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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.
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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.
GamesBeat: Have any predictions or propositions in the story of Watch Dogs come true?
Morin: A lot of things have happened. In the first game, we used data systems to open prison doors. A guy at DefCon demonstrated the same bug that StuxNet exploited—it could be used to simultaneously open up cells in several different prisons in the United States. Those places are fascinating, because hackers are the first ones to pick up on potential problems. Two or three years later, those problems emerge in the wider world.
We talk to hackers every day and consult with these guys. We ended up realizing how efficient they are. At the beginning of the game, you start out by backing into a stadium and creating a blackout. I think two weeks after we brainstormed that idea, there was a blackout at a football game. It became a bit uncanny, to say the least. We got accustomed to revealing stuff about Watch Dogs and seeing the same things in the headlines. There wasn’t any magic behind that. It just happened.
Edward Snowden ended up making the news I think two days before we revealed Watch Dogs at E3, which was very weird. We revealed Watch Dogs 2 in the middle of all this controversy about Trump and hacking and social media. The story we decided to pitch at E3 was about the impact of social media on democracy. It’s so in line that it feels like if we actively tried to avoid it, we’d fail.
GamesBeat: Deus Ex came out of the 1990s, but you rebooted it in a way that more closely tied it to the present day and things that are currently happening.
Vu: What was interesting for us when we started Human Revolution was taking what made it a good game first. But beyond that, it was about telling a story, a human story, what it means to be human when you have these kinds of advanced technology. How does it affect people, these disruptive technologies? The internet is just one of them.
We mixed those themes with the sense of — the first Deus Ex was all about nanotechnology. That’s something you can’t really see. It was more interesting to reward players with something more noticeable. Mechanical augmentation worked for that. We went back and wrote a new story in order to give people a clearer understand of where we’re going in a few years. It was set in 2027. Today we’re almost in 2017.
And we were very interested in the work at Open Bionics. It started, actually, when they were pinged by some of our fans — “Have you seen what the Deus Ex team is talking about?” While on our side we had people who’d been inspired by the original Deus Ex to jump into scientific fields. They told us, “You should definitely talk with these guys.” We were promoting the same ideas, in some way.
GamesBeat: You had something I’d never heard of in a game before, a science advisor, Will Rosellini. He was a big fan of the game, and he came along to give a lot of explanations for how this could be real.
Vu: Absolutely. It was very funny. He’s a huge fan of the first Deus Ex games. He heard about the reboot back in the day and contacted us. I remember getting his email. “Guys, I love the game and I’ll be here in Montreal. Can we talk?” We started to discuss things with him. He says, “I’d love to help you and bring more accurate scientific detail to the game.” We jumped on the chance to work with him. We were already working with the Open Bionics conference in New York, putting that technology at the forefront, and we had some guys who’d gotten into the field because they’d played Human Revolution.
GamesBeat: And Will, while he’s been consulting with you, has also been trying to make human augmentation happen for real.
Vu: Absolutely. We believe that this isn’t just a joke or a fantasy. It’s really happening. In 2016 we’re already catching up with what we tried to create for 2027.
GamesBeat: So, science advisor to video games. That’s Sebastian’s new career. It’s interesting that we’ve come to a point where this is a job that can exist. It used to be that science fiction was so far out that you didn’t need a connection to real science. Now it’s all about things that can happen.
Alvarado: For me, my adventure went the other way around. From a very young age I was into comic books, Marvel Comics, Wolverine, things like that, and I wanted to do science so I could find the X-gene and turn it on and become a mutant. That was when I was seven or eight years old. [laughs]
Then I found myself on the career path of an academic, going to do my PhD. It was just a stroke of luck, doing my doctorate at McGill and being close to all these development studios like Ubisoft and playtesting to get free games because I was a poor graduate student. It was a unique opportunity, being in the right time and the right place, and realizing that when you do this much time doing basic research, you’re at the forefront of technology. You’re the thinker, developing the ideas that have not even gotten into textbooks yet.
