Creating a futuristic Wikipedia for Neurocracy

Hello! I'm Matei "Ambient.Impact" Stanca and I'm responsible for the development and design of Omnipedia, Neurocracy's futuristic counterpart to Wikipedia. In this blog post, I'll be touching on what we're using to construct Omnipedia, two specific systems of Wikipedia it simulates, and how accessibility and responsiveness remain paramount all throughout development.

When we first started work on Omnipedia, the obvious choice of software to build it on was MediaWiki, which is open source and powers many wikis across the web (including Wikipedia itself). The issue was that I have virtually no experience with MediaWiki, which is designed to be an actual wiki. Given that Omnipedia only needs to sell the appearance of a wiki on the outside, we decided to go with Drupal.

Why Drupal?

A lot of content management systems are made with the end goal of putting out pages or blog posts, with their internal structure more of an afterthought. Drupal features an abstracted and modular architecture that functions more like a set of LEGO blocks, with all the design and forethought that makes those so versatile. It may be more accurate to refer to Drupal as a web framework than a content management system, though it shares qualities of both.

One major design philosophy that sets Drupal apart from other systems is how it's built at almost every conceivable level to allow hooking into its logic or rendering and alter it on the fly. This architecture affords an absurd amount of freedom to make changes without touching the core code files, even when it comes to how it stores and handles data. Drupal is one step ahead of even the most mod-friendly game engines in this regard.

Article previews and footnotes

I wrote a lot of custom code to enable Drupal to behave like a wiki while also making the content itself simple to edit and expand upon. One system gleaned from Wikipedia is the page previews for their desktop site, which display a brief snippet and header image when hovering over a link to another article. Initially intended to replicate the feel of Wikipedia's expanse of content without having to write hundreds of articles, the previews quickly became a crucial aspect of how Neurocracy's narrative is conveyed.

The public-facing component of the preview system consists of pop-ups that are displayed as Tippy.js-enabled rich tooltips on wider screens, while on narrow screens (such as phones) they’re displayed as a panel that slides up into view. Unlike Wikipedia, our system dynamically switches between the two modes if the screen size changes, such as when you rotate your phone or tablet. This same system powers Omnipedia's footnotes, mirroring Wikipedia in that aspect as well.

To provide data for this system, I made an administration interface to create and manage custom Drupal entities which can be authored by editors, with criteria they specify to find content to attach to. This system is loosely coupled to the actual content, in that an editor is free to define any number of data entities, with the system matching them automatically to any content their criteria matches. This allows us to author this data once and have it apply to current and future content dynamically.

Revision history

Wikipedia's editing back end includes a revision history that allows contributors to keep track of changes made to each article. Omnipedia simulates this revision history, which we're using to serialise Neurocracy's release model. We knew we needed an automated solution that would require little to no work from content editors, as it would otherwise become out of date quickly as content is edited and added.

We settled on the popular Drupal Diff module and use it under the hood to generate the comparisons between two versions of the same Omnipedia article. The HTML content returned to us by the Diff module is fairly basic, so we use Drupal's hook system to alter the way Diff renders the changes before it does so, and then we apply our own CSS custom visual styling to that rendered output.

Responsiveness and accessibility

We're designing Omnipedia to be fully responsive: it adapts in real-time to your screen size, re-arranging the user interface to work best whatever the environment or device. Since we don't have the enormous amount of content and a codebase spanning decades that Wikipedia has to work around, we were able to integrate this responsiveness into the foundation of our project from the beginning. At the time of writing, Wikipedia still has separate desktop and mobile sites, though they may catch up sooner rather than later.

Drupal's core has a strong emphasis on accessibility, requiring multiple checks to pass for any additions to its code. We build on that strong foundation with our own focus on ensuring our content and user interface make sense to screen reader software and follow the ethos of progressive enhancement and resiliency to ensure the core experience works even in unexpected circumstances, such as when JavaScript is blocked or doesn't load. We program defensively as much as possible, so that if a browser encounters an error somewhere in a script, it will fail in a predictable fashion that we can detect and work around.

