Game review: Meatspace

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, Firestorm 2034

Game: Meatspace

Score:  ✯  ✯  ✯  ✯  ✯  ✯  ✯  (7 out of 5 possible!)

Category: First Person Immersive / Puzzle / Real Life Adventure

meatspace: /meet’spays/, n.
The physical world, where the meat lives — as opposed to cyberspace. Hackers are actually more willing to use this term than ‘cyberspace’, because it’s not speculative — we already have a running meatspace implementation (the universe). Compare RL.

The New Hacker’s Dictionary, “meatspace

I am faced with the daunting task of reviewing Meatspace. The temptation is to say, “This is stunning! It makes [insert name of classic] look like a bad Pong clone! I want to play it again and again!” It’s a temptation, not because the game doesn’t live up to that praise, but because discerning readers read reviews like that and their defenses go up against a reviewer who is, to put it delicately, getting slightly carried away.

So I’ll let go of the obvious temptation, and talk about how Meatspace handles physics. There’s another game we all know where player slang for a smoke grenade is “lag bomb”, because the physics of the smoke is so taxing that it slows the other player’s computer to a crawl: a smoke grenade, aka lag bomb, is a cheap way to half-paralyze other players. Maybe that’s an extreme example, but haven’t we all dealt with games where things get choppy (maybe just a little) when there’s a lot going on?

That doesn’t happen in Meatspace. End of discussion. Period. For one example, one of a million little effects done perfectly is a squirrel running across your path. It’s a throwaway effect, really: the game would appear quite convincing without it, but every single detail, from how the furry little body changes shape as it moves to the artificial intelligence controlling its motion to every single perfectly rendered hair, is flawless. Trying to find something that works as a lag bomb simply doesn’t work. Move over, physics engines that have a reasonably convincing rag doll effect. Move over, for that matter, the supercomputers I used at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The physics is absolutely stunning.

But to say that and stop there is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. The physics and the graphics are the best I’ve seen, but there is more to the game than the physics. Many players don’t give the physics a second thought. However well done the physics may be, and however stunningly advanced, the physics is one piece among a million. A beautiful piece, admittedly, but not even one of the biggest. At least to most players; there are some players who play only for the sight and sound aspect, but you can play the game well without those things even being much of a consideration. As impressive as the physics are, and as impressive as every sensory effect is, it would be deceptive at best to say that the game is driven by sight and sound.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the book, but unfortunately not the movie), Zaphod Beeblebrox is drawn towards the Total Perspective Vortex, which we learn is a horrifying death, before learning why it is a horrifying death. The Total Perspective Vortex shows a person’s absolute (in)significance within the universe as an insignificant and forgettable item in a universe that is vast beyond measure. And that is such a horrifying experience that people die from the trauma. Except that Zaphod walks into the Total Perspective Vortex and walks out not only not dead, but contented, happy, proud, and even more full of himself than usual.

What has been happening is that Zaphod has been in an alternate universe, and more specifically an alternate universe that completely revolves around him. He is the most important feature of the universe, and the universe knows it. Had he been thrown into the realuniverse’s Total Perspective Vortex, he would have been destroyed by it.

And in fact with the other computer games I’ve played and written, the player is the center of the universe. And that’s not the end of it. The universe revolves around the player, and in fact nothing is put into the game but things that are for the player. In a room in a first person shooter, there are millions and in fact billions of ways to see the room. But, if there is a player in the room, only one of those perspectives or angles is calculated: the player’s. Everything else is simply ignored. If there isn’t a player in the room, the room might as well not be visible. And the rooms themselves exist for the player. The player is a good deal more than the center of the universe: if it’s not there for the player, it’s not there.

Maybe I’ve been the center of the universe in other games I’ve played. In Meatspace, I am not the center of the universe. Meatspace has such an immense, fathomless universe that you or I could never be its center.

In Meatspace, if I am in a room and I can see, the light goes just as well where I can’t see it as where I can see it. If I leave the light on and walk out of the room, the room is visible—the physics calculations go on—just as well as I am in the room. There are places I could get to, and places I could never get to, and both are developed in full detail—even though there are many more places I couldn’t get to than places I could (conceivably) travel to. When I play the game—or, to be more exact, when I join the game—there are billions of others in the game, the vast, vast majority of whom have no idea that I am there. If I’m the center of a game’s universe, the universe is miserably small. In Meatspace, there is a universe with so many stars that no one inside the game knows exactly how many, and one planet on one of those stars is a rich enough world that no matter how long you played you could never see more than a tiny slice of its treasures.

