Corporate Megatexts

Corporate Megatexts was a serial in three parts that ran here at Only a Game from May 3rd to 17th 2016. It considered the way that we ‘play’ with the fictional worlds of books, movies, and TV shows as if they comprised a single conherent setting and the conflict between authentic expansion of such megatexts and the commercial custodianship required to make this happen. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the three parts:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Canonicity
  3. Faithfulness

Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Corporate Megatexts (3): Faithfulness

Flash Gordon Star WarsThere are just three screenings of the new Star Wars-branded movie left in my city and I'll have survived the new release with my honour intact, and the film unseen. This is a small and entirely personal victory, a test of my free will and my principles. It does not matter to me whether the new film is ‘any good’, because my concerns are not about being entertained... there was never a shortage of ways to be entertained. My concern is about the meaning we make of our megatexts (i.e. fictional worlds with many contributing works), and our relationship to the corporations that own them. I want to examine this topic as a question of faithfulness, which is to say a matter concerning the practices of authenticity (discussed two weeks ago) – and this is categorically not just about ‘being a fan’.

Surviving J.J. Abrams’ heavily promoted Star Wars film was challenging because I actively wanted to see it. I fell in love with the 1977 Star Wars as a five year old (the movie that would later be retitled A New Hope), and although I don’t consider myself a fanboy and have had a love-hate relationship with George Lucas ever since – I endured Caravan of Courage for a start – I never stopped caring about how the Star Wars megatext was being handled. Taking the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the thirties and cross-breeding them with E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman space operas, Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress, and a sprinkling of World War II aerial dogfight movies was a creative masterstroke.

Mind you, it was also extremely inventive to take the Hollywood Biblical-Historical Epics of the 60s as a template for the prequels, and to layer in a positively prescient reflection on US foreign policy – not that anyone noticed. (The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, four years before Operation Enduring Freedom). But errors in aesthetic judgement matter more to audiences than grand designs: Jar Jar was the harbinger of doom both in and out of the fictional universe of Star Wars as far as a great many fans were concerned. As a matter of custodianship, however, the prequels were unquestionably a commercial success, with returns on investment that outstrip Abrams’ movie, and challenging any of Lucas’ films on authenticity grounds seems like a losing prospect. No matter how disgruntled some fans of the original trilogy might have been in respect of the prequels, they were in no position to overthrow the House of Lucas. That particular throne had to be abdicated.

At a more personal level, I have to decide what my relationship with Disney and with Star Wars will be going forward. Working this out involves difficult questions about corporate megatexts, community, and even friendship. Fiction matters, but it can matter for good reasons and for bad ones. My rejection of the newest Star Wars-branded movie was a chance to test my own principles, but it was not just knee-jerk nostalgiarism that provoked me. Disney and LucasFilm owe me nothing as a childhood fan of Star Wars: fans ‘buy in’, they don’t and can’t ‘buy out’ like Disney can. What troubles me here is the sheer extent of my entertainment money going to one creative economy – Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, Pixar, Disney Classics... it’s a rare day I find myself in a cinema without paying the Big Mouse these days. Of course, you can say that Disney is just the money behind these productions, and that different creative forces are being funded by them. Or you could take a hard-line stance and simply refuse to pay them (although it’s worth noting that refusing to pay while still watching the movies through piracy still supports the corporate megatexts through indirect patronage and cultural participation).

The commercial power of fiction in our century lies in the megatext, and the corporate powers will always acquire the successful megatexts. There are no blockbuster movies without media corporations (nor AAA videogames and ‘event’ mini-series for that matter), so to reject Disney outright is to give up spectacle cinema cold turkey. Yet I don’t want my son to never experience this media form even if I also don’t want it to be his only experience of narrative media. And I don’t want to have to give up going to see the latest dumb superhero movie with an old friend, for whom each new release gives us an excuse to get together and reminisce about comics from our youth. What I need is a principled way of declining to participate in popular culture, one not based solely upon the mere capacity to entertain.

A few years ago, I wrote about the concept of faithful adaptation in the context of the Peter Jackson movies collectively entitled The Hobbit. Here, the question was the role of the source book in the ‘game’ being played with the movie. Faithful adaptation requires the source materials to accord authentically with the new production (in terms of make-believe theory, for the book to be a viable secondary prop in games played with the film). This concept can be extended to new works: a faithful extension of a megatext is one that offers ‘games’ to be played with any combination of earlier works that are part of the relevant canon. Thus determining faithful works depend upon the notion of canonicity, discussed last week.

Although last week’s discussion focussed on how creative people ended up in the role of ‘arbiter of canon’, it is also clear that fictional canonicity is a community practice. Sole authors wear the crown by tradition; in bigger projects, there are always multiple heirs to the throne, which can be passed down in a family but need not be. It is the ‘players’ of megatexts who determine, through agreement, or rather, alignment, who have this role. It seems as if we want a person to have a claim to Regent of Canon because then there are always answers to the ambiguous questions, as if our imaginative experiences were anchored in part upon them existing outside of us, always offering a final court of appeal. Perhaps we learned this habit from Plato’s view of reality, and if so it would be no coincidence since the nerds who sustain the practices of canonicity are also greatly into the sciences.

This means the concept of a ‘faithful work’ leads to the notion of a ‘faithful community’, and thus of faithfulness. A person displays faithfulness to any given canon when they withhold their support from works that deviate from it (the ones that are heretical, if you will). This all sounds overtly religious, and it should: prior to the twentieth century, the megatexts that nerds fought about were holy scriptures. It is no coincidence that the term ‘canon’ being applied in this context comes from the code of church laws in the Middle Ages. Contemporary usage of ‘religion’ as a derogatory term often obscures the way our religious practices are quintessentially human practices, and as such are shaped by situational factors such as tradition and ideals, whatever their ultimate meanings might be. These practices never go away, but they change – often radically – over the centuries.

So is my resistance to the new Star Wars movie an act of faithfulness? Not exactly. The faithful community of fiction I belong to that grounds my non-co-operation with Disney in this case is not Star Wars but Star Trek. In this regard, it is noteworthy that demands of custodianship could be invoked to explain why Abrams had to ditch almost every aspect of the thematic and moral background to the Star Trek megatext in order to bring it to as wide an audience as possible in the cinema. One of the things that was lost in this popularising move was the ethical role of the Prime Directive, which Roddenberry and his writers created to serve as a surrogate for Westphalian sovereignty by transposing the relationship between nations into the relationship between planets. It is noteworthy that a great many Trekkies and Trekkers do not support this concept in or out of the fictional world they love, since they favour international interventions around the world on ethical grounds that would be judged utterly unacceptable by any Starfleet captain. Here, as with the religious megatexts, there is a notable gap between faithfulness to the works in question and faithfulness to the moral practices they extol.