We're always keeping an eye on colour contrast, font size, and the scaling of user interface elements to accommodate various input types and ways of interacting with Omnipedia. Its revision history uses visual patterns in addition to colour coding to mark whether content was added, modified, or removed, so that users who have some form of colour blindness can still differentiate the different states. All of our images are given descriptive alternative text for screen reader software, which is also displayed by browsers should images fail to load.

In broad terms, that's how Omnipedia is built! Let us know in the comments if there's some aspect you'd like us to expand upon. We're also planning to open source most of the Omnipedia code after Neurocracy is released early next year.

How Neurocracy blends science and fiction

We have two blog posts for you today! The first is over at Gamasutra, which goes into specifics on how exactly Neurocracy leverages Wikipedia as an interactive narrative device. It looks at whether Neurocracy is more of a novel or a game (spoiler: it is) and examines how using Wikipedia as a medium can provide novel approaches to interactivity and non-linearity. We also posted a Twitter thread that highlights the problem of having to replicate Wikipedia's sheer expanse of content, or at least the feel of it, and how the solution led to an interesting narrative mechanic. The second blog post, which follows just below, details the balance between science and fiction that we're attempting to establish with Neurocracy.

At Playthroughline, we're fans of hard sci-fi, or at least sci-fi with a certain degree of logic and consistency to its inner workings, whether it's couched in real science or not. A recent example is The Expanse, which looks at the physics of space travel and applies those to its worldbuilding instead of conveniently ignoring them. How ships generate gravity, how people communicate across vast distances, The Expanse cares about how these things work, not just that they work.

An added bonus of this approach is that a fictional world with a cogent ruleset can inform plot developments and twists in ways that are more satisfying and might not have occurred otherwise. Breaking one of those rules in a way that puzzles both the characters and the audience then becomes a neat way of introducing a mystery to the story, as long as the solution to that mystery is internally consistent. The Expanse may feature an alien substance that violates the laws of physics in seemingly impossible ways, but it does respect its own set of laws.

The writers of the book series that The Expanse is based on have stated that they aim for a "Wikipedia-level of authenticity" in their work. For obvious reasons, we're attempting the same with Neurocracy. If the idea is to sell a convincing facsimile of Wikipedia in both form and content, its status as an educational tool almost necessitates the presentation of articles that go into more detail than is strictly necessary for the purposes of Neurocracy's story. As a result, every character comes prepackaged with their backstory, every technology with its development history and operation manual.

Let's take Cariappa-Muren disease as an example. The fictional pandemic that shapes much of the world of Neurocracy is based on research into the infection properties of prions, which are proteins that have misfolded and can transmit their misfolded shape onto normal variants of the same protein. There's a relatively limited set of known prion diseases, all resulting in the progressive and incurable degeneration of the brain and other neural tissues. Prions are the simplest disease-causing organisms we know of and there's no consensus on how exactly they work. They're scary.

While Cariappa-Muren disease is fictional, its pathology is informed by the science of prion diseases, which is reflected in its Omnipedia article. When we came across a study that explored the transmission potential of prions to and from fish, we found a plausible way to let our fictional disease grow into a pandemic. We got in touch with one of the neuroscientists who authored this study, and when they read the fruits of their work, they commented that Neurocracy's "level of scientific detail, accuracy, and completeness is unbelievable." This has turned into a common tactic.

Since Neurocracy also explores artificial intelligence, we've consulted with AI researchers to make sure we avoid many of the hackneyed tropes and pitfalls that come with fictional depictions of AI. We've likewise designed a range of brain implants based on current trends in the field and extrapolated how they would work and how they could affect society. In the words of Frederik Pohl: "A good sci-fi story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam." Additionally, as we figured out how all this technology works, we also came up with ways it can fail, providing yet more narrative opportunities.

The challenge is to offer an incentive to make this ancillary information worth the effort of taking it all in, whether it's describing a technology, an organisation, or even a movie that exists in the world of Neurocracy. It might not matter how a character spent their childhood or which college they attended, but it adds up to a mental model of that character, which helps in figuring out their true drives and motivations beyond what their article communicates about them.

If the goal of Neurocracy is to deduce its story from the worldbuilding, to learn from just the facts, Wikipedia is an ideal format because it's a format meant to explain how things work and what rules apply. The better your grasp of how (and whether) the rulesets of Neurocracy fit together, the more you develop an intuition for what could be happening between the lines of Omnipedia's articles.

