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Neurocracy is future fiction in the form of Wikipedia

How Half-Life and Deus Ex laid the foundation for a Wikipedia-style murder mystery game

In 2048, Wikipedia doesn’t exist. Without enough donations and too many copyright claims, it has to shut down. In 2049, a new substitute rises: Omnipedia, built in the spirit of its predecessor as a free encyclopedia for all. Days after Omnipedia’s launch, its main investor Xu Shaoyong, arguably the most powerful man on the planet, is assassinated.

This is the fictional universe of Neurocracy, an experimental narrative project that takes place over 10 episodes, starting on July 14th. Through Omnipedia, it invites readers to solve Xu’s murder in a near future where millions of people suffer from Cariappa-Muren disease, a fatal condition caused by infected tuna. Famed neuroscientist and activist Connie Muren, who helped discover the disease, has vanished without a trace. The environment is falling apart from irreversible climate change, and the world lives under a biosurveillance system called G6.

Whether you see Neurocracy as hypertext fiction or an offshoot of an alternate reality game, it’s the first project of its kind, using a medium that we take for granted every day. The entire game takes place in your browser on the Omnipedia site. Each weekly episode represents one day in Neurocracy, and as time “passes,” Omnipedia entries will undergo updates and revisions just like the real Wikipedia. There are other types of wiki-based metafiction — projects like Excalibur, which is styled as a fan-made wiki for a fictional TV show. But none that tell a story quite like this.

The game has been in the works for years, albeit in different forms. In 2019, its creators Joannes Truyens and Matei Stanca began considering crowdfunding to keep development going; writer Truyens had started working on the project in 2016 based on an idea for a sci-fi world that he had 20 years ago as a teen. The following year, they raised a modest £12,000 on Kickstarter, which allowed them to commission art for Omnipedia from concept artist and illustrator Alice Duke. Since then, the project has cultivated a tight-knit community that eagerly shares theories on the Neurocracy Discord. The final project boasts over 30 different articles, each painstakingly constructed in the same familiar dry wiki-tone with meticulous citations, each echoes with its own episodic variations.

But 2019 was an eternity ago. Our new corona-reality shares unnerving parallels with Neurocracy, which revolves around all-too-familiar points of modern anxiety: pandemics, billionaires, AI, climate change, and biosecurity in the name of public health. “Even when an actual, real-life pandemic dropped and started preempting some of Neurocracy’s worldbuilding, the Wikipedia format has enabled us to quickly adapt and incorporate the lessons from this first modern-day pandemic into our fictional one,” says Truyens, who struggled over whether to mention COVID-19 at all. “Ultimately it’s one of those mass-scale events that divides history into a before and after, so I couldn’t leave it out.”

Neurocracy’s origins go back to the early 2000s when Truyens and Stanca met through the Half-Life modding scene. They worked on a few projects, leading to a Deus Ex-inspired total conversion mod called Omnius Global, which followed Marc Laidlaw’s screenplay-style format for Half-Life 2. While Omnius Global didn’t go anywhere — Truyens does not mince words about the quality of the old screenplay — it contained a crucial element of Neurocracy’s narrative foundation, its wiki-style story bible. The in-universe text in Deus Ex had such a profound worldbuilding influence on Truyens that he included its lead writer, Sheldon Pacotti, in Omnipedia.

“A large part of the depiction of AI in Neurocracy is predicated on his work, to the point it’s called ‘the Pacotti architecture,’” says Truyens, pointing to one of Pacotti’s articles as the basis for his fictional AI. On his blog, he attributes Neurocracy’s “the concept art is the final art” approach to Deus Ex — a vision that has been enhanced by illustrator Duke’s artistic direction for the world of 2049. “Neurocracy invites players to add their own meanings and interpretations to what they read on Omnipedia and the idea is for the visuals to afford a similar possibility space,” Truyens says.

Pacotti hasn’t been able to contribute to Neurocracy (yet), but Truyens is far from alone. He’s assembled a dream team whose vastly different interests and writing styles only strengthen the game’s fiction of multiple people contributing to Omnipedia. Guest writers include award-winning narrative designer Leigh Alexander, sci-fi authors Malka Older and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, and writer / critic Axel Hassen Taiari. Older teaches predictive fiction and has managed humanitarian aid work in Darfur, Indonesia, and Japan. Wijeratne researches misinformation and online communities and founded the fact-checking group Watchdog. Alexander has been at the forefront of internet culture and near-futurist writing for years, and Taiari has over a decade of experience in technical writing in the infosec sector. (He’s also starting a PhD program on hypertextuality.)

Neurocracy’s wiki-format also invites us to examine our changing relationship with ubiquitous language technology, which includes everything from Gmail reply suggestions to AI transcription services. As a researcher, Wijeratne does ongoing work with human-AI language technology; in one instance, he retrained an OpenAI GPT-2 language model to write poetry for his novel The Salvage Crew. He even had a language model trained on Wikipedia bios, which was a great fit for Neurocracy. In the future, Omnipedia entries are drafted by artificial neural networks before human editors step in.

