’ve linked the “right” things together, meaning there’s no way to know if you’re on the right track. So if you’re wondering “where’s the game?”, the answer is that it doesn’t exist in any traditional sense, and it might be more useful to think of Neurocracy as a hypertext novel.
Neurocracy’s writing is dense and matter of fact, just like Wikipedia. This makes it very hard to process at the start since you encounter dozens of unfamiliar words in every page, like “G6”, “neural colloid”, “Zhupao”, some of which represent complex ideas and individuals. I consider myself to be a pretty fast reader but I still found it mentally taxing to get my arms around the web of events and connections that make up Neurocracy’s story. The page on the world-shaking CMD pandemic is 2000 fact-packed words long, but getting to the bottom of it means reading another 2500 words on Lassgard Bioteknik, then 1000 words on Piscine transmissible amyloidotic encephalopathy (PTAE) – and that’s just the start.
It feels churlish to complain about the volume of text in a game that makes no bones about being an online encyclopaedia, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read. Here’s an paragraph from the page about PTAE:
Opponents of this finding cite the 2009 study mentioning a lack of BSE-specific spongiosis as evidence for the hypothesis that PTAE resembles a novel fish amyloidosis more than a classical TSE transmitted to fish, an alternate explanation that the study’s authors also allowed for. In May 2044, researcher Lars Berenger and their colleagues published an article proposing that PTAE may not be a prion disease, but a parasitic encephalitis caused by Miamiensis avidus. This article has been widely criticised for disregarding the established link between PTAE and Cariappa-Muren disease (CMD) in order to reach its conclusion.
In any other book I’d speed read my way over passages like these, but it’s harder to do in a murder mystery where every detail might count.
Here’s a passage that strikes me as needlessly obtuse:
As a network, G6 is multimodular and relies on swarms of peer-to-peer (P2P) systems which are either distributed, centralised, or decentralised, depending on specific subsystems.
To be fair, Wikipedia is often obtuse, but just because Wikipedia
jumps off a bridge is obtuse doesn’t mean you should be, too.
Neurocracy isn’t “just” a hypertext novel, though. Many pages have multiple revisions, each corresponding to one of ten episodes released weekly, and the text added and deleted between revisions provides additional context to the story. The page on Adira, for instance, shows that a paragraph criticising Zhupao was deleted from its first revision, and I especially enjoyed a page about a massive 11,000 year old fungus that had pleasingly creepy edits. Viewing revisions is laborious, however, and I was often at a loss as to the deeper meaning of a sentence being added here and there.
This is where Neurocracy’s forum comes in, where players speculate about the story. There are sub-forums for each episode, so if you’re starting by reading pages and revisions that only exist during the first episode, you can avoid being spoiled. Some players roleplay in their posts, making it hard to know whether I could count on them for clues and information or they were making stuff up; even more confusingly, the administrator for Omnipedia occasionally posted in threads discussing murder theories, which struck me as an unwise blurring of boundaries between in-game and out-of-game.
The forum seems intended not only as a way for players to amuse themselves or for the game’s designers to get ideas on how to steer the story, but as a kind of substitute game engine or companion guide, especially for players joining the game long after its launch. If you began playing Neurocracy when the first episode was released you could discuss the story in each episode’s sub-forum every week; but if you began eight weeks later, like me, then you have eight weeks of posts to read.
This is a hazard of “live” ARGs – after only a few weeks it can be extremely difficult for players to catch up since reading thousands of forum posts is overwhelming. The biggest ARG-like experiences, promoting things like Batman, Halo, and Taylor Swift, can build up anticipation so they start with massive numbers of players, but even so, they rely on the player community to make walkthroughs to help newcomers and more casual players who can’t spend hours a day reading Discord. That’s how I got started in ARGs – I wrote a 100,000 word walkthrough for the very first ARG, The Beast (a 2001 promotion for Spielberg’s movie A.I.) and for my Perplex City ARG we wrote our own official walkthrough called that ultimately recapped 18 months of story.
ARG walkthroughs and explainer videos can be entertaining, and they can be terrible. But even if they’re great, replaying an ARG without being able to participate in the community is like playing Fortnite with bots. It’s not devoid of fun, but it’s far short of what it could be.
As it turns out, despite its seeming sprawl, Neurocracy is short enough that it doesn’t need a walkthrough, but at the start it certainly feels like it does. That’s not just because it lacks a game engine to provide hints and direction based on the player’s actions, but because it also lacks structure. Her Story, a game where you solve a mystery by browsing a messy database of hundreds of police interview video clips, cleverly funnels you through them for maximum satisfaction and comprehension.
True, Her Story has a game engine, but Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, a boardgame puzzle with newspaper articles, interviews, and maps (my review), doesn’t – and it’s still structured to make each case feel more comprehensible. Part of that is thanks to its puzzles. Many ARGs also have explicit puzzles – passwords, codes, riddles – that, while being somewhat unrealistic, give players a feeling of agency and momentum; Neurocracy is a little unusual for lacking them.
