How Neurocracy blends science and fiction

We have two blog posts for you today! The first is over at Game Developer, 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.


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