Friday, February 23, 2018

Silver Spook Podcast #18 - "Gemini Rue" Creator Joshua Nuernberger


In this episode, Christian "Silver Spook" Miller talks to Joshua Neurnberger, creator of Gemini Rue, a stellar, award winning adventure game, including PC Gamer "Game of The Year" 2012 in the adventure category. Discover a world where life is cheap, identities are bought & sold, & a quest for redemption can change the fate of a whole galaxy.

Topics include:

-What it was like making Gemini Rue over the course of 3 years as a solo project.
-Influences behind Gemini Rue.
-The art design choices in Gemini Rue (limited purple / green color palette, use of visible brush strokes over pixelation)
-The storytelling techniques in Gemini Rue such as the use of dual narrative and adding key twist reveals during a gun fight to heighten tension.
-The benefits and drawbacks of procedural generation vs fully scripted, directed experiences.
-A wide range of sci-fi and cyberpunk media including Blade Runner, Cowboy Bebop, Inception, Neuromancer / Snowcrash, System Shock, and more.
-Dave Gilbert's army of testers.
-If there is any chance of a Gemini Rue sequel (listen to find out!)

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Altered Carbon - A Cyberpunk Review / Analysis By Silver Spook

Altered Carbon. I did a two-part video review, but here's my short answer: "While Altered Carbon is resleeved in the glitzy robes of Netflix' 190-country spanning 120-million-user imperial protectorate, it manages to lay bare the mutilated corpses, the human fallout of world- assymetrical- and class-warfare."

Here's the text if you don't have time:

First up - There've been a lot of bad reviews piling up, but Altered Carbon was great. Set your eyeballs to binge, no matter what the 280-character attention-spanned press and the bought-and-payed for media matchmaking algorithms are telling you. In the post-truth, post-fact world, you need to see cyberpunk content with your own two eyes (or eye, or ears, for the visually impaired). In particular this technoir artifact.

Here's something I wanted to respond to, written about Altered Carbon on the cyberpunk site io9: "The other big weakness of Altered Carbon is the investigation itself... and pretty much everything that happens inside that damn police station. Martha Higareda is good as Detective Kristin Ortega, and I love the inclusion of her family to represent those who refuse to re-sleeve for religious reasons. But, for as much time as we spend with Ortega and Bay City’s finest, nothing ever happens."

I found the police station to be particularly illuminating, actually, as a part of the internal mechanisms of a neofeudal, post-social democratic society. Lieutenant Ortegas continual struggle to do her actual job -- protecting and serving the public -- is continually thwarted by the hollowed out and corrupt police department which is essentially just the leg-breaking force of the ultra-rich "Meths" like Bancroft. Captain Tanaka repeatedly orders Ortega off of actual cases investigating the deaths of murdered girls. Tanaka, and the department does the bidding of Meths, even outright telling Ortega, "You can try to do a little good here and there, but this world is owned by the Meths -- don't take me down with you," citing his mortgage and pension as the "leash" the elite keep him complicit with. Oumou Prescott, Bancroft's lawyer, is similarly a "grounder", but rather than bunkering fearfully into her cushy crony position and trying not to rock the boat, she aspires to rise through the ranks of 'insignificant human "fireflies", as one meth calls them. She has a Macbethian ambition to climb the hyper-corporate ladder, by lieing, cheating, stealing, backstabbing, and "getting rid of all of the human baggage" to become a Meth herself. Scenes between Tanaka and Prescott reveal this, "You just wish you were one of them," Tanaka accuses. "I WILL be one of them," Prescott retorts.

This for me is Altered Carbon at its finest and most cyberpunk, where it shows the real meaning of "a future dominated by megacorporations". It shows the way in which public institutions like the rule of law, and defense of the public good are subverted, and left as window-dressing, a charade of badges, uniforms, and meaningless courtroom "theatre" to lull the common serfs into believing their government and institutions are 'by the people for the people'. As Bancroft himself says, "In this world, you are either the purchaser or the purchased," It is fundamentally barbaric feudalism, and something all too extant in our world today. In the US, 98% of all political campaign finance comes from less than 1% of the population. Court cases are not rational and fair examinations of facts leading to justice but barbaric cage fights between corporate warlords of who has the most money for lawyers, fees, pul. Peter Thiel throwing over a hundred million to crush Gawker in court is a relatively benign example. Look at the millions who lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis after 30 second "sham hearings" before a judge sweating bullets to turn 100 grannies homeless by lunch. Or look at HSBC, the giant criminal bank that admitted it was the money laundering arm for murderous drug cartels, and journalist beheaders working for Al Qaeda, Hezbolah, ISIS and other enemies of the state. HSBC's "leashed Tanakas and Oumous", the so-called regulators asked them for a 2% cut of 80 billion dollars and let them continue committing crime, treason, slaughter of over a hundred thousand Mexicans. For a more recent and cyber exhibit: take the FCC's evisceration of net neutrality led by crooked ex-Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai -- a Prescott-esque lawyer certainly looking to become a "Meth" in the Verizon or Comcast castle one day.