The closest thing we have to single player ARGs are “phone simulator” and “internet simulator” games like A Normal Lost Phone, Hypnospace Outlaw, and in particular, The Black Watchmen. All are much more like traditional video games, trading the freedom and uncertainty of ARGs for the structure and support that comes with game engines. My own Smokescreen, a highly linear single-player web-based ARG from 2009, was aimed in part to address Perplex City’s inaccessibility.
Enough about ARGs! Perhaps it’s better to discuss Neurocracy less as a game than as a piece of experimental literature like Oulipo. I like experimental fiction – Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual is one of my favorite novels, House of Leaves has its fans, and I can’t recommend Laurent Binet excellent epistolary novel Civilizations enough, an alternate history where the Incan invasion of Europe is told via letters.
From that perspective, Neurocracy really is “just” a hypertext novel with light player input, or more uncharitably, a hundred thousand words of game lore without the game. I was not blown away by the vanilla cyberpunk setting: anonymous hackers, pandemics, shady Asian megacorps taking over the world, a fractured United States, inscrutable trillionaires, etc. Good novels don’t need innovative worldbuilding, not even if they’re science fiction or fantasy, but it helps when you’re writing it as a wiki.
Neurocracy can be frustratingly vague at times. The story revolves around ubiquitous “neural colloid” brain-computer interfaces, the actual capabilities of which are unclear; one page suggests their only application is identifying individuals via their brainwaves, which doesn’t seem like “the biggest paradigm shift in consumer technology since smartphones.” This also contradicts other pages which detail the ability to “increase the productivity and loyalty [of] workers”, manipulate lucid dreams, playing games, etc. It’s all very well being vague – J. G. Ballard’s short stories often avoided spelling out the details of future technology to little harm – but again, it feels inappropriate here.
It has its moments. The sly reality TV show “Are You For Real?” gave me a chuckle and enjoyed learning about Second Advent, a frightening continuation of QAnon, but found it hard to believe the US Department of Justice would essentially give a domestic terrorist group “a seat on the Republican side of the Texas House of Representatives”, leading to a Texan secession movement – which the US government also capitulates to after a mere three day standoff and 78 dead. I know 2049 is the future, but it’s not that far in the future.
Likewise, the plot mechanics surrounding the CMD pandemic left me unconvinced. CMD is a neurodegenerative disease that infects 1.6 million and kills 40,000; fear of the disease leads to the UN endorsing the rollout of a global biosurveillance network using neural colloids and operated by a Chinese state-linked organisation. Incredibly, the US agrees to join the network. The very real COVID-19 is estimated to have caused over 170 times more deaths and I don’t see anyone US politicians winning elections on a platform of constant biosurveillance.
Neurocracy’s Wikipedia-like articles seem like a good idea because everyone recognises and understands their style, and writing them requires little art or design and can be done in a consistent tone by multiple writers. The problem is their flat, emotionless affect. Future histories and epistolary novels tend to avoid textbook-like prose, or at least cut it with styles like transcripts, interviews, magazine articles, and emails; and while SCP Foundation’s collaborative fiction articles are intended as bloodless scientific reports, writers are encouraged to include interviews and diaries (“exploration logs”) to add action and humour, which I did for my own very silly SCP-3993 entry.
Of course, Wikipedia articles generally don’t include interviews or transcripts, so it makes sense for Omnipedia to avoid them too – but again, realism often conflicts with other goals. I ran into this problem with my novel A History of the Future in 100 Objects, where a curator from 2082 looks back at the most important objects from the 21st century. I originally intended it to be written in exactly the same conversational style as the book that inspired it, A History of the World in 100 Objects, but realised after drafting just one chapter this would be impossible: explaining an iPhone to someone from 1900 requires a lot of backstory whereas it requires and justifies zero explanation to someone today. Also, it got really boring writing in the same style, so I did a lot of chapters as adverts, newspaper articles, short stories, and so on.
One solution would see Omnipedia link to external websites; even previews of corporate websites, TV shows, and hacker manifestos would have added welcome variety, though I assume the extra cost is why it wasn’t done.
After a few hours, I was coming across fewer and fewer new articles. What seemed so vast at first quickly became small, with everything too close together, all about neural colloids, Zhupao, the global biosurveillance network, and brainjacking blackouts. In the end, it wasn’t difficult to come up with a plausible theory of the murder. Robbed of emotion, it was hard to feel satisfied.
Neurocracy is an undeniably impressive piece of worldbuilding, and as an epistolary hypertext novel it at least partly achieved what its designers intended. But like so many ARGs – including some of mine – it’s more fun to read about than to play. The fact that I backed Neurocracy on Kickstarter, tried to play it multiple times after its launch, but couldn’t figure out what I was meant to do (“surely it can’t just be reading?” I thought) suggests something went wrong.
Neurocracy highlights the huge gulf between ARGs and “proper” video games. It’s far simpler to write Wikipedia-style articles than it is to make the same thing accessible and enticing to a novice. The extra work might not even be worth it; some ideas are better as books. But there is so much more to be done in video games.
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