When you’re in that space, you know what’s possible and what’s not. But you also know what’s speculative in terms of science. You can draw your way to a certain outcome – “If I do this experiment, I can find out the answer to that.” It’s starting to become a lot more interesting for science fiction, because we can take extra leaps forward on the notions science fiction has had for a long time and say, “Well, if we test this based on what we already know, we’re grounded in plausibility. This is a reasonable experiment to do. What if it works?” We find ourselves doing these experiments and they actually work.
I can talk about my own work. I’ve shrunk and enlarged ants. I pitched that to Marvel and got feedback from Kevin Feige off that story. Now, if I told you I could shrink and enlarge ants, you’d tell me I was a crackpot. But I published the paper. This is real science. When it made headlines, it was based on real work.
Even to this day, there are things like optogenetics. You may not hear about it, but Stanford University has Karl Deisseroth. He developed this technique that allows you to turn on individual neurons in a mouse’s brain, based on shooting different wavelengths of light at it. With a fiber optic cable or an RFID, you can shoot blue light, red light, and turn on individual groups of neurons and control behavior with it. That starts to travel into all these science fiction ideas about mind control and things like that.
GamesBeat: In the CNN documentary that Deus Ex was part of, they had a lot of people with artificial limbs. It was very interesting, and very moving as well. But it also some stranger ideas, like one man who wanted to be the first wired human, connecting his brain to something. I have trouble accepting some of these.
Vu: That’s a bit of an extreme. Not everyone wants to wire their brain. But if the technology is available, someone will do it. What’s important for Deus Ex is showcasing what could happen. We’re not taking a side. It’s important for us that the player gets to choose what side they want to be on based on their own knowledge and their own background.
But yeah, we met this guy. It’s an interesting approach. It’s his way of expressing himself. Who am I to tell him it’s not right? Everyone has their own reasons. Some people have lost limbs and want to get back what they had. Some people want to extend the possibilities of what they can do. It’s not that far-fetched anymore. Oscar Pistorius, for example, the Olympic runner. We originally considered a similar story for the Deus Ex lore. What if someone on blades could run faster than anyone? Would they let him in the Olympics? Two years later it happened.
You get to a point where things are difficult to control. It’s like I said about disruptive technology. People will do what they want with it. Governments and others will try to control it, but–
GamesBeat: Because you’re working fiction, you can go places that a lot of technologists don’t. They work on their technology and try to make it happen. They don’t necessarily consider ethical implications, the consequences of how technology might go wrong. But in fiction you think about that more often.
Vu: Right. We try to see different cases, in biotech or whatever. We try to guess where things might go. We don’t take just one side. We try to offer a full spectrum of what might happen. When you brainstorm, you have a lot of intelligent people thinking around a theme. Everyone has their own experience and everyone can stretch to a certain extreme. It’s important to explore all these different possibilities, because what you might want to do with technology and what I’d do could be very different.
GamesBeat: In your game, I thought it was interesting that you’d predict people cutting their own arms off to replace it with a new one.
Vu: Well, we already have people coming up with different kinds of extensions to their own bodies. Will Rosellini has talked about people using NFC chips and so on. That’s just the start. If your limb has some defect, maybe, why not replace it with something ten times better?
GamesBeat: And that leads you to your conflict between natural and augmented people, with political scapegoating happening to marginalize people. That’s the heart of what makes the story interesting.
Vu: We got to know Tilly Lockey, a woman who lost both arms. She’s now using a prototype of Adam Jensen’s arm. When people see that, instead of seeing her as diminished, everyone says it’s super cool. It’s customizable. You could do whatever you wanted with something like that. It’s not totally far-fetched to consider that someday someone’s going to say, “Hey, instead of having a new iPhone, I’ll get a new arm.”
