Published on March 17th, 2014 | by Andrew Vestal1
A(s)century: This is Water
NOTE: This article contains spoilers for A(s)century. We recommend you play it before reading.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
One of the great paradoxes of cyberpunk is that it draws a dystopian picture of all-powerful corporations, corrupt governments (corporations again?) and repressive police states where it’s always night and raining, freedom is dead, and the only thing anyone less than Executive Vice Present has to their name is an exotic off-world cancer. And yet… it’s so cool.
There’s something about neon signage, polyglot cities and jury-rigged hacking gear that washes away all the bad parts of total societal oppression. Maybe it’s the belief that we’re special snowflakes – the masses might be downtrodden in this world, but we’d rise above. Maybe we’re addicted to the idea of sticking it to The Man, and the more he fortifies himself, the sharper and more satisfying the stick. Maybe, deep down, we realize we already live in a polluted world of dehumanizing technology, so there might as well be Chinese street food and laser umbrellas, too.
Or maybe we don’t think about it at all – maybe 30 years of art directors copying Syd Mead‘s Blade Runner designs have stripped these images of all meaning. At this point, we’ve forgotten what the shorthand used to stand for, and it’s just replicants, bitcoins, and CorpGovs all the way down. Mohawked deckers in wire-strewn lairs smoking cigarettes, or e-cigs, or NuBacco. It’s always night and it’s always raining and we don’t remember why we’re here.
Most of the games in the Cyberpunk Jam slap a neon coat of paint on a standard set of gameplay mechanics: puzzles, racers, shooters, endless runner. That’s fine; aesthetics are a big part of what we think of when we think of cyberpunk. But some games try to dig a little deeper and engage with what cyberpunk is actually about, not just what it looks like on the surface. And these games are the ones that are cyberpunk as fuck.
Austin Walker’s A(s)century is the latter. It’s the story of a hacker who stumbles upon a natural language program called MindWriter that helps the user write persuasively. This augmented writing ability is represented as cycling through keyword choices in pre-written copy, with the in-game conceit that your selections are always preternaturally perfect. The hacker uses the program to land a few advertising campaigns for a coffee company, ReKaffe Services. The coffee campaign’s a hit, and ReKaffe asks you to manufacture an aspirational customer personality for their next campaign. No problem for you and your MindWriter: “New products are nothing, and new people aren’t much more.”
Years pass, and you, ReKaffe Services (rebranded “RKS”), and your MindWriter keep gaining in power and influence. You’re appointed Chief Creative Officer of RKS and acquire multiple companies to build your brand/expand your dominion. Ultimately, RKS isn’t just a successful company; it’s grown into a Sov, a sovereign corporate power.
And then, one day, it ends. It was never you. It was the MindWriter, and your software doesn’t need you anymore. It lets you retire to a position of a low influence and no power, and the wheel of history continues turning. Just without you.
The first time you finish the game, the ending is a splash of cold water thrown right in the face of your cyberpunk fantasies. What just happened? Things were going great–the world was your oyster! You were in charge! And then, like that, it was taken away… What did you do to deserve such a fate? But then you realize: you were in charge. You had become the establishment. Worse, you had never had that much choice about it. Like Karl Marx’s view of history, every stage of your ascension was rigidly determined by what had already transpired. You? You were just filling in the blanks.
You sell out your integrity a few inches at a time, and fifty years later, you’re miles deep in the red.
But that’s life, isn’t it? We use technology like the MindWriter because it makes life easier, but we rarely stop to consider the consequences. We’re up in arms over the NSA spying on us, but happily sign over all our personal data – our entire life, in digital form – to check out another free Match-3 game. Generally speaking, people aren’t evil. But they put on blinders without realizing it when there’s a chance to make things a little bit faster, easier, or cheaper. I mean honestly: when’s the last time anyone read a EULA before clicking “Accept”? What have we agreed to just to speed things along?
Because the really significant [decision] isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
It seems like a joke that your tiny coffee company ends up a global superpower, but great oaks from little acorns grow. Johnson & Johnson started out selling sanitary gauze. Nestlé got their foot in the door with baby formula. Even Google started out as a way to better navigate stanford.edu. Remember when Google’s motto was “don’t be evil”? Three months ago they bought Boston Dynamics. They build military robots for DARPA. People are desperate for Google Fiber to come to their city, and it’s hard to blame them. Our local and national infrastructure is crumbling or non-existent; meanwhile, Google is building cars that drive themselves and smart houses. If Google started their own country, how many of you would you move there? Someone’s already trying to build it.
But the most cyberpunk thing about A(s)century is the way it inverts McLuhan’s “The medium is the message” to posit a world where the message is the medium. People are persuaded by the words they read and the advertising they see. (Obviously, or people wouldn’t advertise.) So is there really that much difference between persuasive ad copy and persuasive international policy? Your campaigns have been perfectly tailored for a composite personality built on terabytes of data and millions of dollars. He may not be real, but why should that stop him from running for office? I mean, he was so expensive. It seems a waste to just let him sit there internally.
Even the “fill-in-the-blank” words you choose throughout are revealed to have driven you towards 1 of 5 different endings. Did you name your coffee “Clear” or “Jakan”? One is an optimistic name of expansionist potential, the other a hard-edged brand of military might. If you thought about using the MindWriter at all, it was probably as a fun Twine hack. “I can magically write good, whee!” You probably weren’t thinking about the consequences of your choices, but those consequences were still there nonetheless. Words have power, and if the pen is mightier than the sword, how much stronger would a semantically-perfect artificial intelligence be?
Together, all of these things form A(s)century ultimate message: think about what you’re doing. Because when we make decisions without considering the consequences, our future gets a little bit worse, and that badness builds with compound interest. So when you sell out your address book in exchange for voice dialing, take the time to weigh the opportunity cost of that decision. When you decide to make a cyberpunk game, don’t just dress it up in leather and mirrorshades and call it a day, actually consider the people and power structures your work addresses. Remember, it’s very likely that we really are already living in an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Complaining about Facebook on Facebook won’t change anything. Instead, continuously evaluate your audience, your meaning, and your intent in everything you write, say, and do. Are you reinforcing the existing power structures? Or are you helping out the disadvantaged and oppressed? Because only one of those choices makes you cyberpunk as fuck.
It is unimaginably hard to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. It has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.”