This is for me is the raging core of Altered Carbon, and the fundamental problem of extreme inequality, and by extension, the broken system that creates such. The "R Greater Than G" -- what economist Thomas Piketty identified as the return on investments exceeding growth -- Achilles Heel of the capitalism Colossus. Although a race of undying, moral-free trillionaires inhabiting stratospheric "Palaces at Versailles" would undoubtedly exacerbate the catastrophe, we don't need immortality to create a separate race of "destructive ubermensch", because we already have one now in 2018.

Kovacs origin story and the related Quellist attempted revolution against the Protectorate and cortical stack technology itself had some of the best acting and storytelling of the show. In particular, Will Yun Lee's portrayal of the young Kovacs. Some of the best of the show, barring perhaps Quell and the AI hotel manager whose residual-self-image is Edgar Allen Poe.

The protagonist of the story, Takeshi Kovacs, was raised by an abusive and murderous father, whom he barely survives along with his only sister, Rei, on one of the extra-solar colonized planets (Harlans World in the book -- a reference to Harlan Ellison, author of deeply absurd and violent cyberpunk-ish spec-fic including I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream). Kovacs is found, as a boy barely at puberty, by the Protectorate, an interstellar 'federation' that polices the galaxy taking out 'terrorists', 'warlords', 'Yakuza', and other 'enemies of the transplanetary state'. (Morgan's book version serves as a pretty thinly veiled critique of a particular imperialistc superpower's serial invasions of other countries under pretenses of 'rooting out dictators, taking out terrorists spreading democracy, and fake 'Weapons of Mass Destruction').

Young Kovacs is informed by commander Jeagar in virtual that he can 'help protect people from the bad men' like his father if he only signs up for the military. Staring down false murder allegations, Kovacs enlists, and becomes essentially a child soldier as in Beasts of No Nation, but with a man's body. He later defects, for spoiler reasons, and joins up with a group of freedom fighters (classified as terrorists by The Powers). The protagonist has known literally nothing but violence, a series of bloody wars, both domestic and foreign, in which the stoic, alienated man was forged. At the heart of Altered Carbon is a Chandleresque neo-noir story,as is the heart of much cyberpunk including Blade Runner and Neuromancer. Morgan himself has commented on this extreme violence, which many commentators have criticized both the book and the TV show of relishing in.

Here's a quote from a 2008 Clarke's World Magazine interview with AC author Richard K. Morgan:

"I think one of the problems with the sickness, if you like, that we've got in Western culture is that we're scared to acknowledge these things. We're afraid to actually take them on board. That idea—that you sort of got a sick enjoyment out of killing—is just not acceptable currency, because we're told we must see our soldiers in these glowing, honorable terms, rather than seeing them as human beings. One of the aspects of American policy having to do with military matters is that there's an enormous amount of emphasis on the troops, as long as they are standing up and holding their arms, but as soon as you ship them back home broken or damaged or unable to cope, suddenly no one wants to know about them anymore. The amount of coverage there hasn't been of all the post-traumatic stress, and the incidents of guys coming back from Iraq who just cannot cope with what's been done to them—that stuff just isn't covered. The media has no taste for it. But we are talking about human beings, and human beings are complicated mechanisms, and when they get damaged, that's complicated, too."

This was a fundamental aspect of film noir, or the WWII-era existential literature and cinema of the 40s. Humphrey Bogart, the star of Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon was in fact an navy veteran, wounded in WWI. This post-traumatic-stress-ridden "Human fallout" of all of these soldiers returning from the field and unable to integrate back into society, the darkness, cynicism and apathy resulting from having seen and done horrible things on the battlefield (or more terrible- having enjoyed them) is the cold gunmetal heart of noir. Kovacs is the neurochem-augmented 23rd century Rambo, coughed up after multiple tours of napalm bombing off-world rice patty farmers and cutting down unionizers and rebellious sweatshop workers with full-metal-jacket rounds. An unwanted, despised criminal, the lost soldier tears the limbs off of everyone and everything in his way, questioning his very existence and almost icing himself after nuking his mind with every illegal drug he can find in finest Burroughsian fashion. The sort of mid-twenties male brooding introspective nihilism, often to the point of extreme drug use and suicidal tendencies is the deeply-lodged, lingering bullet fragment in the mind of cyberpunk.

Here's an excerpt from William Gibson's Neuromancer to further illustrate: "A part of him knew that the arc of his self-destruction was glaringly obvious to his customers, who grew steadily fewer, but that same part of him basked in the knowledge that it was only a matter of time". This truth, of noir and neo-noir as the post-traumatic failed-warrior-male re-integration and cultural fallout of war is rarely made more clear than in Richard K. Morgan novels. The truth that the foreign violence is only the beginning; the domestic violence is where war often hurts the most.