One of our self-imposed rules for developing Neurocracy is that we can't replicate any article that already exists on Wikipedia. If we want to show how China evolved between our present and the future of Neurocracy, we can't simply have an article about China on Omnipedia (if only because we'd also have to write up its entire history, its successive dynasties, everything such an article would conceivably contain). Instead, we can introduce an article about, say, a fictional resistance group in Hong Kong and its ongoing struggle against China's very real and very authoritarian government.

This means every article on Omnipedia features a fictional idea or concept, though without being consigned to the realm of allegory or symbolism. The world of Neurocracy is built on top of our own and wears this on its sleeve. That's why each Omnipedia article will have a blend of real and fictional citations at the bottom. Figuring out what's real and what's not is an enjoyable part of the experience, as we've found from a few recurring pieces of feedback. This wasn't a specific aim of ours, but it emerged as a happy accident of Neurocracy's drive for authenticity in its worldbuilding and verisimilitude in its medium.

The story world of Neurocracy, such as it is

Hello again! We are so very pleased with the initial response to the unveiling of Neurocracy, with the premise of browsing a futuristic Wikipedia immediately resonating with people and our nascent Discord community taking its first deep dives into the world of 2049. If you're interested in joining that community and getting early access to Neurocracy, you can do so right here!

In our introductory blog post, we painted the broad strokes of what Neurocracy is and what we hope to achieve with it. In this follow-up post, we'll be taking a closer look at the story world of Neurocracy as it's presented through the various articles available on 2049's version of Wikipedia, which we have dubbed Omnipedia. To do that, let's highlight one of Neurocracy's principal characters: business magnate Xu Shaoyong (with his surname written first in accordance with Chinese naming conventions).

Xu is a principal character for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he is considered to be the most powerful person in the year 2049. Secondly, he and his company are emblematic of three current and developing trends that will intersect in the world of Neurocracy: biosecurity, neurotechnology, and surveillance capitalism. Thirdly and finally, his assassination is the inciting incident of Neurocracy's story and the main mystery you must solve.

Who is Xu Shaoyong?

Establishing a fictional society, especially a sci-fi one, means establishing its vocabulary. There are different ways of embedding this exposition in a story, some clunkier than others, but with Omnipedia as a medium, the story of Neurocracy is essentially told entirely through exposition. Each novel concept specific to the world of 2049, be that a character, organisation, technology, or event, gets its own article on Omnipedia. Xu's article will be one of the very first to be made available, since his life is inextricably linked to many of these concepts and the trends that underlie them.

Initially, most of Omnipedia's internal hyperlinks are limited to hover-only previews that are only a few sentences long, so reading all the way through Xu's article will introduce both the man himself and the vocabulary of Neurocracy. Given its episodic release format, each of these previews has the potential to be expanded into a full article somewhere along the way. The idea is that each article can tell a story of its own while also contributing to an overarching narrative of what has happened, and what is happening, in Neurocracy.

What does Xu Shaoyong represent?

The world of Neurocracy is governed by a techno-totalitarian regime originating in China. This is made possible by Zhupao, a Chinese technology conglomerate (founded by Xu) that has effectively privatised and standardised most all data mining operations under the guise of biosecurity. This high-concept setting is then filtered down to the micro level, with different Omnipedia articles showing the interconnected political, social, cultural, technological, and economic implications of a world where governments suddenly have cheap and streamlined access to all their citizens' data (including their neural states).

Rather than imagining a scenario where artificial intelligence becomes sentient or malevolent in a "man vs. machine" fashion, Neurocracy will extrapolate the impact that technology has on society today. With a running throughline of "data is power," Neurocracy deals with themes of machine learning, data mining, biased algorithms, climate change, the corrosive influence of big tech, China's treatment of minorities and dissent, and the dangers of the proliferation of technology outstripping the development of political and moral expertise.

While near future sci-fi runs a greater risk of being cancelled out as soon as it is written, Neurocracy avoids this pitfall by introducing a fictional pandemic caused by an infection known as Cariappa-Muren disease. The global fallout of this pandemic acts as a "reset button," with references to events between the present day and the spread of the pandemic kept largely vague and non-committal, and the time between the pandemic and the year 2049 used to redress the global balance.