My own faithfulness to the Star Trek megatext is a key reason I withdrew my support for Disney’s Star Wars. It is because Abrams could not (indeed, would not) faithfully extend the Star Trek megatext (as I outlined last week) that I object to Disney handing him the keys to the Death Star just so he can blow it up. Again. Perhaps the new movie is a faithful extension of the Star Wars megatext for many of those who rejected the prequels – I have certainly heard fans of the original trilogy treating the new movie as if it were akin to the vain promise of mum and dad getting back together after an unpleasant childhood divorce. Most likely Disney’s custodianship of Star Wars is just yet another fork in the canon, creating ever more splintered communities and endlessly propagating the arguments over minutiae. This has been what communities of nerds have done for nearly two millennia, after all, and these days it is at least mostly harmless.

Corporations are not the enemy, but they cannot be our friends, for all the money they spend securing that mythos. They need us more than we need them, and they are adept at getting us to take them for granted. The challenge of twenty first century ethics increasingly entails forging and maintaining communities that are more than merely commercial, and in this regard corporations are indeed opposed to us. They are vested in the commercial communities of so-called late capitalism because this is what sustains them. It also happens to be what entertains us. In so much as faithfulness in fiction might give us reasons to break from the status quo, it could become something more than just pugnacious geeks arguing amongst themselves. My suspicion, however, is that our established loyalty to specific megatexts is a force stronger than faithfulness and authenticity. For myself, at least, I have strived to assert my humanity by resisting the inevitable pull of my childhood nostalgia. It is through nostalgia, after all, that the power of the corporate megatexts accumulates.

A new serial begins later this year.

Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow

Pleased to announce a new talk by me as part of the “Futurism vs. Fatalism” event at London’s Red Gallery.

Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow.lo resIn the 1980s, the literary science fiction movement known as cyberpunk explored the fractured cultures left in the wake of an uncontrolled rate of change in our technologies. Writers such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Rudy Rucker offered new future visions that blurred traditional sci-fi beyond recognition. But within a decade, cyberpunk had been reduced to yet another glossy corporate branding, a vacuous fantasy where hi tech cool replaced the serious concerns of the movement. Cyberpunk was dead. All that was left was cyberfetish.

Acclaimed game designer (Discworld Noir, Ghost Master) and philosopher Dr Chris Bateman traces the history and influences of cyberpunk, from Enlightenment philosophy and the 1939 New York World's Fair with its promises of a glittering "World of Tomorrow", to the erosion of the movement's themes and its post-cyberpunk epilogue. In this engaging and provocative talk, he challenges today's heirs to the cyberpunk legacy to take charge of our unruly technology and develop the critical perspective necessary to understand it. Come explore the lurking dangers of our seductive age of cyberfetish that has made the World of Tomorrow an all-too-convenient lie we all buy into.

Thursday June 16th 2016, event begins 6:30 pm at the Red Galley, Old Street London. Tickets appear to be free and can be reserved from Ransom Note's Eventcube site.

Corporate Megatexts (2): Canonicity

Star Fleet Technical ManualThe reboot of a franchise has become so commonplace that seldom a second thought goes into pushing the button and burning continuity to the ground. However, for fans and lovers of any given megatext (i.e. fictional world with many contributing works) there is always an expectation of some degree of authenticity to each new addition. In science fiction and fantasy, genres where geeks form the bedrock of support, there is one particular ‘game’ that dominates questions of what is authentic: canonicity.

There is an inherent tension between the commercial viability of a franchise (the value of custodianship) and the demand for authenticity in the adaptation and extension of fictional worlds (last week’s theme). This aesthetic and moral conflict structures the growth and development of all the contemporary megatexts. In cases where nerd culture has a foothold (or indeed, a stranglehold), the question of what is canonical – of which works constitute the canon, or official components – is both fraught and crucial to understanding how nerds approach authenticity. The underlying process of defending canonicity against the impossibility of ever integrating disparate fictional works as if they were referring to a single universe is something I touched upon in Imaginary Games, but in the context of authenticity and megatextual networks it is worth reconsidering the rules of this game.

Last week, I suggested that it was possible to trace the networks for megatexts, and also to detect different games being played with them via disagreements. When it comes to authenticity, the networks foreground the relationship between fictional works and their creators, with the specific practices also varying to some degree depending upon the relevant medium. It is worth starting in books, where the situation is simplest. For any written story, the presence of a clearly identifiable sole author gives that person unprecedented power to establish or deny the authentic, authorised ‘games’ that can be played in our imagination. J.K. Rowling, for instance, is the final arbiter of any question about the Harry Potter universe as long as she lives. This power can be transmitted down the family line – from Frank to Brian Herbert, for instance, or from J.R.R. to Christopher Tolkien – although in such cases the ‘player’ of the megatext can choose to seal the canon, and treat the continuations as apocrypha or secondary texts.

Films, however, are conceptualised somewhat differently. Perhaps because they are inevitably produced by large teams, the mantle of arbiter of canon rarely falls onto an individual’s shoulders. The same pattern applies to TV shows, which are similarly the product of collaboration. In these cases, a ‘claim to the throne’ lies with a number of different people, depending on quite different circumstances. Directors, writers, and especially actors, all have a capacity to assert a claim to authenticity, even though the audience is not bound to accept it. Highlander 2, for instance, has clear continuity of cast but was outright rejected by fans like a failed organ transplant. There was simply too thin a claim to authenticity.

Star Trek is a particularly interesting case, one where multiple competing claims for creative inheritance lead to many available ‘games’, each with their own canon. There are fans for whom only the classic show ‘counts’, and others for whom the five live action TV series form a single megatext, with the animated series as apocrypha. Gene Roddenberry still held the crown during production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, passing it down to Rick Berman in 1989, who lost the throne with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005.

It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened had Roddenberry died in the 1970s. Would Dorothy Fontana have become ‘Queen of Trek’ by the implied line of succession? It is notable that she is the only writer on the animated show whose work is given merit in canon discussions. She was also the only classic writer brought back to work on the Next Generation. The claims to the throne of canon arbiter become stronger the longer someone has been involved with the megatext in question.

The oddest branch in canon also relates to Star Trek. The technical artist Franz Joseph created blueprints for the USS Enterprise and other starships from the classic show, which were blessed as ‘official’ by Roddenberry. But in the 60s, megatexts were peripheral to media production and corporations were lax about subsidiary rights until Astroboy and Star Wars made it clear that successful monetisation of franchises was about more than the core product. Joseph licensed his drawings to Task Force Games, who then made the seminal tabletop wargame Star Fleet Battles. Canonicity forks here: the Star Fleet universe has all the races and ships of the Star Trek universe (the legal case TSR vs. Tolkien having established that races could not be copyrighted), but this secondary megatext clearly isn’t part of any of the Star Trek canons. Joseph had a disputable claim to the throne, but it remained securely with Roddenberry and Paramount, who became more vigilant about potential usurpation in the future.