For younger people it’s easier, maybe. It starts with tattoos and other little modifications. But you can extrapolate that to something big. It’s natural. Kids these days are more extreme, more stimulated in a lot of ways. The internet creates so much more awareness. They’ll seek extremes in everything, in ways of expressing themselves. It’s fascinating. It’s cool to explore these things in a more grand way. It shakes our way of thinking sometimes. But it’s great. I wouldn’t be surprised to see people saying, “My arm is cooler than yours. Look at the design on it.” Think of a guy who’s really good at painting figures for board games. He could end up being the best custom arm painter in the world. Why not?
GamesBeat: Watch Dogs looked at the down sides of smart cities. These are things that the companies pushing smart cities don’t talk about a lot. They say their systems are secure, but that’s what you’d expect them to say. From the research you’ve done, do you believe that this could still be a bad idea?
Morin: I’ve never thought smart cities were necessarily a bad idea by design. The thing is — just go to DefCon once, through this swarm of conferences, and you’ll realize what’s going on. Every time you’re sitting in a room at DefCon, they’ll start demonstrating whatever they want to do. Always, every single conversation, there’s this moment where they go — I remember one where a guy demonstrated how a certain system for traffic lights could be hacked. I was interested in that because we were exploring the same idea for the game. He had his backpack and his laptop, he’s pointing at an intersection in I forget which U.S. city, and suddenly he’s connected to every traffic light and controlling them. With his laptop.
Right there he called up the company that made the sensor for these traffic signals. “Hey, your product says it’s encrypted, but it’s not.” Everyone in the room starts laughing. It’s a running joke with these guys. Companies always say, “Sure, it’s encrypted,” and 99 percent of the time it’s either poorly done or not done at all. In this case it wasn’t encrypted at all. Open to connections.
So the guy on the other end says, “No, it’s encrypted,” arguing on the phone. Then he calls again and gets one level up in management, again and again. Eventually he gets a response. “Yeah, we did focus groups, and the connection was too slow with the encryption. It was a better product without it.” You focus-grouped security? And they kept claiming it was encrypted anyway. Of course the people in the cities that bought the product didn’t test it enough to notice. They just installed it. And that’s why DefCon exists. People go there and show off these things and they all find it really funny.
The thing about smart cities is, how can you secure something that isn’t just one product? A smart city isn’t a product. A smart city is an OS, an infrastructure of computers. You look back at the DDoS attack a couple of weeks ago, it’s a similar problem. All these things are connected to the internet. If one of those things is flawed — and all of them are different products from different companies, some of them that aren’t that great – the whole thing is flawed. Someone can get into the entire infrastructure and control the entire thing.
I feel like every time we create a game or a story or a universe, we want it to be relatable. A good way to make it relatable is to make people think about their own lives.
GamesBeat: All these things that are hackable, that’s the grain of truth in Watch Dogs. The part where it turns to fiction, maybe, is how seamlessly everything is connected and how quickly you can do a hack.
Morin: Yeah, the fiction is in how easy it is to connect to everything. But seamlessly connecting to everything, that’s closer and closer to reality. We’re making an extrapolation to a couple of years off. But often our initial conceptions end up being 80 percent reality once we ship. The speed at which this is all going is crazy. There are stories of products where, if you start extrapolating, people get scared.
GamesBeat: About six billion things are connected to the internet?
Morin: Right. And that’s growing fast. People don’t understand. They buy a camera to keep an eye on their kids — cool, right? I’ve been with my friends when they’re watching their kids on their phone with the camera while they’re on a trip. Me, I just think, there have been tons of hacks with those things. Personally it doesn’t make me feel safe. And that’s just one product. Maybe the flaw isn’t there. Maybe it’s your router. Everything that’s on the internet is connected, and most of the time they don’t sell you that part of the story.
GamesBeat: Going up a little, what do you achieve when you make a story more believable in relation to the real world?
Morin: You help people realize something new. When you create a story or an experience, like I was saying, you want to give something back, some kind of meaning. You want to say something. Sometimes you want to explore a subject and help people think about that subject. I’m more in that category. I’m interested in getting people to think about something that they don’t often think about if someone doesn’t put it in front of them.