And AI in the game… To talk about artificial intelligence, I need to draw an analogy with anime. When people watch anime, they are not so imperceptive that they think that the pictures look exactly like people, or cars, or whatever. What they do is cooperate with pictures that most people would never confuse with the real thing, and make believe with some not-very-realistic cartoons, and in their minds give something that isn’t really there. The pictures certainly suggest people, or whatever else they are supposed to represent. But people watching it cooperate and overlook some rather vast differences between the pictures and what people pretend the pictures are.

In games, the artificial intelligence is like this. You can pretend that you’re really having a conversation, or even that the non-player characters move around in a natural way. You can cooperate with the artificial intelligence the way anime enthusiasts cooperate with the cartoon. But you’re being generous.

I didn’t have to pretend the Meatspace people were intelligent. They were intelligent, without my pretending. The game was much more interesting than if the universe, and everybody’s life, revolved around me. People had an infinite wealth of experiences, stories, goals, projects, desires, habits, and I may have been part of the picture, but the picture was far bigger than me. When I talked with people, I was not pretending they were intelligent. There was no need. I was stepping into a larger world. In a fantasy world, characters talk about selling magic items, rumors, joining a party, and other things that revolve around a cramped player. I can’t list all the things people talk about in Meatspace (my hard drive only has 30 gigabytes of free space), but talking with another person is an encounter with a larger world that includes more than your priorities. The way other people appear in Meatspace is something I’ve never seen in another game: an opportunity to step into something deeper and vaster than “Me! Me! Me!”

And this is deceptive, because it generally describes something in a game where nothing is generic—everything is always specific. I’d like to give a slice of specifically what I encountered.

I went through a meandering course that took me through shops with sundry wares, ended up purchasing a few square feet of something very much like leather, and settled down at a place where I could get a food ration. Except “food ration” is a generic and therefore inappropriate term; they did not sell me a “food ration”, but (in this case) a delightfully spiced beef curry with vegetables and rice.

As I was waiting for them to make my food, there were pictures around. There was one picture of a beautiful Asian woman sitting on a low stone wall in front of a French formal garden and chateau, one picture of a beautiful Asian woman sitting on a camel in front of an Egyptian pyramid, and one picture of a beautiful Asian woman sitting against a powerful red sports car. There were other pictures obscured by stacked boxes of soda. The women, as well as being beautiful and wearing flattering Western clothes, had the general build and almost the complexion of a Western ideal of beauty.

I had seen this kind of artwork in previous levels of Meatspace—in one large area, there was simply no other kind of picture you could buy on a calendar—but I’d always been puzzled by it. This time, there was something else I could see. They were almost like religious icons. This is not to say that people specifically believed religious doctrines about them, or that there was some failure of perceivedly due reverence in stacking boxes of soda in front of them, or some other things like that, but it is to say that they aren’t just pictures of what they show. What they show is not only exotic but the emblem of something transcendent that’s shining through. And I can be saddened by some things about them—those pictures can easily slide into the pornographic—but there is something I was saddened by that I am no longer bothered by.

The image of beauty and transcendence is Western much for some of the same reasons that (for a tongue in cheek example) we have a Great White Ninja played by Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja. The West is exotic to the East, and the East is exotic to the West. The pictures are misunderstood if they are not seen as a sort of stained glass window that people look at because they see something shining through it.

There’s probably a lot more to be said. If I spent several more years of play just to investigate the question, I might also be able to tell you why the shops allowed me to purchase about a square yard of an artificial surrogate for leather, and a few yards of cord, for less money than I would earn in an hour. For now, my game play has included little research into how communities can produce or fail to produce wealth. I just know enough to know that a detail like that, like the kind of system where there are poor people who eat meat with every meal, is a balancing act that has never before been managed in two and a half million years of human community, and quite probably a balancing act that will not survive longer than its civilization, any more than a tree can keep growing once its river runs dry.

There is something about the Meatspace levels we find ourselves in that makes it harder to see the gems around us. The medieval and the Arthurian looks a certain way to us after they no longer exist. What do things look like if we look at our placement in Meatspace as it might appear when our technological society is but a memory?

My avatar (but one could take a long time explaining how it is more than an avatar) was just in a place with Gothic lettering on a sign on the ground, saying, “Spaccarelli Meditation Garden.” A pale, almost luminous statue of the Virgin overlooks a waterfall, rocks, plants, and a bench. The garden is small, but in its enclosed space one can be drawn into the quiet of the waterfall’s song, forget about the outside world, even the nearby Gothic buildings—Gothic buildings that did not exist in the Middle Ages but do exist on a level that didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. I have since moved to a building that combines the Gothic with the modern: I can see stonework that evokes the Gothic, and I see it through a glass wall which would have been extremely unlikely at a time when glass cost as much as a precious metal.

