Frontier: Terror Weapons

While Human Unity uses weapons which would enthral the 21st Century warlord, from shipboard weapons to intelligent bullets, the greatest and most terrible weapon is the Master Expert, artificial intelligences designed for war. But this weapon does not inspire fear in the average person. It is just a brain, a ruthless brain designed to win wars whatever the cost, but still only a brain.

The Earth provided us with a catalogue of terrors from which to build an army of Terror Weapons. Like the Digger Wasp which paralyses it’s insect prey and implants eggs into the still-living creature. Or the Phorid fly which attacks red ants, injecting them with larvae which migrate to the ant’s head and consume, using the head as a pupal case. What we do know is that the Conquest society have built upon their memories of Earth – built from the genebanks they brought with them.

We don’t need to imagine that other races on other planets across the wormhole network have their own horrors to build upon. The Trader archives contain several examples of bio-engineered guerilla weapons which decimated entire worlds, complete with dire warnings to stay away. These weapons are recorded as causing extinction events on the home planets where they originated.

Frontier: The Dichotomy of Fulfillment

In an earlier post, I discussed two examples of Citizenship, reproduced here for your convenience:

Chera Nyumba was born in a small village in Africa, in an area formerly known as Zambia. She lives with her husband and their three children. While the children are at school, Chera and Enzi work in their fields, collecting their crops. In the evenings, they watch and listen to the news feeds and Enzi tells the children stories until they fall asleep. Chera is interested in the environment around her as much as it affects her family and work. Chera is a Competent Citizen; she is part of her community and a functional, productive member of society.

Kesho has taken the skill “Citizen” at Professional. She grew up in the shadow of Kumbu and after her school years travelled through the Western European Expanses and the Americas. She now works with two Experts and four humans in the Explorer Crew Selection committee. For her leisure time, she enjoys sex and researching Explorer Disruptive Element reports. Kesho contributes to her community less than she contributes to Human Unity as a whole.

The dichotomy in Human Unity is plain to see. Kesho (a very popular name) spends her days in the company of powerful artificial intelligences selecting a few high performers from the planet’s most capable applicants for missions off-world and reading reports about possible alien activity light years from Earth. Meanwhile Chera spends her days manually harvesting organically grown crops in the fields. Neither is considered low or high work – but they both represent distinct life choices for these individuals.

While it is likely that Chera and her husband use some technological enhancements (a Harvester Specialist – an sapient machine designed for collecting growth produce) for her work in the fields, she has dedicated her life to the raising of crops, the nurturing of her family and the bonds of community life. In the eyes of Human Unity, Chera will receive as much respect for her life choices as Kesho (and in some circles, more – as Human Unity still holds the individuals who laboured their way out of extinction in high regard). It is the main priority of Human Unity to provide a feeling of self-value to individuals as part of a larger collective.

Chera and Kesho receive the same rewards in life. They have no need to work (as the society is post-scarcity and concepts such as trade and barter are somewhat alien to them) but they choose to contribute to their society in their individual ways and are rewarded with the respect of peers and a comfortable life. If Kesho or Chera decided to change their work, to pursue a different career, they would retrain and change and society would continue to function.

Outside of their work, Chera and Kesho enjoy their lives and this is a central tenet in Human Unity philosophy. In terms of overall philosophy, there would be strong parallels with utilitarianism and ethical or altrustic hedonism.

Human Unity individuals can think as they wish and feel as they wish and have the benefit of freedom of expression without retaliation. They can pursue individual tastes with the exclusion of harm to others, but including pursuits which would, by early 21st Century observers, be concluded to be immoral. And they have the freedom to unite and demonstrate. The core belief is that individuals within Human Unity have the freedom to be individuals.

The X-1 visa

The late 80s and early 90s saw an upswing in exotic crime, as beleaguered WatchTower franchises were stretched trying to find members willing and able to combat this rising tide.