However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will be included in the worldbuilding of Neurocracy because it's frighteningly difficult to ignore (though many will try). Since Cariappa-Muren disease was written as a pandemic that elevates the overlap between the surveillance state and biosecurity to a global level, some of the initial steps of this progression will be attributed to COVID-19 instead. Neurocracy then goes ahead and mixes in consumer-grade neurotechnology for the hell of it.

Why does Xu Shaoyong get murdered?

Neurocracy conveys a linear story across its successive episodes, but that story only exists between the lines of the various Omnipedia articles. That's why Neurocracy is a murder mystery, with you having to figure out who killed Xu Shaoyong and why. It's up to you to dive into the rabbit hole of Omnipedia, explore the intricacies of the world of 2049, find clues, draw connections, and in so doing tell yourself the story of Neurocracy.

Xu's article offers plenty of reasons why someone might want him dead, and each one is an avenue of exploration into the world of 2049. This leads to subplots and lesser mysteries that then play out in their own articles, which appear on Omnipedia and receive updates as additional episodes are released. While you don't play a specific role or character in Neurocracy, you are conducting an investigation. If we inspire you to reach for pen and paper to make notes or fashion a conspiracy board with red string, we'll know we've done our jobs.

We are making Neurocracy, and you can too

Hello! Welcome to Playthroughline, a narrative design team composed of writer Joannes Truyens (that's me) and web developer Matei Stanca (that's them). We've previously used this blog for musings on narrative design in videogames and a series of movie scripts that poke fun at them, but now we are focused on something new. We are currently developing Neurocracy, an anthology of sci-fi stories told entirely through a futuristic Wikipedia. That's the elevator pitch, and what follows is the stuck-in-an-elevator pitch.

In generous terms, Neurocracy is an interactive narrative experience that combines elements from alternate reality games (or ARGs), hypertext fiction, and epistolary novels. It depicts a near-future society (set in the year 2049) in which a Chinese biosecurity network has come online and grown to encompass the entire world, elevating China to the status of global superpower. Neurocracy uses the medium of a fictional web-based encyclopedia known as Omnipedia that exists within the world of 2049 and closely resembles present-day Wikipedia in style and layout.

Instead of telling a linear story, Neurocracy invites you to piece together what has happened, and what is happening, solely from the information available on Omnipedia. To do this, you navigate a set of hyperlinked articles that detail various characters, organisations, technologies, and events relevant to the story and themes of Neurocracy. Most of these articles are in orbit around a high-profile assassination that throws the world of 2049 into disarray, leaving it to you to solve the many mysteries that follow. As additional articles are released in weekly episodes (with each episode representing a snapshot of a single in-universe day), more information becomes available, providing clues as to which articles provide other clues and/or could be seen in a new light.

You will be able to experience Neurocracy on your own, but if you are so inclined, you can join forces with others to truly bring it to life! That's where its interactivity lies: instead of a choose-your-own-adventure story that offers different outcomes based on your choices, Neurocracy is more of a choose-your-own-interpretation story. When browsing Omnipedia, you never really learn what transpires between characters, what their true actions or motivations are, or who did what with/to whom. However, this can be deduced by drawing connections between various hints and allusions peppered throughout the articles. The events of Neurocracy may be strictly linear, but there is plenty of ambiguity in between the lines.

We aim to foster a community that comes together to compare notes, debate interpretations, and ultimately tell the story of Neurocracy to itself and others. If you want to help build that community and get exclusive access to Neurocracy's first episodes as they are finalised, please do join our Discord server! You'll get a head start on speculating about Neurocracy's story, take part in challenges that will put you inside its world, and even have some of your interpretations influence its development!

In three months' time, we will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds we need to hire additional writers and designers to enrich the world of Neurocracy with new voices and craft its audiovisual elements. If the campaign is successful, we can wrap up the final stage of development and present Neurocracy to you before the year is out! Until then, we will be using this blog as a platform to tell you more about Neurocracy, so expect a series of deep dives on how it works, what went into it, and more. In addition, you can check out our official website and follow Neurocracy on Twitter for regular announcements.