Watch Dogs is about that. It’s about helping someone explore the repercussions of what’s going right now with the way we live. It doesn’t have to be too creepy. It can be fun, the way your character uses these things. But at the same time, you can be curious. You can mess around with these systems. It brings you to a realization. You can think about your behavior, what you do with these tools, or the bigger picture around that. Both questions are interesting. As long as people can connect with your experience in a way that’s personal to them—having relatable elements, tangible connections to real life, is a great way to go.
Vu: In Deus Ex, that’s also true for us. We can talk about mature themes. Too often people take video games very lightly. Obviously we’re making a piece of entertainment, but if we can make people think at the same time, if we can inspire people to pursue scientific fields, or even just get to know a little more about the world, that’s something we want to do. If our games can help people be more curious, that’s something we’d like to do.
GamesBeat: It’s said that art is a mirror.
Morin: Right, but we can also get people more engaged. The first time my kid saw Watch Dogs, they didn’t care about anything except one element. “That guy has a phone as a weapon. That’s cool.” Most 35-year-olds wouldn’t say that. But for my kid, it was like his iPod. This guy in the game is doing cool stuff with something just like it. It was relatable. I think that’s fascinating.
Vu: Talking about augmentation and prosthetic limbs, when we first started doing Deus Ex 10 years ago, people saw some hope in it. People who’ve lost their limbs for whatever reason feel limited. It’s not as if they’re second-class citizens, but they find themselves in a different place in society. I remember people writing to us saying things like, “I’m handicapped after a car accident. Playing your game, I felt like what I was seeing could happen for me someday.”
With Mankind Divided, it goes even further. This stuff exists. It’s not a gimmick anymore. It could be very cheap pretty soon. You can spend up to $200,000 on a prosthetic right now, but what was interesting about working with Open Bionics was that these guys wanted to make it accessible to the masses. That’s what we wanted to associate ourselves with – exposing this technology to everyone, helping people progress. If we can help make some improvement in the world, it gives what we’re doing greater meaning.
GamesBeat: That’s how augmentation gets into the world. But the interesting thing about your story is that you also reflect this consequence. What happens if somebody doesn’t have good intentions around their use of this technology and the way it divides people? It starts to feel more relevant at the end of 2016, with the scapegoating of Muslims and other people during the presidential campaign. Looking at how a consequence plays out in the story, you can imagine how it could play out in real life.
Vu: It’s everyone’s decision to see what could be the future at some point. Obviously, we didn’t take inspiration from this year in politics. We were thinking about this many years before. We’ve been inspired by the real world, though. We try to look at that and amplify it somehow. We did our homework.
Alvarado: A lot of social problems that come up don’t necessarily have much to do with technology. They’re human problems. As a scientist, I feel I have a personal responsibility to advance our knowledge as far as it can go, whether it’s used for good or ill. That’s the human decision. It’s beyond my grasp.
Video games are a great place to do this because it’s an intersection of culture and art and science. It’s whatever you make it up to be. As long as you’re able to tell your story, that’s fantastic. But it’s sometimes disturbing to look back and see how something could have happened in a negative way, and then see it happen in the same way. But again, human problems. We’re responsible for pushing ourselves, humankind, forward. What we do with the results of that is what we choose to do.
GamesBeat: Looking back in history, you see these meetings between fiction and reality. At the height of McCarthyism, High Noon came out, where the hero is someone who stands up and is abandoned by all his friends. You had the parallel to people in Hollywood who were blacklisted. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible around the same time about the Salem witch hunts, as a commentary on his own time. I feel like there’s an interesting place right now, where there’s all this research going into artificial intelligence. Silicon Valley is driving as hard as it can to make that happen. There’s a thousand startups in A.I. right now. People are working on self-driving cars. But fiction has proposed that there’s a consequence that comes when you get to the point of perfect A.I.
Vu: Like Sebastian was saying, it’s not about technology by itself. It’s how human beings use it. That complicates things.
