This is part one of a series. Part 2 is also available.
Where do ideas come from? It's a popular question, and one to which there usually isn't a very good answer, or at least not a very satisfying one. The source seems so prosaic when you talk about it later, so...well, so uninspired. There are some people who claim that there are no original ideas and that all art is made of recycled material. I think they're wrong. It is true that all ideas have origins, just like your DNA is based on the DNA of your parents, but just like each human is absolutely unique, so is each idea.
You may wonder why I am telling you these things that you probably already know. It's because I'm going try to explain some of the origins of my game The Infinite Ocean, and I don't want you to get the wrong idea. There is a certain undefinable moment when a work of art become more than its sources and inspirations, when it becomes a thing of its own, and I like to think that even if my game sucks, it does so in an original way.
I have to admit that I have no idea where TIO came from. Ideas tend to grow in my head for a long time while I re-shape them constantly, and then all of a sudden I start maniacally working on their translation to whatever form they have choosen for themselves. While the execution of this particular game turned out to be more complex than I ever imagined, the conception of the basic idea was slightly more easy.
There's a whole load of factors that defined the conception of The Infinite Ocean. One of them was my previous project, an adventure game called Last Rose in a Desert Garden. In it, I had worked extensively with outdoor environments (in terms of graphics) and had been forced to compositing Terragen-rendered backgrounds with objects created in Simply 3D (due to the fact that I lacked any better software). That was an extremely tiresome task, and I wanted to work on something that only required one graphics program, which in turn meant lots of indoor environments. I also had the desire to work on something more surrealistic and experimental, something more complex than Last Rose. Finally, because I didn't have the proper resources to create realistic-looking humans at that point, I decided that wherever the game was supposed to be set, the place would be abandoned.
(Already I'm lying. In the very first version of the game, there were people! In fact, in the very first version, the game had RPG elements! This story is so confusing, so complex, that I will have to simplify it to some degree.)
I had plans for an empty game world and surreal elements. What does that suggest? A dream! Yes, I was going to write about a dream. But not just any dream. You see, I want my stories to be about something. Not in a preachy way—I just need them to have some theme, to explore some aspect of the human condition, or they won't interest me. It's the only way I can really write. I need to know, to have decided, what I'm writing about. Not in the sense of a public service announcement like 'drugs are bad', but a theme, an idea, a question. One of the ideas that had been floating around in my head for quite a while was that of a sentient computer. And this is where we have to start to take apart my influences:
2001 and 2010. I'm not a good geek—I hate Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm sorry, I love Kubrick and I love Clarke, but that film just bores me to death. On the other hand, its sequel, 2010, is much more interesting. In it there are some very interesting discussions about sentient computers. One scene in particular struck me as very powerful: A computer is about to sacrifice itself so that others can survive, and it asks the scientist who built it whether it is going to dream after its destruction. The scientist replies that he doesn't know, and you can tell that he is touched and saddened by the question. The scene fascinated me on several levels. On one level, the concept of a sentient computer faced with its mortality raises so many philosophical and moral questions. On another level, the scene is a metaphor for our very own situation: are we not like that computer, faced with a certain end (that may mean the absolute end of our existence) and forced to make decisions about our lives with that knowledge in mind? One might argue that if sentient life can be created artificially, there is no need for God or any metaphysical phenomena to be involved in the development of life; even intelligent life can be explained as nothing but a chemical process. Some humans believe that. I believe that on some days. The question is, how do we deal with it? How do we deal with a strictly material universe in which there is no eternal life, no resurrection, no soul, no God, where life ends in nothingness? How do we find meaning?
Isaac Asimov. I grew up reading Asimov, and the ideas presented in his books were a great influence. Asimov was an atheist, yet always argued in favour of life and meaning. Several of his main characters were robots (here's the artificial life thing again) and the theme of death is prevalent in many of his books. Years before I'd even begun to think about The Infinite Ocean, Asimov had me thinking about mortality and morality.
Carl Sagan. Two people gave me a sense of wonder about the universe when I was a kid. One was my father, who told me the story of the Big Bang and the creation of life on Earth as a bed-time story and who still religiously watches any documentary he can get his hands on. The other was Carl Sagan. I don't think I ever saw all of Cosmos, but I saw enough of it to fall in love with the beauty of the universe, all without ever putting God into the equation. (I remember a time when I believed in Santa Clause, but I never believed in God.) The idea of a beautiful universe is fundamental to TIO, because it is the computer's answer to the question of mortality. Yes, life ends and there is nothing after it, but the world is beautiful despite that, and we should use our time and appreciate that beauty. That, and love, are the only two answers that can be found to a wholly material universe. And Carl Sagan helped form that idea in my mind.
Star Trek. I like Star Trek. I love it, in fact—at least the first few series, and I really like the third one. While the secular morality of Star Trek may have influenced me, what really influenced TIO was an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The episode in question has Bashir, one of the main characters, wake up to find the space station nearly deserted, and the few survivors being hunted by a nasty alien. After a while, however, he realizes that he's actually in a coma, and that everything around him is a dream. The cool thing, though, is that as he manipulates the station in his dream, his body reacts in the real world. When he turns on the communications system, for example, he starts hearing the voices of the people around his operation table. I loved this idea, and promptly stole it.