That's all for now! Stay tuned for further updates as we reveal more of what we've been working on. We're really excited about opening up the world of Neurocracy to you and we hope you'll dive in with us!

Quaking in my reboots

Doom is an integral part of many people's personal gaming histories, but it only briefly waved at me as it passed me by. I was thrown into the world of shooters with a copy of Quake instead. I recently had a chance to play through MachineGames' additional Quake episode, which they released for the game's 20th birthday. MachineGames already breathed new life into another of id Software's venerable gaming properties with Wolfenstein: The New Order, and so proved that they could combine a solid grasp of the original game with a range of fitting new elements. That design philosophy is also apparent in their new episode for Quake, which demonstrates a keen insight into what makes Quake tick and a willingness to play around with it.

So, Wolfenstein has been successfully pulled into modern gaming and Doom followed suit with its celebrated 2016 reboot, but what of Quake? The next entry in the franchise was announced last year, but it's set to be an arena-based multiplayer shooter named Quake Champions. I was left with a feeling of oh-okay because we wouldn't see a return to Quake's singleplayer, and playing MachineGames' episode got me thinking what that kind of reimagining could look like.

Tacoma's immersive simplicity

How many of your phones would unlock if I tried 0451?

In the later stages of Fullbright's Tacoma, you have to enter the code 0451, a set of numerals that has become synonymous with a lineage of games labelled as immersive sims (as explained in this video). Such games generally offer a specific set of tools and systems so that their interaction provides emergent, open-ended gameplay – unpredictable results from the combination of predictable variables. Tacoma decidedly does not fit that sandbox gameplay mould, but its inclusion of 0451 is more an homage to the overall legacy of immersive sims rather than a desire to be lifted into their pantheon. There are in fact a few recurring narrative elements inherent to immersive sims that Tacoma unifies and streamlines with a very clever conceit.

Script: Assassin's Creed

Note: The top of the Scripts page mentions that Hollywood still hasn't churned out a successful movie based on a videogame license, and it doesn't look like the recent Assassin's Creed adaptation has turned that tide. That's why Craig is here with a one-two punch: over at The Editing Room, he has gloriously abridged the Assassin's Creed movie, and here on this blog, he has written a new script that does the game a lot more justice.

-- Joannes

With approximately ten thousand Assassin’s Creed games out there, it’s strange for me to remember that I was a bit surprised when Assassin’s Creed II was announced. Assassin’s Creed was a decided disappointment. Everybody (myself included) was dazzled by early footage which showed off the fluid and adaptable “free-running” element of the game, but then when it actually came out, everybody (myself included) was dismayed to find how tedious most of the other elements of the game were.

Script: Watch_Dogs 2

Let’s talk for a minute about guilty pleasures. I have firm ideas of what I do and do not consider a “guilty pleasure.” I like the movie Speed Racer, but don’t consider it a guilty pleasure, because to my sensibilities, it’s a good movie. I understand that this isn’t a popular conception, but who cares – I have a high opinion of the film, I can articulate it when called upon, I am not ashamed of having seen it several times and owning it on Blu-Ray.

Script: Titanfall 2

Back in 2007, the people at Infinity Ward laid the groundwork for all military shooters since with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Now we have Titanfall 2, a game put together by a lot of the same developers. That shared DNA is apparent in how understated both games are in their accomplishments. The main difference is that, in contrast to the first Modern Warfare, Titanfall 2 never ruminates on how war is a terrible thing that only leaves spent lives in its wake. The story helps in that regard by painting a very black-and-white world in which there are only clear good guys and cartoonish bad guys. Nothing deeper is required.

Iron Finish

Iron Fish
Not Marvel's Iron Fist, go away.

My first attempt at actually writing a game instead of making fun of them resulted in Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries, which was released back in 2013. Not a lot of my work ended up in the final product, since the team went in a different direction late in the process. Then, at the end of last year, I was offered another chance to write a game by my former compatriots over at BeefJack. The work ended up ballooning from two months to nearly a year, but that gave me more time to work with some amazing people, not in the least Nina, a close friend I managed to bring in as a writing partner.

Now the game has been released on Steam! If you want to give it a play and then write a scathing satirical script on it, please do. I deserve no less. Below the jump you'll find the latest trailer and a look back at the project.