Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dystopian Topiary

A lot of games have strong dystopian settings. It's very popular, mostly because dystopia gives us a lot of opportunities to blow things up and murder people, which is what most games are about. However, a proper dystopian setting should reflect on the fears and trends of a culture, and few video game settings bother to think that carefully. Most video game dystopias are either inherited from last century, or are so glossed over that they are less dystopias and more set pieces.

I was thinking about creating some new dystopian settings - or elements of settings - and seeing how that felt.

In my mind, the dystopia we need to explore is one where technology and weather collide. There's lots of dystopia about weather (flooded planet dystopias, dust-bowl dystopias, ice-age dystopias, etc), and lots of dystopias about technology (basically all the rest), but there's not really any that explore how the two interact.

If we talk about a weather dystopia, the one that makes the most sense for our era is one where droughts become the norm, storms lash endlessly against the less-dry regions, and salt water rises. You could make a total dystopia out of just these elements, with humankind scavenging for survival - but the most compelling dystopias are those where humans are still in power. This is where technology comes in.

The technology to pump, store, and purify water exists. In the future, it's only going to get more pronounced. Water laws are some of the most complex in any society, and they only get more complex as water becomes more scarce.

Let's presume a future where our infrastructure becomes ever more adaptive. Water, power, internet, gas, and even roads are all sent wherever they need to go, and the flows are tweaked moment by moment as the whole grid shifts. It's much more efficient... but it's also vulnerable to hacking. Even if a node isn't technically on the internet, it is connected to every other infrastructure node, so a hacker in the middle of nowhere tapped into a minor transformer station can screw with the whole network, at least to some extent. In theory it's possible to make this secure... in practice, the lowest bidder creates them.

In this world, you and your team are agents of the SLMA: the Secure Last Mile Agency. Think of Ghost in the Shell's Section 9, except with a focus on infrastructure. You start the game going up against terrorists - people seeking to simply destroy infrastructure for whatever reasons. But as time goes on, the corruption and insufficiency of the grid begin to show. Whole states abandoned to dust, political maneuvers that drain rivers dry, rounding up the number of gallons transferred, and even flat-out stealing other nation's water. Initiatives for much-improved desalination and storm harvests find their facilities blacked out and even outright attacked. It's dystopia, so of course the ordinary people suffer from the excesses and oppression of those in power.

The core of the game is, of course, rather violent. The flavor of your operations is a bit GITSy: you are cybernetic/robotic operatives that can shoot guns, leap long distances, pilot mechs, and sneak around. It's not a proper shooter since there are no waves of endless enemies. Instead, it's more of a hunter's game: you're trying to entrap your enemies in your net without letting them know you're on to them. So the focus is more on carefully positioning your squad members so that whatever shit goes down, goes down perfectly.

The real strength of this concept comes from the role that the infrastructure plays. Not everything physically revolves around infrastructure all the time, but even if you are just watching some people talk to each other over coffee, there is infrastructure in the area. Power, water, gas, data, roads... perhaps even hackable local hardware such as thermostats, doors, windows. By accessing them, you can alter their behavior to give yourself an advantage. Of course, the enemy can do so as well. And either side can look at a hacked unit and try to suss out who is in the area doing what, when.

You take your flying mech to hide on a nearby rooftop, then tap into the local power grid to get a fast recharge for your now-spent mech. While it's recharging, you watch the coffee shop. You send a video feed to HQ via a secure transmission.

The enemy might have seeded the local power network to watch for unusual drains. They might have already compromised the local cell tower to identify unusual communicators - perhaps even spoof or block them. They may even just have a bunch of aerial drones looking at the nearby rooftops.

In turn, you might have seeded the local power network instead, to be on the lookout for the drain of illegal desal, or the supercomputers used to abuse microsecond fluctuations in the data grid, or a mech recharging. The data grid can show you the transmissions of those aerial drones. Either way, you'll also have to deal with the noise passing through those nodes, and constantly be in the dark about whether a particular anomaly is from your targets or another government organization that would be happy to end your little investigation in order to keep their own secrets secret.

So the game would be half about going places in person and doing things, and half about setting up the terrain all around you to work in your favor. Curry favors with other organizations to get better intel on the ground, order the police around, and then leap from building to building to chase down a mech carrying exobytes of stolen data.

As the dystopian elements are slowly revealed, using the local system becomes more and more risky. In the early game you rely too much on your personal performance because you haven't figured out how to use the local infrastructure well. In the late game, you rely too much on your personal performance because tapping the local infrastructure may get you noticed by enemies within the government.

Combine with a fair number of specialty missions such as black-tie parties, dust-bowl termination missions, yachts, and underground maker-fests, you could have a spectacular AAA game.

Reduce the scope and you could probably do a pretty decent indie game. Hm.

Anyway, I like the idea of giving the player a lot more control over the local situation, but also giving enemies that control. The result is both dystopian and offers deep mechanics.

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