When we come to the post-Berman resurrection of the Star Trek franchise, J.J. Abrams did not hesitate to cry “Code zero zero zero destruct zero” and detonate the existing continuity. But of course, this created a gap in the claim to authenticity, a problem pragmatically hurdled by having Leonard Nimoy bless the new movie by appearing in it as Spock. This act did not bridge the canons of the Star Trek megatext, which were irrevocably forked, but it met the minimum requirements for authenticity. In this regard, it is worth comparing William Shatner’s presence in Star Trek: Generations. Fans of the new TV shows were already on board, of course, but the majority of the cinematic audience weren’t necessarily in the same boat. Once again, a bridge to secure authenticity was required – and once again, it was an actor that did it.

It is thus clear that the defuse nature of the manifold of ‘games’ played with corporate megatexts permits extension only by the simultaneous risk of an ‘orthodox’ counter-fan base that rejects the new works and remains faithful to the originals (a theme I shall pick up in the final part of this seial, next week). Tactics to suppress or placate such resistance then becomes part of the corporate task of brand management. Yet it seems as if the role of actors as props in these imaginary games might outrank creators in establishing film canonicity, perhaps because by being on screen they are more prominently associated with the relevant fictional world. That’s why Nimoy had to bless Abram’s all-action, hollowed-out version of Star Trek (which could still be judged inauthentic against any and all prior games of canon up to that point, despite the legal authority of the owning corporation).

When Abrams was also tasked with continuing the Star Wars megatext in the cinema, the mighty G-canon (as LucasArts termed George Lucas’ primary continuity during his reign) represented a cult of resistance that needed to be addressed. In this case, on top of the claim of authenticity granted by securing the original cast (which was vital but not decisive) was the added power of Lawrence Kasdan – Star Wars’ very own Dorothy Fontana, since he co-wrote the latter two parts of the original trilogy. Since fans rate The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the movies, this play was both shrewd and effective. Avoiding the necessity of a reboot, Abrams used the heir apparent to secure his title as pretender to the throne long enough to validate his movie – yet had no interest in claiming the crown. Abrams role was as kingmaker in the consolidation of authority for Disney, whose acquisition of LucasFilm had set up the conditions for a potential ‘Star Wars of the Roses’. It is to the impact of this situation that the final part of this serial is addressed.

Next week: Faithfulness

Corporate Megatexts (1): Authenticity

Kutanagi v JohanssonWhen Paramount announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Major Kusanagi in the live action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, it launched another outbreak of accusations about ‘whitewashing’ – the appointment of white actors and actresses into roles with a clearly established ethnicity. Comic book writer Jon Tsuei advanced a strong criticism of the casting, not on the grounds of racial politics, but claiming that Ghost In The Shell is “inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.” What are we to make of this claim, and of the circumstances that led to it?

This incident is an example of a clash of narrative communities, a phenomena that – with a notable exception I’ll save until later – is peculiar to the last hundred years. The reason we are facing these conflicts today can be traced to a serious gap between the aesthetic and ethical values that sustain contemporary media production. On the one hand, the giant global corporations that produce our most popular entertainments are propelled by an ethical and economic commitment to sustain their franchises by ensuring the money they make will exceed the cost of production. This is the burden of custodianship. On the other side is the question of authenticity in adapting or extending story materials, the demand that all materials be faithfully related. Tsuei’s objections to Johannson’s casting is a good example of an authenticity argument.

The problem of custodianship is often dismissed as pure profit motive, yet no-one is going to stump up millions of dollars to make (say) a blockbuster movie without the hope it can take even more money at the box office, or through other channels of monetisation. To be opposed to custodianship is to attempt to opt out of popular culture altogether – something Marxists certainly have reason to do, but that most people do not. The continued production of content is something most seem to view as beneficial, except where to do so would undermine the authenticity of what was made. Conversely, those pushing against the production of further content can appeal to the diminishment of the core materials, which is another argument from authenticity.

The question of authenticity relates directly to the kind of ‘game’ being played with the fictional world in question. We are not accustomed to thinking of films or books as being ‘played’, but whether this term is taken literally or figuratively, the point remains that there are multiple ways a work can be experienced. As I argue in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies are ‘played’ differently by someone who takes them as an adaptation of the book of that name than by someone who takes them as a prequel to Jackson’s movies of The Lord of the Rings. The problem of authenticity is always tied to a context.

Now there may be a temptation here to dismiss the issue of authenticity entirely as ‘subjective’, and a corresponding mistake of thinking that custodianship must be objective since the money, after all, can be counted. But successful custodianship must meet minimum requirements of authenticity lest the franchise be ‘milked dry’, and thus depends upon the very subjective elements that the economic factors are contrasted against. The desire to dismiss the subjective elements of a problem stems entirely from the mistaken assumption that they are infinitely variable, and thus cannot be meaningfully engaged with. However, once it is recognised that the experience of fiction entails different games, we are no longer dealing with the irreducible infinite. We are simply dealing with a manifold of practices, that is a set of different ‘games’.

Just as Bruno Latour has demonstrated that a grounded sociology is about tracing relations, a grounded study of fictional interplay is about identifying the network associated with the practices of the ‘game’ being played. This network includes all the works that form the megatext of the fictional world. This term ‘megatext’ is Charles Segal’s idea for understanding Greek mythology as inter-related, and I have extended this in my philosophy to contemporary media franchises like The X-Men, Star Trek, and Tolkien’s legendarium. The network also includes both the causal ‘players’ of the megatext (“I saw that movie”) and the hobbyists (“I’ve read every issue”), and all the people and companies entailed in creating the original media. The situation is further complicated by the interdependences: the X-Men megatext links to the Marvel comics megatext, and to the broader science fiction megatext, and more besides! The task of tracing such a network may seem insurmountable, but it is nothing of the kind – it is simply (as Latour notes for sociology) that you must trace things carefully, one step at a time.

While short cuts in network-tracing are risky, a subset of the manifold of ‘games to be played’ can be constructed to provisionally interrogate any megatext. In Implicit Game Aesthetics I took the conflicts between aesthetic values (evidenced by the arguments that are stated) as distinguishing between different ways of playing (indeed, of playing anything). I do not think it a coincidence that Latour uses the same method to trace his ‘modes of existence’. The provisional manifold for every megatext is thus the different ‘games’ revealed by the arguments between ‘players’. Some games are disagreements about the values of authenticity, but some are clashes between custodianship and specific values for authenticity.