GamesBeat: When I talked to SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, I asked him this question. Elon Musk has proposed that A.I. could be very bad idea. He wants people not to do it. Son’s response was that, “Well, somebody is going to do it.”
Morin: It’s hard to foresee what might happen. One way we’ve been able to deal with these things, though, is by exposing it and exploring it and talking about it. That’s what we’re trying to do. Making an advancement that can change society in a vacuum, flipping the switch without warning, is the worst thing you can do. If you have fiction talking about it, if you have games talking to a certain demographic that’s maybe different from the movies, if you have all these things exploring the subject it creates a conversation. That conversation helps society prepare, slowly but surely.
What’s hard to imagine now is the speed at which innovation, society-changing innovation, is going. It’s exponential. In the past, it took a whole world war to come up with a few advances that changed society. Now we could have far more in a year of peacetime. As long as it’s exposed to people and we generate debate, that will help. I just see a risk in the fact that maybe we won’t have time to go that far with the next couple of innovations. We’ll have to just trust in how that’s going to go. There’s no point in no longer pushing ourselves because we’re scared of the result.
Alvarado: The science fiction stories we tell in video games are incredibly important because science fiction has always been a vehicle for exploring social issues. Gender equality, racism, addiction, things that have been very hard to talk about in western cultures for a very long time. If you take somebody to a different planet or a different time and you introduce them to this shiny environment that might be real in the distant future, that lets their guard down a little. You open people up to ideas that they might otherwise instantly reject. You can slowly introduce these things.
I think about Ursula K. le Guin with The Left Hand of Darkness and what that has to say about gender. Being able to open up and unfold this idea about how we see male and female gender assignments—at first you feel like you’re just reading this space novella and you’re wondering what happens next. And then maybe it happens while you’re reading, or maybe it happens years down the road, but there are ideas there that you’ve opened your mind to, and you would have never done that otherwise.
GamesBeat: George Orwell published 1984 in 1949, and it feels like we might finally be in his totalitarian times.
Morin: It’s kind of a combination. The way I see it, it feels like we’re using Huxley’s model to sell Orwell’s reality. It’s an unexpected outcome. We’re individually in love with our little computers in our pockets and we willingly give information so that eventually we get Orwell’s reality. I don’t think it could happen. But they were both right, interestingly, in different places.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing about Watch Dogs 2 is that you identify the counter-force here, which is hacktivism. Hackers with a conscience and an agenda to push back when they realize that there’s a threat. It’s plausible that people like these could have social followings, could round up a lot of computing power, and become very powerful against the things they think are invasive.
Morin: It’s the model of a group of hackers. It started with kids doing for it kicks, playing mean jokes on the internet. And then suddenly they realize they can do more sophisticated stunts on more important matters. That’s why they make news and find followers. That’s pretty much how it happens in real life.
GamesBeat: One of the missions in Watch Dogs 2 references the Church of Scientology. I can mention that. I’m not sure what you can say.
Morin: [laughs] There are certainly explorations related to things that happened in reality, to a certain degree. The way I see it, hackers are part of computer science. More and more, we’re using sophisticated technology in our daily lives, but we understand it less and less.
A lot of people often say that Watch Dogs glorifies hacking, glorifies these people who are perceived as criminals. I say, “Hackers aren’t criminal by definition. People can be criminals. A hacker is just someone who’s good at breaking systems. Most of them live productive lives and help society out, making sure what we use is as secure as possible.” The truth is that because of how they’re portrayed in the media, they don’t talk very much. They don’t voice their opinions. Yet they’re probably the best-placed people to educate society about the risks of technology and how we should be interacting with computers.
The truth is, if my parents want to buy a device for their house, they’re clueless about what they should buy and what’s secure. There’s not much they can do about that. There aren’t services or collective understandings. Our game is about a group of hackers trying to find truth and expose it. They gain a following for that, because they’re giving back to society. They provide an awareness. They’re not trying to push technology and innovation away. They offer a fresh understanding of what we’re doing.