In response in 1994, Bill Clinton signed into law the Exotic Foreign Workers Act, which passed with slim majorities in both House and Senate. This law created a new visa, the X-1, which allowed foreign exotics to live and work in the United States on a two-year rolling term. This shored up the immediate needs at the time, and continues to allow WatchTower franchises to bolster their rosters in a hurry.

Some of the conditions of the visa include:

  • Fortress screening (DNA samples, fingerprints, various scans – mechanical and exotic, etc.)
  • Can only accept employment in a role in which their exotic abilities are needed
  • Cannot apply for permanent residency

In return for these fairly stringent conditions, the application is processed fairly quickly (within about six weeks, which is lightning fast for the State Department).

WatchTower New England

All of New England is protected under one WatchTower franchise (WT-NE), which has offices in each of the state capitals (Boston, Hartford, Providence, Montpelier and Augusta) but is headquartered in Boston. To be precise, the HQ is in Cambridge, MA (want to see what it looks like?).

The satellite offices are primarily administrative, although each is known to have the supplies necessary to act as a base of operations for any given action being taken by WT operatives. At any given time, WT-NE employs around 200 people, and between 8 and 12 exotics.

Watch this space for WT-NE making news headlines …

WatchTower – What Everyone Knows

The world is similar to the world we live in now. We have all the same political, social and environmental issues, the same level of media, technology and education, the same strip malls, gas guzzlers and sitcoms.

People with exotic powers first came to the public eye in the late 50s, with a series of highly publicized crimes perpetrated by someone who could turn themselves invisible. Although this person was never caught, a team of exotic crime-fighters, known as “The American Dream,” was formed to help the people of the United States feel safer at night.

There is still no satisfactory explanation as to the origin of exotic abilities. Roughly 1 in 100,000 people manifests some kind of unexplained ability, ranging from the fairly mundane (such as Martin R. from Dallas, Texas, who can instantly tell the gender of any animal and when it last procreated) to the awesomely destructive that had previously only been the stuff of legend.

Exotic crime rose as more and more super-powered people emerged. In response, some of the original members of The American Dream (with endorsement from then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, along with other political, commercial and popular support) founded an organization named the WatchTower, aimed at fighting crime across the United States.

It quickly became impossible to fight crime over such a vast area, and the WatchTower privatized and branched out into several franchises. Over time this became the de facto standard for cities and/or states to protect themselves against exotic crime. The WatchTower has since spread to the rest of the world, with franchises on every populated continent.

Fortress formed at the same time as WatchTower’s privatization. For security’s sake, not much is known about this branch of the government. They detain exotic criminals and are often involved in their apprehension, sometimes working with (and sometimes against) WatchTower operatives. The world’s only known prison for exotic criminals is run by Fortress and it’s location is a closely guarded secret.

All I needed to know about Games…

…I learned from writing my own.

Lewis Pulsipher at GameCareerGuide writes that All I Really Needed to Know About Games I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons

He has some core points which apply to any game but especially one which involves multiple users (a Massively Multiplayer Online Game) for example.

As a designer:
You don’t need high-level technology to make an “immersive” game.
For human/psychological games (as opposed to computer-mediated challenge games), players enjoy the journey, not the destination.
Some people like to be told stories; others like to make their own.
The objective is to make the players think their characters are going to die, not to kill them.
We all like to improve.
User-generated content enriches a game immensely. (In this case, adventures, monsters, classes, etc.)

Lewis continues:
As a player:
It’s more fun with more than one person.
Cooperation is required for survival.
Think before you leap.
Get organized!
Don’t run headlong where you’ve never been.
Keep track of the stuff you’ve got; otherwise you may forget something that could save your butt.
Always have a viable “Plan B”.
Always have a way out.
Don’t depend on luck!

If your game can take into account all of the above points then you’re well on your way to developing a game that I’d like to play. Nintendo shows us that we don’t need the most cutting edge graphics to make a game that truly involves the players – in fact – the cartoony lack of realism in the games on the Wii platform serve to make it more memorable rather than less when compared to the Hi-Def Not-Quite-Realism that you find on the PS3 and XBOX.