I'm quite sure that the Matrix films and a film called The 13th Floor are also responsible for making me think about virtual reality and dream settings. My influences are probably unending.
So what do we have now? A sentient computer. Dreams that correspond to some reality. Questions about the meaning of life and the limits of a sentient being. What more do we need to get a good story? Conflict, of course. And transcendence.
Conflict was easy to come by. Who would develop a sentient computer? The military, quite likely. For what purpose? War strategy, of course. No, War Games was not actually on my mind, at least not consciously. I see the connection, though. The question is this: how would a sentient computer with a vast intellect react to the concept of war? There are those who would say that he/she/it wouldn't care, because computers have no feelings. But I find that things such as love and wonder are more than just "feelings." I think they have a lot to do with consciousness, with intellect—with thought. Sure, an artificial being's love would not be the same as ours, but the idea that it would be incapable of love or wonder is very unimaginative. Besides, one of my ideas for the game was that the scientists who created the sentient computer based its design on the only known example, the human brain. And if you build an artificial being based on yourself, what do you expect?
So there was my conflict: a sentient being created for the purpose of waging war, yet able to question that very purpose. What would happen if, when given the order to start what would essentially be a total war, the computer would refuse? He would be shut down. But what if it wasn't that easy, because the computer was the centre of a giant strategic network? Well, they'd put the computer into a kind of sleep-state where consciousness is partially or fully shut off (or maybe shut out). And here we come to transcendence. Because thought, even in creatures of flesh and blood or metal and electricity, is more than just a chemical reaction. This cannot be denied. It's hard to tell how exactly it is more, but it is. And thought is terribly stubborn, and not easy to get down at all. Just take a look at Stephen Hawking if you want proof of that, or at one of the millions of people who have fought until their last breath against the overwhelming odds of disease, injury and physical torture. Take a look at what people are capable of surviving, or of facing with dignity, and you will behold wonders. There is no need for metaphysical miracles—the human mind is enough of a miracle already. That, I suppose, is the cornerstone of The Infinite Ocean.
Let's recapitulate: A sentient computer is created by the military. The computer uses its vast intellect to consider the world and finds it to be beautiful and valuable. He/she/it is then ordered to start a war that will lead to untold destruction, and refuses. The computer is then put to sleep so the war can begin. But even while 'unconscious' the computer fights back: namely, by dreaming. In this rather surreal dream, the internal structure of the computer and its network is represented by an abandoned base of some kind, in which the unnamed protagonist (the computer) is trapped. Every time the protagonist turns on yet another machine or cracks yet another password, he/she/it comes closer to regaining control - to awakening. And, since dreams only last seconds and this computer is really fast, all of this takes place during a few microseconds, in which the fate of the world will depend on the computer's ability to overcome its oppressors.
I was really happy with this idea, and I'm proud of it to this day. It allows for so much discussion and so many ideas to intersect. I wanted the game to get people to think, and I was sure that this idea would work. You see, using a sentient computer as a protagonist gave me an outsider's perspective. It's an old literary device to describe society from the point of view of someone who is not actually part of it, thus giving members of said society a way of looking at things that is not burdened by their usual prejudices, so that they may come to a new understanding of their world. Since I wanted to talk both about our own 'Western' culture and about humanity as a whole, it only made sense to have a protagonist who was not actually human and who was not burdened by the same associations. Furthermore, having a computer as the protagonist allowed me to stand the old cliché of the Evil Megacomputer on its head: this time you are the computer, and the 'bad guys' are those who are trying to stop you. While playing with cliches should probably not be the sole basis of art, it's a healthy thing to do every now and then.
And the title? Titles are important to me. I need a title for each of my stories before I can do much work with them. The Infinite Ocean is actually derived from a number of sources. It is a popular term in religious writing—Google it and you will find anything from "the infinite ocean of Christ's love" to various Hindu metaphors about consciousness—anything but my game, in fact. And I think that the ocean is a pretty good metaphor both for freedom and for consciousness. There's another source, though: I Used To Be A Sailor, by Tracy Chapman, is one of my favourite songs, and it is filled with imagery of the ocean and of walls as a metaphor for being trapped. If you look at the final version of TIO, you will notice that in many ways, the walls represent the lack of freedom.
It is important to note that, even though this story is based on many things that I am interested in or believe in, the actual form the idea took (the abandoned base etc.) was shaped by the resources available to me. Games are not made out of thin air, and I tried to come up with an idea that I could realistically transform into a game. I believe this to be an important lesson for game writers: know what you can do. Yes, you must challenge yourself as an artist, but do so in the areas where it makes sense, where it will not cause the downfall of the entire project. And remember that an idea can take many shapes, and can be modified without its content being betrayed.
An idea is not a game, or there would be a lot more games. An idea has to be translated into a story, and then into a game. This process was a lot more complex than I could ever have anticipated. What was planned as a relatively straightforward project turned into three radically different versions of the same story. More of that in the next part.
This article copyright © 2005, Jonas Kyratzes