Sunday, September 9, 2012

Minerva's Den and Alan Turing

Bioshock 2
System: Xbox 360
Developer: 2K Games
NA Release: February 2010

Part of what makes BioShock such an engaging series is the way it incorporates real-world concepts and philosophies into its ruined utopian fishbowl. The world is a steampunk-like fantasy, but the very human ideas behind its creation and operation resonate with this vague sense of reality—giving Rapture a “what if” kind of feeling that not many other games come close to or even intend to.

So through what better means can one tie in the theories of mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing?

Alan Turing
Turing's work with technology and his powerful role in history almost feel tailor-made for the world of BioShock. During World War II, Turing and his team worked for Britain under top secret conditions, creating methods and machines to crack the Germans' complex Enigma cipher and turning the tides of war intelligence toward the Allies' favor. For Rapture, which canon says was established in the '40s, Turing's accomplishments would fit in well among the man-made marvels upon which the underwater city's purposes and ideals were inspired.

“Minerva's Den,” a DLC add-on story to BioShock 2, ferries in what may be Turing's most well-known contribution to computer science. The story centers around Charles Milton Porter, a fictional character who worked with Turing in besting the Enigma. Unfortunately, he returns to London after his work to find his wife, Pearl, died in the bombings. A broken man, he ends up in Rapture and creates “The Thinker,” a supercomputer that serves multiple purposes, the most important being the regulation of life functions in the city.

Porter sees another purpose with the computing power he has under his control and thinks to the ideas of his former partner in Britain—specifically, the Turing Test. Turing was fascinated with the concept that a computer could be programmed to “think” like a human. He considered a test in which both a real human and a computer would respond to questions. If another human could not identify which responses came from the computer, it would be considered able to “think” equally to a living being.

C. M. Porter
You might be able to see where this is going. Porter believes he can beat the Turing test, and with this ability play a sort of futuristic Pygmalion, recreating the essence of his late wife. The events surrounding this and what direction the writers take it are something I will leave to be discovered, but I will say it is quite amazing. The character of Porter and the voice acting that brings him to life are superb.

People are still working with artificial intelligence, trying to create a true “thinking” machine, and many are disappointed with the progress so far. But what we will want to do with such programmed personalities and how our human natures will react with them are things that may need more consideration. The ways the world of BioShock brings cold, calculated logic and the human element into constant collision with each other lends itself surprisingly well toward such philosophical thought.

One other way in which Turing and Rapture have some odd similarity: in 1952, it was found that Turing was homosexual, a crime in Britain at that time. He chose “treatment” over incarceration, and was subjected to large injections of synthetic estrogen to kill his libido, chemically castrating him. People who had different ideologies were criminalized and “processed” in Rapture, too.

Of course, at the end of the day, Rapture is the rendering of programmed computers. What happened to Turing was the actions of man.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Home, Ladies and Tigers

System: PC (available on Steam)
Developer: Benjamin Rivers
NA Release: June 2012

“Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?”
The Lady, or the Tiger?

In 1882, writer Frank R. Stockton penned “The Lady, or the Tiger?” a short story in which a young man faced the trial of choosing from two doors. Behind one door was a beautiful lady, with whom he would win immediate marriage. Behind the other door was a tiger of inconsequential gender or appearance, who would win a meal of the young man.

Stockton makes great effort to lay out all the details surrounding the young man's situation. We learn of the loving relationship with the kingdom's princess that brought him there in the first place, how only that same princess has found out the secret of the doors, and the internal dilemma she faces in telling her love which door to choose. And as she covertly points him toward a door, the tale climaxes... by not climaxing. Stockton does not tie up his story. He leaves it in the hands of the reader to take the evidence presented and choose what happened on his or her own, ensuring his story would be read by frustrated high school English classes for all of eternity.

Now, only 130 years later, we get the same style of open-ended mystery in a nifty interactive form!

Retro graphics hearken back to old adventure games and add focus to the narrative.
Home, by Benjamin Rivers, gives players control of a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar house with little memory of how he came to be there and a dead body to contemplate. By exploring in classic adventure game style, the narrative is revealed through the man's first-person perspective, as if he's relating the events to an unknown listener. Even choices to grab items don't come in typical “Take paper?” fashion but more, “I wasn't sure what use this scrap of paper would be to me. Did I take it anyway?” It's almost like the listener is also a collaborator in some way, verifying whether the main character did or not do certain things.

This style is easy to get used to and starts to become a second thought—that is, until the questions become a lot more influential. It soon becomes clear that you need to take the sum of your experiences in the game, including all you chose to do and not do, to determine yourself what actually happens. It's “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, but instead of taking the side of the cutest person in class to argue how things might have gone one way or the other, you're there in the princess's seat, making the ultimate choice based on your perspectives on logic and human nature.

Not the ultimate choice.
And even then you're still not going to understand exactly what happened, leaving so much to think about and debate well after you've closed out the game. Rivers has offered a place for players to contribute their own interpretations, and it's just as much a part of the game, really.

Stockton received a lot of mail from readers demanding what the “real” ending to his story was, and Rivers is probably going to get his share of curious requests as well. Me? I doubt whether either ever had a definitive ending in mind—in fact, I would find it supremely gratifying if I knew they didn't. Crafting these kinds of tales take a lot of effort, but the ultimate intention is external: it is placing all your circumstantial evidence in another's hands and seeing what they find out about themselves by letting their minds and hearts fight over it.