In the case of Jon Tsue vs. Paramount, this is precisely the case: taking an authenticity position based around cultural embedding as his aesthetic context, Tsue argues that any attempt to disembed Ghost In The Shell from Japanese culture is a breach of authenticity. The unstated counter-argument from Paramount would presumably be that custodianship dictates a lead actress with box office draw. Without Johansson, therefore, there would be no movie. (This argument was indeed traced, on Paramount's behalf, by the Hollywood Reporter.) Supporters of authenticity could argue in such a case that it would be better not to make the film at all than to compromise the faithful relationship of the new work to the rest of the relevant megatext. Here, in brutal simplicity, is the crisis in authentic fiction brought about by the practical dominance of corporations in the ownership of all contemporary megatexts.

Next week: Canonicity

Moffat's Schizophrenic Continuity in Doctor Who

Contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent that may completely ruin your enjoyment of it. If you have not seen this episode, I advise you not to read the following post. Caution: may contain traces of philosophy.

Heaven Sent TeleporterWhen it comes to Moffat’s Doctor Who, I have to wonder: can he repair the problems in the show’s infinitely compromised continuity faster than his own problems tear new holes into the Whoniverse?

In Heaven Sent, we have what Radio Times’ TV critic Patrick Mulkern has called an “instant classic”. I tend to agree, even if I found this particular script impossibly frustrating in my impatience to get to the resolution of the current plot arc, which is only very slightly advanced by this achingly slow but brilliantly acted episode. But we also have in Heaven Sent the embodiment of current showrunner Steven Moffat’s philosophy for guiding the show, which is diametrically opposed to previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, even though they share a common vision of Nu Who as classic Doctor Who plus British soap melodrama, as I’ve suggested before.

It’s clear from his work on the show that Davies is a positivist, i.e. someone with faith in the objectivity of the sciences. He mounted all his episodes under a tightly conceived materialist conception of science fiction – very much in the tradition of Terry Nation – despite being willing to play fast and loose with elements many sci-fi fans might consider ill-considered. It was never orthodox science fiction (i.e. hard sci-fi), but it was always under its shadow. While Moffat shares Davies’ anti-religious sentiments, he is not fundamentally a positivist, and has never shown any real sign of being interested in orthodox science fiction. So while Davies pursued Nu Who as sci-fi first and melodrama second, Moffat pursues it as melodrama first and sci-fi optional. In philosophical terms, Moffat is an ontic idealist about the Whoniverse – the complete opposite of Davies’ ontic materialism – a point made abundantly clear in The Big Bang, when Matt Smith’s Doctor restores the universe largely (it seems) from nothing but his own memories. Moffat’s universe, in other words, is essentially pure thought – George Berkeley would have been proud!

With Heaven Sent I believe we can see Moffat’s priorities clearly, in that he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything in terms of the Doctor Who mythos if it makes an episode as much of a spectacle as it can be, and simultaneously provides as melodramatic a plot as possible when taken as a self-contained story. However – and here is where he becomes schizophrenic – Moffat is also far more engaged in the process of maintaining (and repairing!) the ambiguities and problems in the long-term continuity of the show than any other showrunner in its fifty year history. This tension is part of my joyous frustration with Moffat’s tenure at the top, since I must confess that I struggle to find any episodes penned by Davies that I actually liked (possibly New Earth is an exception), while I find the episodes in Moffat’s era to be stronger in almost every sense, despite struggling to find any that are as good as those that Moffat wrote under Davies guidance.

The problem with Heaven Sent is that its temporally-leaky, closed-loop plot device breaks the Doctor Who universe in an all too predictable way. It’s not that other sci-fi writers hadn’t considered using teleporters as “3D printers” (as Capaldi’s Doctor presents it) – indeed, the science fiction megatext is full of stories about this, and I’ve discussed some of these previously in the context of low fidelity immortality. But as a writer working on a long-running show, you don’t use teleporters this way without opening the big can of worms clearly labelled ‘Do Not Open’. For if all that is required to make a teleporter into a replicator of beings is a jolt of energy, then the moment anyone has transmats (as Doctor Who traditionally calls teleporters), you instantaneously have immortality for everyone, not to mention perfect instantaneous cloning, and all the intriguing problems with personal identity than Ronald D. Moore explored in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Because energy is a generalized resource, and not that hard to come by – particularly if you can simply zap a humanoid to get it – it is simply not a sufficient barrier to prevent the vast swathe of problems that come from conceiving of teleporters in these terms.

Let’s try and be generous to Moffat and imagine that it is the regeneration energy or time energy in the Doctor’s body that is required to thread the needle and make the teleporter into an autocloner. That at least prevents ordinary humans in, say, The Seeds of Death from having instant immortality and duplication from T-Mat. But the energy put into the teleporter each time should be reduced by the amount used to restart it (if regeneration energy) or entirely expended the first time (if time energy), so neither is a very plausible way of mounting the closed loop required for Heaven Sent to work. The situation is far worse if you just ‘burn’ a body to run it a second time. The Master needn’t have spent so many years hunting down ways to get a new body in the plot arc beginning at The Deadly Assassin (clearly an influence on this episode) since he could just use a transmat and a random victim to make a new him simply by having copied himself prior to his last regeneration. I’m afraid it doesn’t work as an element of the mythos: it only works as a means of making this individual episode have a dramatic finale.

That, in a nutshell, is Moffat’s problem. He’s content to make an episode under his jurisdiction work as well as it can in its own terms, regardless of the implications for the mythos. (Kill the Moon, anyone?) But he’s schizophrenic about this, because at the same time he is so admirably dedicated to maintaining and repairing the mythology and, for that matter, integrating the best of the non-canonical Who lore into the master canon. (In this regard, does the next episode, Hell Bent, imply resolving both the so-called Cartmel masterplan and the loose ends with the 1996 TV movie? Ambitious!) I have nothing but admiration for the way that Night of the Doctor not only gave some closure to the eighth Doctor, but also made all the Paul McGann Big Finish audio plays into quasi-canonical stories by name-checking every one of his companions on screen. That’s a move so bold that I just can’t imagine anyone but Moffat daring to do it.

Perhaps this is the point: Moffat is daring – positively reckless, in fact – with Doctor Who, always trying to mount bigger, more ludicrous high concept stories atop of a rather fluid conception of continuity and long-term plotting that he simultaneously savages and painstakingly repairs. Which is precisely Heaven Sent’s problem. It’s a ridiculous piece of high concept storytelling, utterly dependent upon its opening scene not giving the game away (much like The Usual Suspects, actually), and one that opens up the teleporter wormcan and hopes that its consequences can simply be ignored. (Actually, any psychological consequences can be ignored, since to the last and only survivor of these Doctor-copies only a short time has passed!) Perhaps some future showrunner will be able to fix the complications Moffat unleashes here by reconceptualising teleporters, but I doubt it. More likely, it will remain another tear in the fabric of the Whoniverse made by Moffat in pursuit of his own standards of storytelling. I admire him. He has, as they say in New York, chutzpah; audacity – both good and bad. But I also hope and trust that he’s working on the challenging problem of who could conceivably replace him when he eventually steps down.