There is indeed much violence, mutilation, scenes of extreme torture in Altered Carbon -- at one point the protagonist is locked in a Matrix-like sim in which he is repeatedly tortured to death in a variety of ways including immolation, only to be resurrected and killed again. Kovacs himself kills more people than Neo does in the Matrix (I suppose you could argue he merely causes terminal organic damage to sleeves but the distinction is somewhat semantic in a visual medium). But perhaps the grotesque and 'uncomfortable' aspects of the violence are in part to remain faithful to the book and simultaneously to not 'sanitize' the results of the violence. The world of Altered Carbon is a science fictional dystopia, after all, and thus the repulsion to it by the viewer is part of the point: we should really try not to produce this future. If you watch Black Mirror or Blade Runner 2049, and immediately want to produce that reality, you may need psychiatric help, in fact.

I think a lot of the critics who came out with negative reviews of Altered Carbon, or saying, "I don't think Altered Carbon has much to say," may be suffering a case of corporate 'tunnel vision', a 'purchaser's blindness'.

One of the scenes which was particularly poignant and on-the-nose (in a good way), was Bancroft's 'ministering to the masses as a living god' scene. In it, a rich philanthropist attempts to show just how much he cares about the underserved by entering into a quarantine zone to distribute food and toys, and dying live, on camera, from their highly infectious disease before warping into a new cloned body.
This particular scene really hit home for me. As I've mentioned previously, I was a STEM teacher and social worker whose job it was to help and provide opportunities to at-risk and underserved communities in Honolulu. The majority of the children I taught were minorities, immigrants, about 30% were homeless, and all were at or below the poverty line. They didn't have terminal sci-fi nano-tech illnesses, but many of them didn't have medical care to take care of the staff infections in their feet from walking around without any footwear. What frustrated me the way that high-level politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats would come down once a year or whenever they felt like it, some fair-skinned wealthy man in a 5,000 dollar suit holding the hand of a poor brown kid, to win some sort of photo-op contest, justify some huge bonus or salary to pay for $25,000 a year private school for their kids, a multi-million dollar mortgage in Waikiki, a yacht payment. The ultra-rich abusers, these committers of the greatest violence, however obfuscated by shell companies, newspapers, media corporations they own, social media and tech companies they deal with, and all other ways of taking their demonic selves and buying their airbrushed saintly-images, relishing in "godlike" worship as philanthropists is the most sickening aspect of it all, for me, personally.

Wired also gave an unfavorable review of Altered Carbon, writing: "To what lengths are the poor willing to go in order to get the bodies they want for themselves, or the people they love? What about, say, transgender people, who might find the opportunity to switch bodies a profound and essential liberation?" Suggesting that Altered Carbon had many potential interesting topics to explore, but barely explored them, or didn't at all.

Perhaps the reviewer was (understandably) dizzied by all the fuschia neon bloom FX and ten hours of near-Blade Runner 2049 production values. As I previously mentioned, the scene where a husband and wife are reduced to a zero-g gladiatorial match for the mere 'entertainment' of Bancroft's elite Great Gatsby-esque party is a perfect example. Being forced to kill your loved one over and over every night sounds like a pretty far and nasty length to go to get a better sleeve. Or how about "Prick Up", where disenfranchised women and men sell their bodies, often literally allow their Johns to create live snuff-films of them  (recorded by undiscerning AI hotel owners for future use). Being strangled, having ones forehead caved, or stabbed every night while being forcefully penetrated seems a pretty horrible job the poor have to do to get by.

As for transgender individuals, I think Altered Carbon really illustrates the way that unchecked capitalism ruins everything and everyone, including those who feel bodily dysphoria. It's an interesting conundrum, because testerone pills and genetic reassignment surgery might become moot, as you could simply dislodge a hexagon of Elder Alien Tech from your head and insert the consciousness-coin into the X or Y chromosome-fabricated body of your choice. But Altered Carbon takes it further -- it shows that in a future with mind-transfer tech, this problem of feeling alienated by ones body is not limited to "souls born into the wrong sleeve" as is the case today. In the beginning of the show, a 7 year old girl who was murdered gets resleeved as per her victim compensation program. Unfortunately, she gets resleeved into the body of a middle-aged woman, much to her and her parents horror. There are several cases of 'finding oneself in the wrong flesh', including the wife of Vernon Eliot, who gets resleeved in a man's body, or the reskinning of a Hispanic grandkids abuelita into a racist skinhead criminal's meat-chassis. Takeshi Kovacs himself is a half-asian half-hungarian man in a Nordic body ( I have to admit I wish  the trans-ethnic dysphoria could've been portrayed a little better by Kinnaman).