I feel like, too often, we talk about a problem, but we don’t let people who fully understand these things work talk about it. Other times they’re just not the best at talking about it. They’re very good at understanding what they’re doing, but they don’t have a talent for voicing what they think. Games are one way of doing that, but there’s more that could be done.
GamesBeat: Are there any subjects that you’d personally like to steer into in our last few minutes? I was curious about whether there are some technologies in Deus Ex that are totally outlandish, or that you think might be outlandish, but actually have a kernel of reality in them.
Vu: We have rules about the DNA of the series that we have to respect. That’s the number one thing. We rely on real facts. After that, we can extrapolate.
GamesBeat: Then you’re going to tell me that invisibility, which is in the game, is possible?
Vu: It is!
Alvarado: It’s not my specialty, but my understanding is that it comes from the idea that you can bend light around a new type of surface.
Vu: It’s not exactly invisibility, but it’s how the cloak works.
Alvarado: I wanted to interject earlier about the wire-in-the-head thing. There’s a Brazilian researcher named Miguel Nicolelis who’s already made—maybe you’ve seen this, the chimp that plugs multi-electrode arrays into its brain and can pick up a ball and feed itself and things like that. It’s all there.
Here’s the important thing to make clear. We’re only allowed to do this on animal models. I am not allowed to drag you guys out of this room and open up your brain and do these things. That’s the one thing stopping a lot of what seems fantastical. Not all of it. But a good amount of what people are talking about here, I can do that to animals. I just can’t do it to you.
GamesBeat: What about on the Watch Dogs 2 side? Do you have anything that’s more fiction than reality?
Morin: Like we said before, it’s mostly just the speed at which you can execute it. You can hack into streetlights. I saw someone do it. Maybe the most fictional ideas are the combinations of reality. In the game you can point at someone, hack a database, change the facial recognition with your camera, and link his face to someone else. You can turn someone into a criminal. A cop shows up and you can start messing around with them, create a distraction, things like that.
The act of changing a photo in a database is the simplest hack on the planet. There’s nothing sophisticated about that. What’s probably more pushing it is—we’re not yet at a point where cities have a full database of every person in it. It would be more realistic if there were maybe a 75 percent chance that the database recognizes a person. But that’s it. There are many cities that are already pretty good at knowing who’s walking around on the street.
GamesBeat: You can use drones in this game to do a lot of hacking for you — fly into windows, sneak through grates, get to places where the hacker can’t physically go.
Morin: This one is more a metaphor. In the end, you’re still on your computer and you can access all these things. The one part where it’s close to reality is when the drone is doing the physical act. It’s a means to give the player access to something without the risk of physically going there. In real life, many types of hacks require a physical modification. Often the same bypass can be used for hundreds of devices, though. That’s the extent of the fiction. In the end, there’s not much I can think of that isn’t possible.
GamesBeat: Is Watch Dogs 3 going to have Russian hackers influencing an election?
Morin: [laughs] Yeah, Watch Dogs 2 came out too late. Another term you hear about in biotechnology is bio-hacking. There’s a movement behind it, studies about it. Hacking is just the act of reverse-engineering and repurposing something to do something else. It’s everywhere.
Alvarado: There’s a guy in the bay area doing personal fecal transplants with himself. He has Crohn’s disease, a defective gut, so he wanted to give himself fecal transplants to affect the microbiota in his colon. Because that’s something you can do. It’s very easy, if you think about it, although I won’t go into the details. He’s doing that to himself, and he’s selling these kits on his website, because nobody’s told him he can’t yet.
That’s the point. Nobody can tell you that you can’t yet. With a lot of these advanced technologies, there are no policies to stop you from experimenting on yourself. There are for stem cells. But you can just go somewhere else where you can.
Vu: We’re only just getting around to drone legislation.
Alvarado: Congresses and parliaments, they don’t understand any of these things. Science has gone way beyond the comprehension of what politicians can decide policy on. How can you trust anything to anyone? I don’t know enough scientists doing policy to make a reasonable recommendation.
