The science fiction in games and other entertainment used to be very different from real-life technology. Sci-fi creators made time machines and flying cars. But increasingly, we see the creative visions of plausible science fiction becoming the inspiration for real-life technology and video games. And visa versa. We have deep learning neural networks and smart A.I. and self-driving cars. The head of Japan’s SoftBank just bought ARM for $32 billion in a bid to create the Singularity, or the day when A.I. becomes smarter than humans.
Novels such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash inspired Silicon Valley’s virtual worlds, like Second Life. Blade Runner, The Matrix, Minority Report, Inception, Black Mirror, Ex Machina, and HBO’s new remake of Westworld have also inspired new visions for technology companies and new plots for video game stories. Sci-fi and video games are a mirror for our own times.
Video games, science fiction, and real-world technology are in a positive and accelerating inspiration cycle. Square Enix’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has a tight connection with the real world. The company Open Bionics is creating 3D-printed artificial limbs inspired by the arm of Adam Jensen, the hero in Deus Ex, where “natural humans” and “augmented humans” come into conflict.
We’ve also seen Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2 game show the same kind of close ties to the real world, as the game focuses on the hacktivists of San Francisco and their bid to hack into smart cities. Those smart cities are being championed by all sorts of tech companies, but the makers of Watch Dogs are offering a warning about moving too fast into smart city services without thinking through the consequences of security vulnerabilities.
At the recent Montreal International Game Summit, I moderated a panel on the connection and inspiration happening between games, sci-fi, and real world tech. My panelists included Jonathan Morin, creative director at Ubisoft Montreal and a key leader on Watch Dogs 2; Sebastian Alvarado, cofounder of Thwacke Consulting, science advisor for video games; and Andre Vu, executive brand director for the Deus Ex franchise at Eidos Montreal.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. This subject, by the way, will be one of our themes at the GamesBeat Summit 2017 event coming this spring. (Contact me if you want to get involved).
Sebastian Alvarado: I’m co-founder and CEO of Thwacke Consulting. I’m also a scientist. I currently work at Stanford University. I’m a molecular biologist. I became a molecular biologist because I wanted to make the X-Men. [laughs] I learned very quickly I couldn’t do that, but learned a lot of other things too. I did my PhD here at McGill in Montreal. As I was in Montreal, I playtested at lots of studios here. I found myself getting close to the video game industry.
One day I saw a writer Wikipedia’ing DNA, and I thought that was a good opportunity, so we started our group. Since then we’ve worked with a bunch of indies in Montreal, but also abroad as well. We’re now consulting science with the entertainment sector more broadly. Some notable clients are Marvel Entertainment. We helped build their super-soldier serum and explain how the Hulk transforms himself for a museum exhibit in Times Square and Las Vegas. We’ve worked with Warner Bros. Games and a handful of other triple-A companies.
I’m a geneticist and molecular biologist by training. My expertise in science fiction usually relates to refreshing the trope of “his DNA makes him the chosen one.” I’ve gotten pretty tired of that one, but I’ve done what I can to reinvigorate it with a lot of science that’s been bleeding-edge in the lab.
GamesBeat: You got to work with Will Rosellini (the science consultant for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided).
Alvarado: When I first started Thwacke I wanted to reach out to people who’d done science consulting for the game industry. I reached out to him. We’ve been in touch since then, for a few years.
Jonathan Morin: I’m creative director on Watch Dogs and Watch Dogs 2. I work at Ubisoft. The video game industry is an eclectic beast. We all have different backgrounds. I was supposed to become a math teacher, which was a lot more formal and redundant. Progressively, while I was learning science and math, I stumbled on the realization that people could make games for a job. So I switched slightly and decided to study 3D animation and programming. That got me here.
Ironically, now I make games that talk about programming and hacking and the connecting world. I went from one kind of math to another, to a certain extent.
Andre Vu: I’m executive brand director on the Deus Ex franchise. I used to work with Jonathan, more than—almost 10 years ago, on Far Cry 2. We decided to take a bunch of crazy people to revive the Deus Ex franchise. It was very inspiring in terms of gameplay, but also with its themes. We wanted to have a better approach in a sense that—we wanted to make it more relatable and more modern for today’s audience. We consulted with Will Rosellini as well. That was very interesting, almost 10 years ago.
GamesBeat: Do all video game stories start from some kind of non-fiction before you start fictionalizing them?
Morin: In my case, it couldn’t be more true. Watch Dogs, the first game, started with 10 people around a table drinking beer and talking about the impact of smartphones. The first smartphone had just come out, the first Apple iPhone. Of course we all had one. We’re kind of a cage full of geeks up there, a lot of early adopters of technology. But my brother and my mother and most other people didn’t know what the hell a smartphone was.
We were fascinated by the impact of this thing. What would happen if we all had Facebook in our pocket, in every place and at every moment? It was obvious that intellectually and creatively we were interested in what that would mean, and that’s where Watch Dogs was born. It starts with what we’re interested in.
GamesBeat: Within days of when it came out, it had been hacked.
Morin: Exactly as you’d expect. To me, people need to have some form of fascination with something to create. Very rarely is it going to be completely without reference. For us it that impact, this society-changing moment where technology would now be sitting there with your keys and your wallet. It used to be that your keys and your wallet were the two things you always kept with you. Now your phone is with you too, a computer and everything connected to it. A lot of things are with you all the time now. That raised a lot of questions to explore.
GamesBeat: As you’re designing this in real time, though, you’re also seeing the hacking of smartphones come along.
Morin: Right. It was obvious, every flaw we’d read about. But for it was less about what was hackable, because everything is hackable. What was interesting was putting up the mirror to people and their relationship with technology. There were lots of fun videos on YouTube of stunts — I remember one where people were spying on a team of people on Facebook, as if they were behind a curtain, watching people telling each other about their lives. It was just stuff people were telling the world through Facebook. Watch Dogs touched on that a bit.
A lot of people said to me afterward that it changed their relationship with technology, because seeing all this information about everybody on the streets got them thinking. It’s kind of creepy. You don’t want to know so much about people. They’d say, “Suddenly it’s impossible to do the kinds of things to them that you’d usually do in a game.”
In the second game now — everything you can hack in the game, it’s completely doable in reality. It’s harder to do. It takes a bit more effort. But all of these things — journalists have gone through and said to me, “You’re right, this is all possible.” Technology has become exponentially more powerful.