The Martian as Robinsonade

Contains spoilers for the 2015 film The Martian, and one moderate swear word quoted from it.

The MartianThe 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars proudly declares on its poster: “This film is scientifically authentic! It is only one step ahead of present reality!” You can guess, simply from the year and title, what we would make of this claim today. Fifty years later, Ridley Scott’s The Martian plots exactly the same vector, just from a different starting point.

The most realistic aspect of Scott’s The Martian, adapted from the self-published novel by Andy Weir, is that its protagonist, botanist and astronaut Mark Watney, never questions his faith in the power of science to save him. Beyond this earnest depiction of contemporary non-religious zeal, the movie’s claims to showcase anything that might be called ‘real’ evaporate. This, indeed, is inevitable: the lesson from The Martian, should we choose to accept it, is that ‘realism’ describes accordance with whichever mythologies we align with our concept of ‘reality’. That does not mean nothing is true: it just highlights the problems entailed in trying to assert terms like ‘realistic’ in connection with imagined events.

The Martian is real to positivists  (those who put their faith in the sciences) in precisely the same way something like The Greatest Story Ever Told is real to Christians – right down to the way either cultural cohort would approach nit-picking the content. There is a quasi-religious fervour to the way ‘scientific inaccuracy’ is reported in connection with films such as this, a duty to educate on the back of entertainment, all while extolling the need to witness the film in question for its edifying qualities. While there is no denying (for instance) that the Martian dust storm that serves as the inciting incident would be harmless because of the thinness of the atmosphere on Mars, as the author of the original book acknowledges, I was personally more bothered by the internal problems this creates. If killer storms are an aspect of Mars in the fictional world of The Martian, it cannot be the case that the rockets for departure are recklessly sent by NASA years in advance and ready-to-fly, a key plot device upon which hangs the resolution of the film’s crisis. Mind you, none of this matters in terms of claims to this being a ‘realistic’ story, since such a claim is not about what could happen but about how we conceive reality.

To call The Martian a Robinsonade i.e. a tale in the form of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, is perhaps not too surprising. Surely many expected they were going to see Castaway in Space, rather than Apollo 13: Martian Edition. But herein lies the insurmountable rift at the centre of any claim to realism leveled against the film; not that physics, chemistry, and biology are neglected (rather, they are lavishly worshiped, however inaccurate some details may be), but that the central character is not a character, but a mere cipher through which the miracles of Science are channeled. I would compare Mark Watney to Moses, if it were not for the fact that Moses could barely believe the incredible superpowers that flowed through him. Like the preacher upon the pulpit, Watney doesn’t have to be human; to have our frailties, our weaknesses, to fall prey to depression, to slip from sanity – all this is impossible in the given role. Watney, like a good fundamentalist, never questions, and never doubts the agent of his salvation. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!” he declares. Hallelujah, brother, testify!

It could reasonably be objected that The Martian doesn’t work as a Robinsonade because so much of the story entails the work of NASA to line up all the necessary science-flavoured plot devices involved in its hero’s rescue. It is certainly a twist on the format! But in many respects this helps reinforce the way that both stories are deeply colonial in their perspective. Writing in the same year as Robinson Crusoe on Mars was released, the Irish author James Joyce noted that Defoe’s protagonist was the “true prototype” of the colonialism of the British Empire. Joyce remarks upon Crusoe’s “manly independence” as well as “the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” This description matches Watney perfectly. Certainly, some of the “efficient intelligence” is outsourced to Earth in The Martian, since many of the characters in the movie exist solely to deliver a domain-specific plot device to its proverbial desert island. But it is Watney's “manly independence” that is always the focus of the action.

The principle difference between Watney and Crusoe is that the latter, as with British colonials, had to deal with the indigenous ‘savages’, and only truly turns to faith at the denouement of the novel. Watney on the other hand is alone, and disturbingly unfazed by it. Perhaps his perfect Earth-agricultural potatoes – utterly implausible given what we know about plant growth, incidentally – are his companions? The colonial reference is made internally to the movie, and it would have been interesting to see the film accept that potato plants grown on Mars would be utterly different vegetables to the ones we know. It would have been an acknowledgment, however small, that what we were seeing was palpably unnatural, in the sense this term is usually deployed. Perhaps coming eye-to-eye with an unrecognisable tuber would have allowed Watney to encounter something other than what his scientifically-flawless sainthood projects: mastery of all, dependence upon no-one.

In both Defoe’s novel and The Martian, we are presented with a mythos whereby one soul is able to survive against the odds. This is not coincidental. While separated by nearly three centuries, both stories build upon a conception of the human soul that was given mythic breath by Descartes’ philosophy. The contemporary sciences, in a brutal irony, deftly unweave the idealism of pure individuality implied by Descartes’ cogito: we are a social species, we cannot be human in isolation. Yet a great many contemporary scientists and their fans, swept up in a mythology they cannot quite perceive because of its status as background assumption, continue to presume this individualism, a narrative massively intensified by the Enlightenment – originally to our benefit, now to our considerable loss. We have been colonised by this way of thinking; its truth has supplanted older ways of being that now seem ‘savage’ by comparison. Of course we must idolise the individual as the embodiment of freedom! Anyone who doesn’t is not ‘one of us’.

The Martian offers to reassure you that you can exist as a pure individual provided you place your faith in the sciences (while ignoring what these discourses reveal about us), and that humanity will act to deliver you from evil – at astronomical expense! – provided you do not live on our own planet. This does not exhilarate me the way it has other cinema goers. I find it somewhat pernicious that we can be entertained by this, for reasons directly parallel to the critique I leveled at Interstellar and Sunshine. I enjoyed the movie only guiltily, quietly concerned by what it reveals about our contemporary mythologies. The sciences cannot save us because they have become quintessentially bound to our problems; not quite their cause, but inestimably far from being our salvation. We cannot go on without their help, but in ascribing to them the unique capacity to determine what is ‘real’ we extend the power practices of our officially dismantled Empires indefinitely. Perhaps it is time to apply the deeply questioning methodology we ascribe to the sciences to our notion of ‘realistic’ and bring an end to the colonialism of truth that underpins far too much of our cultural baggage.

Interstellar as Self-Defeating Allegory

Contains spoilers for both Sunshine and Interstellar.

McConaughey Looking GormlessRecent decades have seen a rise in popularity for non-religious allegory films. But the latest, the Nolan brothers’ Interstellar, provides its own strong reasons for rejecting its message.