“I had trained it as a demonstration of what we could face in the coming years with human editing and AI ‘textual diarrhea’ combining to build authoritative-looking websites with enormous amounts of content in days,” Wijeratne explains. “I looked at Neurocracy and thought: this is perfect. It gave me vibes of Deus Ex, the SCP wiki, and of Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths.” As with the other guest writers, for Wijeratne, the prospect of contributing to Neurocracy was a no-brainer.

Given the episodic format of the game and the modern-day horror of spoilers, it’s incredibly difficult to get hard details from any of the writers on their contributions. Malka Older, who specializes in disaster response management, geopolitics, and worldbuilding, is understandably coy about her storylines. Leigh Alexander is using her interest in the social and cultural impact of tech to balance out the hard science. “I decided to come at Neurocracy’s world through media, entertainment, and play,” she says, pointing to her narrative work in games, which recently included Love Island 2019, based on the UK reality show. “And while I love all kinds of storytelling, I’m obsessed right now with reality television and micro-celebrity. It felt really important for me to have these elements in any vision of the future.”

Even just going through the demo, it’s clear that Neurocracy isn’t just about a murder. It’s one corner of an intricate, multifaceted mystery that cries out for a Pepe Silvia conspiracy board. Taiari points out that building one big mystery just doesn’t work for the hypertext format, which demands careful layers of storytelling. Truyens briefed the guest writers on his extensive notes and plotlines and gave everyone the freedom to explore on their own. “None of our contributions are even close to resembling each other,” Taiari says. “And yet, because we all started our exploration from the same vantage point, and returned to it, it’s all connected — like a cave system. On top of it, the temporal, episodic angle adds a Mr. Robot-like layer and provides a unifying thread.”

As for more details about fictional Omnipedia editors and mods and other in-game features, Truyens isn’t giving anything away. “The hope is that we establish some level of audience feedback, where we release an episode, look at the story theories that emerge, and then adapt the next episode to those theories,” he explains, which aligns him closer to an experimental dungeon master rather than a conventional author. “There are plenty of threads where we’ve left things intentionally ambiguous or undefined.” New players are welcome to join the Neurocracy Discord, which is already brimming with reader theories. “If we end up birthing a subreddit, also good,” Truyens says. “We know the ending, it’s just a matter of what we will and won’t communicate about it,” he adds rather cryptically.

Considering how attached we are to our devices, to the stupefying convenience of accessing the entirety of human history with a few clicks and swipes, the idea of Neurocracy seems natural. Wikipedia is not just for niche interests; it’s a part of daily modern life as a utilitarian descendant of early internet bulletin boards and forums. “Having a futurist story experience that unfolds across a fictional Wikipedia feels a lot more accessible to me as a concept now than it would have felt even 10 years ago,” says Alexander.

At the same time, Neurocracy is a fantastic example of how Truyens and Stanca are subverting our relationship to ergodic text — that is, text that you have to make real effort to understand, which some consider a downer in traditional games where the focus is on gameplay and mechanics. Ironically, many of the same people who brag about never reading World of Warcraft worldbuilding text and dialogue also spend hours going over arcane theorycrafting forums and convoluted game guides. “Most literature is, by design, as non-ergodic as possible. As a novelist, it’s my job to keep the reader turning the page,” says Wijeratne. “Hypertext is niche because it needs that nontrivial effort to traverse the narrative. The irony is that more people are also navigating hypertext in the context of games: game wikis.”

Wikipedia is far more than a bone-dry resource for basic information about history and geology or quantum physics theories that your boyfriend won’t shut up about. It’s become a sinkhole that too many of us are prepared to traverse deep into the wee hours of the morning, and a perfectly formed door into narrative experiments that question the way we examine real-world media. “There is no game to play if we tell you what to solve, or how to solve it, or whether it can be solved at all,” says Taiari. “As a result, all the ingrained pattern recognition and habits gamers have when it comes to wikis get scrambled. Is this page meant to help me, or trick me? Who wrote this and why… what matters to me, as a player? What should I care about and try to decode?”

Ultimately, to borrow from something Truyens told me in 2019, Neurocracy is a story we tell ourselves — a way to make sense of the world given to us in Omnipedia, and perhaps come to some realizations about our current reality in the process. “If what we tried to do with Neurocracy works, then players will generate their own reading / playing / decoding strategies and, in turn, narrate the world to themselves and others,” says Taiari. “The stories that emerge as a result, whether they decrypt parts of the world or contribute to its occlusion — well, those stories aren’t ours to tell.”

For those who missed the Kickstarter, the game will be available to purchase directly through Omnipedia at Neurocracy.site.

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