Some players entered the game wishing they were set in the future instead of the past—anything but where they are now. What would my life have been like if I were born in the Middle Ages? That’s simple enough. I would have died in infancy, and my mother with me. Usually when I imagine myself in the Middle Ages, I take any number of things for granted.

The Middle Ages—the knights in armor of Arthurian legend, a picture which becomes even more interesting when it is deepened with scholarly resources to include a different way of perceiving time and space, the shadow of Plato, minstrels singing love songs, precursors to scientific method which become all the more interesting if one looks not at what they became but what they came from—all of this makes for a lost world that is all the more haunting because it can only be entered as a memory.

The character I play is studying theology at a university. “University” means a tradition that began in the Middle Ages, and it means living in community with other students and scholars, free to use technology but always connecting face-to-face and meeting as flesh and blood. As well as the older kind of university, the technology in Meatspace has allowed another kind of education which is a new enough possibility that many players remember when it would have been impossible. In the new model, a student may never meet any of his teachers; there is no sense of living together in community and no real sense that a path or way which has defined teaching since before the ancients is necessary. Not everyone in the ancient model understood or even would accepted the idea that a university should be an embodied community. But the only alternative, the older kind of correspondence school, never enjoyed the same prestige. Now there is another model, not so much another kind of community as a way to substitute for community and embodied presence, and it is gaining a massive ground in a short time. It is a real threat to the older university.

Given the rapid ascent of the “bodiless university”, it seems to me quite possible that by the end of my game, I will have seen the old order of a university as an embodied community as it has been since its medieval birth, will have vanished as the horse-drawn carriage vanished after Henry Ford introduced what seemed to simply be another option (besides riding a horse). Perhaps this will never happen, but if you consider how much could vanish, and how much is easy to take for granted, the scholarly community has something as hauntingly beautiful as the knight in shining armor, or perhaps more beautiful, and this is not only because the university is a medieval institution and some universities have Gothic architecture. The roots run much deeper than that. And that is only one slice of the game—a rather small slice, all things considered.

Technology in this area of the game is interesting, and more importantly than just the technology, the cultural forces surrounding technology are interesting. They hold a tragic beauty, in its own way as tragic and as beautiful as the tale of Arthur’s death: two armies stood across from each other, and each had been ordered not to attack unless the other side drew a sword. Then one soldier saw a snake in the grass, drew his sword to protect himself. Then the battle began, and King Arthur was mortally wounded. On the side of technology, the community had achieved technology that opened up possibilities that never existed before partly because it had oriented itself toward technology as no such community had done before. That made for a sorceror’s bargain that made it difficult to perceive other kinds of beauty in other cultures—or for that matter, their own. The full cultural story—were it possible to fully understand—is even deeper in its tragic beauty than the bittersweet hypothesis of a disembodied university opening up something new while hurting the older tradition. One cannot seriously examine technology without seeing its power—and even its beauty—yet in this society, it is a minority at best who know what it means, and what the beauty would consist of, for a society ordered around other principles like contemplation.

Yet to say that is silly. It’s like reviewing a chess program by describing the art history behind the pictures representing the pawns. Interesting, perhaps, and perhaps impressive, but it falls short of the mark, as does any serious attempt to review Meatspace. I haven’t discussed 99% of an expanse of pavement stretching as far as the eye can see and then further, nor a room that lets me look out over trees and buildings as if I were suspended in the sky, nor a melting pot which combines the wealth of Africa, indigenous Americans, Europe, and Asia and which is believed to be the birthplace of hip hop, nor indeed what it means to be in an outer borough in the “capital of the world,” nor why some dismiss the Bronx as being not a very nice place to live. I believe I have deeply failed to capture the global spirit of Meatspace because I gave too little attention to the unique local character of my level—and you cannot play Meatspace without encountering such a unique local character. To play Meatspace is to enter a world rich with apples and appearances, books and buttercups, children and cats, drivel and daydreams, electronics and excellence, fables and fairy tales, grandeur and giggles, horses (yes, they still exist!) and houses, igloos and imagination, jumping and justice, kites and katana, languages and laughter, microscopes and megaphones, noses and noise, operas and obverses, porpoises and porcupines, quiet and quickness, roaches and Russia, Swiss Army Knives and spirit, transportation and tummies, understanding and understatements, vowels and vices, water and wisdom, xanthan gum and xylophones, yule logs and youth, zebras and zits. It is far beyond my power to describe them.

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