The religious allegory has long depended upon travelling as its strongest metaphor for life, as evidenced in both John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey into the West (also known as Monkey) – the classic Christian and Buddhist travelogue allegories respectively. Two of the recent spate of non-religious allegories also build their plots upon an epic journey, namely Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Here, the mythic themes of traditional religion are replaced with contemporary non-religion, specifically positivism (which collects various mythos that have in common a strong trust in the sciences as our most reliable truth-givers). Other positivistic allegories in cinemas recently include Greg Motolla’s Paul (penned by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson’s The Invention of Lying, both of which descend into bigotry, the latter to a jaw-dropping extent. Of course, religious allegory is hardly immune to this: Journey to the West is about as racist towards Taoists as Paul is towards rural Christianity, for instance.

Interstellar and Sunshine are two peas in a pod: movies about scientists embarking upon an epic space journey to save the Earth from a poorly explained global catastrophe that – quite implausibly, in the case of Interstellar - can only be solved by physicists. Both movies have similar influences; Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has been mentioned by both directors, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris also deserves a nod in this regard. And both movies hired astrophysicists as full-time consultants – Einstein Medal winner Kip Thorne for Interstellar, and perpetual rictus-grinned Brian Cox for Sunshine. On the surface, this seems like a sensible consultation gig, although in the case of Interstellar the scientific themes go beyond mere physics and a broader consultation might have been sensible. The role of these physicist-advisors is as much spiritual as it is practical, though, as can be seen in Brian Cox’s conversion of Sunshine-star Cillian Murphy to atheism (i.e. a specifically atheological form of positivism) during filming. I suspect in this case that Murphy’s prior agnosticism was already positivistic in inclination, so the ‘change’ was more of denomination than of inclination.

Whereas Sunshine feels very much like Pilgrim’s Progress for those who put their faith in Science, at least before devolving into serial-killer-in-space, Interstellar seems a little more internally conflicted, but only just. Matt Damon’s hilarious cameo as evolutionary dogmatist Dr. Mann provides (sometimes unintentionally) some much needed humour in the frankly overlong movie. Mann has swallowed all of the Dawkins-esque dodgy metaphors about evolution without, it seems, accepting Dawkins’ own exultation to rise above this fallen state (a mythos Dawkins himself exports from Christianity, as others have noted). Similarly, John Lithgow has a few injections of grandfatherly wisdom that help leaven the oh-so-slowly rising bread: I giggled at his remark about Matthew McConaughey’s character ‘praying’ to his gravitational anomaly – far more apposite than perhaps even the Nolan brothers intended!

As spectacle cinema, Interstellar is a strangely effective mix of awe and boredom. But as didactic cinema, the Nolans shoot themselves through their collective feet. Christopher Nolan has stated that with this movie he wanted to rekindle interest in space travel after the disappointing termination of the space shuttle programme. But by its own internal logic, Interstellar is a massive argument against its own rhetoric. The problem springs from its energising mythos being that of the early twentieth century Russian school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who responded to early rocketry by stating: “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot live in a cradle forever.” In the film, this is delivered as “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here”, and Dylan Thomas’ striking poetry is repeatedly deployed to underscore this theme. This is a mythos I have dubbed “Flee the Planet” – and it is one of the most dangerous (in the Enlightenment sense) non-religious ideologies in circulation. As ground-breaking evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis remarked, it is a fantasy to think that space exploration is something possible solely through shiny metal technologies and not through messy biological partnerships. As a result, if we are to explore the stars, it is first necessary to fix our problems here on Earth.

This is the first way Interstellar’s message stumbles: it spends the entirety of the first hour painting its picture of a doomed Earth but never really manages to explain why that catastrophe is inescapable, or (equivalently) why super-physicists can save us by evicting us into space but super-biologists are powerless to save us on Earth. If it is possible, as the film’s ending posits, to create majestically perfect space colonies through the wonder of physics, why is it impossible to build (sealed) terrestrial colonies upon the Earth? Because frankly, being in space changes nothing here: if you can’t build sustainable self-contained colonies on the Earth, you’re not going to be able to build them in space either. The film may have got its physics ducks in a row, but its biology ducks are all higgledy-piggledy. We can still buy into conceit this because apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios are so familiar to us now, but in this case we ought to be more sceptical about its premise, given the director’s intention to motivate viewers towards a specific way of thinking.

More egregiously on this front, Interstellar veers into very strange metaphysical nonsense in its attempts to neatly tie everything up too neatly. Behind its immediate mythos of “Flee the Planet” lies a more general mythos that philosopher Mary Midgley has dubbed “Science as Salvation”. But the sciences are utterly powerless to provide salvation in Interstellar, because its entire premise is based upon aid from unknown beings that McConaughey’s character insists (with a total absence of evidence – bad positivist, no cookie for you!) are five-dimensional future descendants of humanity. These beings open the wormhole and construct the tesseract that are the necessary plot devices for saving all of humankind in the story. This actually doesn’t make a lick of sense if you examine it too closely, but setting this aside the whole “Science as salvation” mythos fails if what actually saves you is a deus ex machina, or rather homo ex machina since we are supposed to believe that future descendants of humanity are the godlike aliens in this story. Thus if the film attempts to rekindle interest in space travel by suggesting that we’ll need to escape the planet to live after we kill the Earth, it contradicts its own didactic intentions by making such an outcome impossible to conceive without a thoroughly un-positivistic faith in superpowered future post-humans manipulating events like the Greek Gods lowered by a crane into the theatre that gave us the god-in-the-machine metaphor in the first place. As allegory, Interstellar is shockingly self-defeating.

When religious and non-religious allegories posture against rival mythologies, it is almost always ‘the best of us’ versus ‘the worst of you’ – which is (not coincidentally) also how the “Science versus Religion” mythos operates ideologically. In Journey to the West, the silly Taoists are never allowed to present their perspective, and problems within Buddhism never come to the fore. Of course, this doesn’t hurt the story at all! In Interstellar, however, there is a surplus of what I’ve called cyberfetish (blindness when judging our technology) that, unlike the magical battles in Wu’s narrative, undermines what the Nolans want us to make-believe. McConaughey expresses cyberfetish succinctly when he is enraged by his kids’ school adopting textbooks that say the moon landings were faked for political purposes (nice touch, that). He objects that there used to be a machine called an MRI and if they still had it, his wife wouldn’t have died. Maybe so. But isn’t grand scale monocultural farming facilitated by mechanized agriculture the root of the blight that threatens humanity with extinction in the film? Cyberfetish encourages us to see technology solely as friend and saviour – magical medical interventions, test-tube repopulation miracles, sassy robot friends, and galaxy-spanning spaceships. It blinds us to the ways that unfettered technological development has hastened the threat of our own extinction, and already brought about the permanent eradication of many of the species we shared the planet with until very recently indeed.