For myself, the ‘fun’ in the game has always been in the story and there is some pseudo-theory around this, the concepts of ‘gamist‘, ‘simulationist‘ and ‘narrativist‘. I identify with the latter category, being more interested in the story, in the interactions and in the ‘soft’ outcomes. In contrast, a simulationist will strive to have the most realistic ‘reality modelling’ experience possible. They might enjoy Call of Duty more than Left4Dead or Halo because the content is ‘realistic’. Zombies and aliens, despite being fun, are not real. Lastly, the gamist is in it for the game. For the challenge, for the achievements and perhaps even competitively for the win. There’s nothing wrong with being in a category and it doesn’t make what you enjoy into BadWrongFun and it’s perfectly possible to jump between categories depending on the game itself. For example, while playing “Infamous”, I was in it for the story and I found “Prototype” to be an unenjoyable button-masher aimed at Gamists but when playing any first person shooter against other humans, I tend to be a determined gamist, it’s all about the challenge and all about the winning. Similarly I want a racing game to have realistic drift physics even if the content is all about superfast floating flying machines armed with missiles and if I die, I just come back to life. It’s a joint gamist/simulationist experience for me.

Games are more fun when you’re not alone and I find the co-operative balance of games like Left4Dead to be immensely compelling because it’s the first game I’ve ever played which must be played cooperatively. Yes, there’s a certain mechanics to making sure you have the right equipment and you know the way in a game like that but similarly the ‘chaos’ introduced by other humans in the game is just the very reason I play – especially as they, through communication, can add unobvious twists to the game itself (like playing Call of Duty using only knives or Left4Dead using only pistols). My love of the story means my motivation to have the right equipment and ensure effective communication with the team is entirely because there’s nothing more frustrating than having to play the same ‘level’ again and again due to the mechanics of a game being poorly thought out. I’ve experienced this mostly with console games which require you to have twitch fingers as well as intimate knowledge of which button has a circle and which has a triangle. The fact this ‘out of game’ knowledge is required, completely jolts me out of immersion in the plot and reminds me I’m mashing buttons on a game controller.

An aside to this is the necessity of controlling player character death. There’s nothing more frustrating than your character dying because her avatar edged a pixel over some mathematical value which dictates whether the character stands or falls. At least, again in Left4Dead, some designers have thought about this. It’s not perfect but it beats the extremes of either falling when your pixels are 51% past the border or being able to stand in mid air because one of your pixels is still touching the edge of the cliff. Always err on the side of playability – as it says above, your job is to inspire the fear of character death in the players, not set out to actually kill them. Don’t punish the player for the poor edge detection algorithm in your game engine or for touching something that doesn’t look dangerous in your description or image.

Don’t miss the point about user-generated content. Some companies see Open Source as being a method of saving on developer time or a political statement designed to attract a certain demographic. I have long been of the opinion that you should let people make up their own stories. Being too restrictive here means there’s no Harry Potter RPG and there are only videogames for the franchise which permit a very limited range of activity. The potential content is controlled, closed, censored and choked. Chairman Mao Zedong of China said:

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”

before doing his own controlling, closing, censoring and choking.

Whether or not you think he was using this to entice dissidents out of hiding is not what I’m here to debate but what I will say is that this school of thought is pretty much responsible for Twitter and Youtube. What can be more fun than seeing your creation being used in new and innovative ways. Back a hundred years ago in 1996 when I produced my first book, I loved seeing that someone has written extra content or modified my rules – because it meant they read them. I was often asked to explain my design decisions and why several rules were labelled as ‘optional’ and entertained by someone else’s take, someone else’s story using the background and content I had originated.

I’d love to hear some opinions on what is your favourite game and why. Do you identify most with Gamist, Narrativist or Simulationist (also labelled Narratology and Ludology in Aphra Kerr’s book: The Business and Culture of Digital Games.)