Even today, the testosterone or estrogen hormones, surgical operations that a transgender individual might want can cost into the tens of thousands of dollars. It is already something reserved for those with the privelege of access to quality healthcare. Altered Carbon shows a world in which being slotted into the body of not just one's preferred sex, but also one's preferred race, age, size, health, attractiveness, strength and ability may all be determined by one's class. And in a forgone capitalist system of infinite immortal accumulation, it's likely even more people will be 'mal-sleeved'.

It's also interesting that there are several references to "Sleeve Mortgages". As I mentioned, mortgages and pensions are fundamentally methods of "leashing" the common individuals to the neofeudal capitalist elite, commanding fealty of lawyers, police, workers of every kind who live in an ostensibly 'free democratic' society but are truly slaves to their corporate masters, like Tanaka. The pundits are free to say whatever they want within their master's set-Overton Window of acceptable speech, academics are free to think whatever increasingly corporatized and for-profit universities allow them to think, police are free to arrest anyone the rich allow, and no one is allowed to question the brokenness and malfeasance of the entire system or risk termination for disloyalty. The sleeve mortgage, paying rent on one's own body is just a further literalization of the ownership of the serfs and peons. Pay-up, with money that we fabricated into existence by entering numbers into a privileged central bank server and/or "earned" by sitting back and letting our money make more money, or we will literally take your body and shelve your consciousness in our 'asset vault'.

A few more quick points:

Favorite scene: Reileen and Ortega fight. This scene, which involved eight body doubles and a great deal of (justified) nudity and thus vulnerability from the actresses involved really pushed the envelope of film and showmaking, in the way that the bullet-time fights in The Matrix did. Awesome work.

Best character - (Can't say who because of spoilers) but there is a particular character who goes from being a commoner to an immortal, and amoral, meth.  It was a variation on the old koan, "Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely". In this case, eternal life causes the devaluation of humanity, whom this meth later references as 'fireflys'. Insects, again with the theme of dehumanization and turning of individuals into objects, property. This character arc was one of the strongest and most interesting in the show.

Fun cyberpunk facts:

Takeshi Kovacs' first name is a fairly obvious reference to Beat Takeshi Kitano, a Japanese comedian, mega-personality in his home country, and auteur film maker who has produced some great and extremely violent modern Yakuza-gangster films. It's readily apparent in the Takeshi Kovacs book series that Morgan is a huge fan and draws great inspiration, especially from ultra-violent Japan-noir Yakuza gangster films of Kitano's like Hana-Bi, Boiling Point, and Aniki (Brother). The stoic, deadpan lines, random and brutal violence, katana sword fighting, and obvious presence of Yakuza are just some of the techniques, themes and tropes Morgan borrows.

Another fun fact: Takeshi Kitano plays the role of the menacing Yakuza boss hunting down Keanu Reeves' human-hard drive character in 1995's Johnny Mnemonic, and also plays the role of Section 9 boss Aramaki in Ghost In The Shell.

I always found the extrapolation of an intergalactic Yakuza "interesting" however unlikely in the far future of Altered Carbon, but I chalk this up to artistic license, an incongruous love-letter to the dragon-tattooed shoulders Morgan is standing on. I am guilty of this sort of post-modern homage often, some reviewers might argue to the point of cheapening the serious and complex themes, but I disagree. I think a good reader (or viewer) can deal with a gonzo-wacky comedy wrapped around a core of cancer-serious dystopian tragedy. For example, in the case of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, there are several ludicrous, hilarious scenes, including a man condemned to death due to a simple bureaucratic error being literally smothered in a tornado of semi-sentient paperwork. The comedic and silly bits can in fact enhance the impact of the serious parts, and provide some much needed 'breath' to the often asphyxiating, depressing onslaught of dystopias. (This was certainly my aim in Neofeud).

Finally, another recent thumbs-down article on Inverse suggested shows like Altered Carbon, "turned cyberpunk into a consumer product, effectively declawing the genre’s entire aim." While I understand where the author was coming from, I must slowly snap my mirror shades on and give them the finger.

In fact, I actually think Altered Carbon is more 'clawed', it has more anti-megacapitalistic retractable scalpel-punches to the throat than both Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost In The Shell combined. Yes, it has been resleeved in the Netflix 190-country spanning 125 million-hours-of-eyeball-time-per day imperial robes, but it retains its cyberpunk critique of extreme predatory captalism despite its production by a world dominated by extreme predatory capitalism. Which is some kind of one-in-an-Avogadro-number good luck, given the miracle of Blade Runner 2049 not being utter cash-cow crap. It must be a glitch in Nick Bostrom's Superintelligent Aliens' matrix who happen to be CP lovers and are farming our reality for cultural products.

Final Silver Spook Verdict:

Altered Carbon - 4 ½ crying Rutger Hauers out of 5 on the cyberpunk scale.