Interstellar is an epic thought experiment that seeks to persuade us into taking a rash course of action by eliding almost all the relevant information and making it seem that its way is the one true path. There is a nasty history of this in twentieth century moral philosophy, not to mention Medieval religious doctrine: we should not find it more palatable just because it indulges our valiant yearning to touch the stars. If humanity is to explore space, it will not be through the “Flee the Planet” mythos: as Interstellar inadvertently makes clear, this is a dangerous fantasy. Rather, our relationship must first and foremost be with our living planet in all its necessary diversity. “The Earth and then space” is the only mythology that might give us even a fleeting chance of one day travelling beyond our world, and even then we may have to accept (as Interstellar publically denies) that it is our robots that will have to be our proxies amongst the stars. Science fiction inspires us all – both religious and non-religious people alike. Let us ensure it inspires us to do our duty to our fellow Earthly beings rather than encouraging us to hasten our self-inflicted apocalypse by trying to sacrifice the planet in order to ineffectually flee into the heavens.

Interstellar is in cinemas now. For more on science fiction as positivistic mythos, see The Mythology of Evolution, and for more on cyberfetish and the moral dangers of thought experiments see Chaos Ethics.

Please note that this is not a review, but rather a philosophical critique. If you want my review of Interstellar it would be "see this movie if you enjoy attempts at serious science fiction with striking cinematography."

Exterminate! The Dalek and the Drone Assassin

Dalek ExterminateThe Daleks, the most feared race in the science fiction universe of Doctor Who. But is their terrible warcry of "Exterminate!" just a chilling historical reference to the Nazi's 'Final Solution', or is it also a horrific reflection of our own willingness to let our technology distort our ethics when it comes to violence?

There is an incredible scene in the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in which the military strategist Kongmong (or Zhuge Liang) commiserates with his enemy, the barbarian chieftain Meng Huo. Putting aside the radical differences with the historical personages these characters are based upon, what is striking about the scene is that two warriors who might be considered brutal by today's moral standards do something we can no longer countenance: they share in the grief of an enemy. Meng Huo's forces have been using rattan armour, a lacquered wood that is proof against the swords and spears of the invading forces. Kongmong reasons that if this mysterious defense is proof against both metal and water (the battleground being around dank forests), it must be vulnerable to fire. He thus sets an incendiary trap - but it is too successful. The laquer ignites and the soldiers are all burned to death. But rather than boast of his victory, Kongming weeps with Meng Huo over the terrible loss of life. Despite the savagery of this era, it is still devastating to Kongming to have caused death on such a scale. And so he weeps both for, and with, his enemy.

By comparison, the fictional Daleks shed tears for no-one. They are absolutely assured of their racial superiority, and thus have a mandate to eradicate all other species except when their own plans require enslaving the lesser races instead. Terry Nation, who created both the Daleks and the dystopian science fiction show Blake's 7, modelled the Daleks upon the Nazis, a theme that is most explicit in the final Dalek story of the classic era, Remembrance of the Daleks. Although extermination was a thematic element of the 1960s Dalek stories, it wasnt until 1972 that "Exterminate!" became their de facto warcry, an outcome that owed as much to British newspapers popularizing the phrase in connection with these cybernetic murdererers as anything else.

Fiction is the mirror of our moral selves and we can learn a great deal about ourselves from how we relate to ethical situations portrayed in stories. In the cases described above, we have two odd extremes of a some kind of ethical scale: war is an accepted tool by both Kongming and the Daleks, but the former aims not at the eradication of the enemy but in fact hopes to make them allies, something the aliens from the planet Skaro could not possibly contemplate. We cannot, I suggest, see ourselves in the Daleks, who are as close to absolute examples of moral wrongness as we are likely to find. But we also cannot see ourselves very well in this particular Kongming story - since when do we commiserate with our enemies these days?

The chilling fact of contemporary warfare is that we are far closer to Daleks than we are willing to admit. The familiar 'pepper-pot' shape of the Dalek is a machine (a 'travel machine', as it is called in Genesis of the Daleks) intended to house the mutated descendants of a dying race of humanoids on the planet Skaro. The scientists who make this device have in mind only their ability to continue as a race, but the twisted genius Davros adds a weapon to the casing and genetically engineers the organic occupants to have greater aggression and an absence of empathy and pity. There is a sense, therefore, of the Daleks being destined towards extermination. But in many respects, it is the addition of the weapon to the travel machine that transforms the Daleks from a means of survival to a means of extermination - and this parallels contemporary usage of robotic drones.

UAVs, as the military penchant for acronyms renders them - 'unmanned aerial vehicles' - are also a kind of 'travel machine'. They allow telepresence in remote locations, such that an operator in the United States can fly a drone (as I shall insist on calling them) on the other side of the world. Technology, our Enlightment mythology assures us, is morally neutral, and we should only be concerned about the ways we use our tools and not the tools themselves. Yet for some reason, we are not on the whole significantly concerned about the CIA mounting explosive missiles upon these drones and using them to strike at targets in Iraq and Pakistan. I suggest this is because we think of such deployments as being used 'against terrorists', despite an endless array of evidence that these drone assassinations have resulted in many hundreds of deaths among civilians who simply have the misfortune to be neighbours of those who have been marked for death by military bureaucracy. The facts of this horrific practice are not in dispute. Yet still, we do not weep for the enemy, nor even for the innocents slain in pursuit of the morally reprehensible goal of mechanized extermination.

I'm saddened to report that not long ago I discovered that someone in my circle of acquaintance was working on autonomous guidance systems for military drones. I am reluctant to force my moral values upon others but I had to confront him on this. "They only use drones to kill terrorists" was his shocking reply. Even if that were the case, which it manifestly is not, are we now so far from critically challenging our technology that we would walk into developing not mere Daleks, which after all are still vehicles, but autonomously murderous machines? Never mind the mythology of Doctor Who, this is the nightmare future of The Terminator we are sleepwalking into!

There is an oft-quoted comment from one of Heideggar's lectures that is usually quoted with horror:

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

Excluding militant vegans, who value non-human animals radically more than most people, this line is taken as a sick conflation of the moral value of a chicken or cow to that of the Jewish people. (I have never seen the lives of the Japanese civilians slain by the hydrogen bombs brought into this expression of outrage, however.) While Heideggar's remark was certainly ill-chosen, at its heart is a recognition of the risks of pursuing death as an automated process. The Daleks and the Terminators are science fictional expressions of this concern. Drone assassins are its horrific manifestation in contemporary war. If we cannot recapture some scintilla of the remorse Kongming shows in accidentally exterminating enemy combatants when we face down our intentional extermination of innocent civilians, we must urgently ask those who serve in our armed forces to find new moral values for the battlefield. For today, it is our own forces whose warcry has unknowingly become 'exterminate!'

You'll find more detailed discussions of drone assassination, the relationship between science fiction and ethics,  and other contemporary moral problems in my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.

