Blog: 2020

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've also figured out ways how 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!