Morin: We’re focusing on what’s real today. An example of bio-hacking that fascinated us—we didn’t put this in the game, but for getting past security cameras, there are already people tattooing their faces in certain patterns that make it impossible for cameras to know who you area. Many people will probably end up combining aesthetics with that.
Alvarado: Bio-hacking the eye is something people don’t—the original therapies and drugs that usually come out in phase one trials of any new type of technology always target the eye, because the eye is the easiest thing to target for genetic therapies and things like that. All you have to do is drop an eyedrop in there. It’s self-contained. It can’t get past that. If you ever want to bio-hack the eye, talk to me. [laughter] But if you think about anything an animal can do in the wild, we all have a genetic makeup that usually allows us to do these things.
People have worked on how the pit viper can see in the dark by detecting infrared radiation from animals nearby. They do that because their eyes are built that way. If you want to bio-hack your eye, why not build your eye that way? There are lots of things you can do. Certain parts of your body are much easier to access and fiddle with. Realistically, in today’s world, it’s hard to hack the brain. You can try. It’s still very hard to do. But the bio-hacking movement is probably going to focus on things like that.
Morin: It starts somewhere, right? And then technology gets easier to use, more widely understood. The brain is barely understood today. We’re starting to monitor the brain completely. Once we start really figuring that out—
Alvarado: The next time we have this panel the lights will be off and I’ll be seeing all of you in infrared.
GamesBeat: Westworld is very popular on TV now. The producers went to Silicon Valley and talked to a lot of people when they were working on this story. They talked about playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto, thinking about all the things you can do in that game. Would you do them to androids, machines that look and feel like real people? It seems like we should see some interplay here, some inspiration.
Morin: It’s already happening. We’re already talking about that a lot, actually. I haven’t seen the show, but just reading about it — doing video game simulation is kind of working the other way around to what the show is doing. We’re trying to make players more related to a robot on the sidewalk. They’re exploring the reverse of that.
Vu: There’s a game like this made by the guys at Quantic Dream.
GamesBeat: Yeah, Detroit: Become Human.
Alvarado: The thing that’s wonderful about Westworld, again, it’s a human story. It’s about what it is to be human. I feel like the themes, despite having this science fiction backdrop, are incredibly personal. That’s what sells it. It’s not the science fiction.
Morin: It’s going to become a ridiculously relevant question.
GamesBeat: What happens when the NPCs in games become real enough that people fall in love with them?
Morin: It’s already happened!
Alvarado: My father judged me so much when we started playing games together. He’d say, “How can you just go killing people?” I’d say, “I’m testing the system. It’s just a game.” But with things like VR, you put that headset on and it becomes much more difficult to shoot someone. For me at least. A lot of VR developers find themselves saying, “We can’t just do humans. We have to do zombies or robots or something else.”
Bullet Train, right? That had people, these SWAT guys, and they swapped that out for their new game, which has robots. They’re less relatable. You want to create that distance, because you’re too close to the simulation. You realize that you have agency, and that you can be a terrible, terrible person in this world.
Morin: I can have a terrible impact. It’s going to be a challenge. The leap is so big in VR. You could end up having a real trauma from a horror experience.
Alvarado: I mean, tell me the difference between shooting somebody on a two-dimensional screen, and then shooting them and actually seeing them grab their wound and slowly fall to the ground. I don’t like doing that.
Morin: It’s one of the problems with VR right now for game creators. We’ll slowly get to understand the barrier. It’s the same thing as any creepy video that people share without warning in your email. You watch it and some people will laugh. Some people will be pissed off, because you saw something that you weren’t ready to see. In VR, a lot of mundane things you do in typical games will cross that threshold.
We’ll have to re-evaluate everything, in a good way. Killing will become more of a big deal. Certain ways we treat people will become more of a big deal. We’ll be creating new kinds of game mechanics, but it’ll also push us in the right direction in other ways.
Disclosure: The organizers of MIGS 2016 paid my way to Montreal. Our coverage remains objective.
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