Kult Post-mortem (1): Dead Gods and No Dwarves

Alita In 2005, an unknown Slovak company released a EuroRPG that managed to pull in 80% and 90% review scores. The game was Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (known as Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US) and this is the story of how it came to be made.

Fortunate Meetings

In December 2003, Ernest Adams wrote a piece for his popular Gamasutra column The Designer’s Notebook entitled “Inside a Game Design Company”. At the time, International Hobo (or ihobo) were a unique phenomenon – although there were certainly consultants working in game design and dialogue scripting, no-one had tried to form a company that would offer both of these services under one roof. Yet this was the very founding principle behind International Hobo: that to do game narrative well required game designers and writers to work closely with one another, and that a company that could provide outsourced services in both these areas together would offer a significant practical advantage.

At the time we had just released our first game, Ghost Master (with the now-closed studio Sick Puppies) and had received critical success for it – including a 90% review score in the US magazine PC Gamer, and a nomination for Best New IP in the Develop Awards, which also nominated International Hobo as Best Outsourcing Company. However, we were struggling to acquire clients and were substantially short of our targets for this. A strategic mission to Japan had provided great contacts (and we did later work with several of the companies that I met on that trip), but cold calling developers for over a year had produced nothing but pain and heartache.

But on the back of Ernest’s article, I received an email from Peter Nagy who was running a company in the Slovak Republic called 3D People (who later rebranded as Games Farm). Peter and his team were working on a EuroRPG – they had a rather neat isometric game engine, and some fantastic art designs and graphical assets, but they knew they needed help on both the design and the narrative. We provided a free consultation on their documentation, and came back with a proposal to take what they had and turn it into something quite different from everything else on the market. 3D People liked what they read, and commissioned International Hobo to completely overhaul the design and narrative of the game – and to do so in rather a hurry, since they were working to an aggressive schedule. It was the start of a beautiful friendship that is still going on today.

Rewriting the Story

The basis of the story materials that had been delivered to ihobo for revision was a tale of epic betrayal at a besieged city. There was actually a great deal to like about this part of the backstory, and this was to become the legendary tale of how a crippled outcast would rise to become a brutal dictator known as the Theocrat. There was also a great suite of characters with exotic names like Tar Evanger and Carissa Cantrecht, who were part of a secret society called the Penta Nera. Much of the ideas in this original draft survived into the final game, although the way the plot was put together was a little too obvious and conventional.

For instance, the draft story began with a young orphan living in a distant abbey who comes back from a morning walk to find his home attacked and burned to the ground. It was a set-up we’d all seen a hundred times before, and we felt it could be done better. However, 3D People already had the burning building assets – so we needed to rework it in a way that would still make use of the existing materials. We came up with the idea that it would be a much more intriguing opening if the player is attacking the monastery in order to recover a powerful relic – but upon arriving it becomes clear that someone else has beaten them to it... The burning building thus takes on a very different emphasis than the boring ‘my family has been murdered’ cliché. We were also keen that if the game was only going to have one central character, it should be a woman.

As well as remounting the plot, we had to do some work on world-building. The setting in the draft materials was pure generic fantasy – the kind of hodge-podge fantasy setting that Dungeons & Dragons had popularised, made from 50% Tolkien’s legendarium and a scattering of scraps from everything else. We were always going to be an underdog title, so there was a risk of not getting noticed if we were too obvious. I suggested dropping the cookie cutter fantasy races – elves, dwarves, and orcs (which were far too heavily associated with the endless parade of Tolkien clones) and focussing more on the other races 3D People had designed – the Taymurian wolf-folk, and the fearsome ogres and goblins who became the Sura tribes. This immediately helped the setting feel a little fresher. 3D People were also keen on necromancers, so we made a role for undead in the world, serving as slaves who worked the deep and dangerous mineshafts. But the world also needed a name, and the one we’d been given (Rywennia) didn’t have much identity...

Enter the Heretic Kingdoms

My biggest single influence as a writer had always been the work of fantasist and literary writer Michael Moorcock, whose Eternal Champion sequence – Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, and so forth – had been a major influence on Dungeons & Dragons, despite being rather less well known than Tolkien’s stories. Moorcock is one of very few authors to have won awards for fantasy – including the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award – as well as literary awards such as the Guardian Fiction Award. His Elric novels were set in a world called The Young Kingdoms, a setting that explores the nature of Empire, race, and freedom through magic, cruel ancient races, and dragons who drip burning venom. In the same way Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms explored power politics through the lens of an ancient and brutal Empire (a mythological surrogate for the British Empire), I wanted to find a thematic angle that we could use to make the world of our game stand out from the crowd. But what could be our hook?

At the time, the ‘culture wars’ between religion and its critics were starting to hot up – the New Atheists began publishing their best-selling diatribes in 2004 – and I thought this might be an interesting angle to explore in a fantasy game. I was mindful of Hannah Arendt’s account of how the totalitarian states of the twentieth century began by persecuting a scapegoat minority (often, Jewish communities) and gradually came to use this political situation to seize control and consolidate their power. What if our fantasy setting was a world so poisoned against religion that it had come to conduct the very kind of abuses that had turned it that way? What if this was a place that embodied Mary Midgley’s adage “the evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution.” What if this was a world where there was an Inquisition dedicated to annihilating religion – at any cost?

This was the germ of the idea that led to the Heretic Kingdoms, and I had hoped it would be a setting that would have something interesting to say to both theists and atheists. However, it ultimately may have had more appeal for the latter... At a conference that Ian Bogost ran in Atlanta, I met a Christian who had reviewed the game in the speaker’s lounge where I was chatting with Ian and Ernest. He had liked it, but expressed concerns that a setting where ‘God is dead and religion is heresy’ was a difficult premise for many Christians to accept. Of course, the phrase ‘God is dead’ is straight from Nietzsche – and what the German philosopher had meant was much more subtle than is usually thought... but still, it was easy to think this was an anti-religious game. Personally, I don’t see it that way at all, and I’m glad many reviews thought it struck a good balance between both sides of this conflict.

Kult: Heretic Kingdoms was a game about authority and identity – about the ways that people acquire and fight over power, and the symbols they erect in order to seize control. The Garulian Empire rises to power on the story that they have ‘killed the God of the Land’, then the Theocrat overthrows them by claiming to be a descendent of he who killed the God, then the Inquisition overthrows him – in order to seize power for themselves. ‘Religion’ in this setting has been severed from any kind of spiritual, ethical, or communal role and is simply a means of indoctrination and control. This is not a world where good battles evil, because it’s not clear if anyone – including the player character – can actually be considered the good guys. Rather, megalomaniacal nobles and mages are locked in a deadly struggle to seize the last remaining relic and use it as a pawn in their various power-plays. It’s an ambiguous world – with a mysterious Dead God, and absolutely no elves and dwarves – and the player is thrown right into the heart of it.

Next: An RPG Between East and West