As Stephen Fry’s recent “Dork Talk” column starts, “Gazing into the techno-future can be fun. We all dream of utopias involving benign robots, food for all and fusion power that is free, safe and unlimited, but then there are the cacotopias too – nightmare visions of malevolent machines that turn on mankind.”

I’d been thinking about the malevolent machine (or “robot nutters”) myself after finishing Portal, with GLaDOS taking her place with the likes of HAL 9000 and Shodan in the upper pantheons of the Robotic Nutter Hall of Fame not least due to “Still Alive”, which easily leapfrogs HAL’s rendition of Daisy, Daisy to share the number one spot of the Machine Dystopia Top 10 with “Robots” (I would’ve added spoiler space in case you’ve still to play Portal and wanted to be totally shocked by the revelation that the nice computerised voice you hear isn’t entirely benevolent, but really, has there ever been a case of a synthesised-voice-AI-type-thing not going bonkers in the nut and trying to kill all meatbags? To really subvert expectation, someone should set a game on a spaceship controlled by an AI that never tries to systematically kill all on board. Call it Starship As Much Cake As You Can Eat (No Death), perhaps.)

The mechanised loon is a marvellous staple for a single player game, giving a convenient explanation for the fact The Humans Are Dead (or murderous cyborgs, mutated zombie-fiends or other form of creature not particularly interested in a nice cup of tea and chat about last night’s telly). By and large, the less direct human-to-human interaction you can get away with in a single player game, the more immersive it can be; valiant as efforts at NPC AI have been, most still come off second best to ELIZA in terms of stimulating dialogue, so the worlds of Portal and System Shock, where your only contact with humanity comes in the form of corpses, audio logs, scribbled notes or pictures of cake are particularly chilling (and conversely in Half Life 2 it’s difficult to build up a rapport with the nameless resistance fighters who join your squad from time to time due to their sub-Doctor-Who-assistant levels of self preservation: “I’ll follow you, Doctor Freeman! Right down the middle of the road! Cover? Nope, not ringing any bells, that. Hey, over here, a rare form of beetle, I must take a closer look! Although it seems to be somewhat mechanical, and it just turned red and beeped almost like it was a landmine or something… awww! Doctor Freeman, you didn’t have to throw the nice beetle away. Hey, look, down this road, it’s a laser show! I can’t hear the Pink Floyd, though, I’ll just wander a bit closer… oooh, that laser beam is lined up right between my eyes, it’s almost like it’s attached to a sniper’s rifle or something!”)

I think there’s a great opportunity there for MMOs as well, a scaled up version of the post-machine-apocalypse with all players as fellow-survivors instead of just you vs The Machine. Basically… Terminator (the future-y robot infested bits, not chasing around after a curiously accented cyborg in 1984 LA). Only not exactly the same, to avoid copyright infringement and having to acknowledge the existence of Terminator 3. This would be very much a PvE world, humans vs the machines, with all machines being computer-controlled rather than a playable faction. After all, if you want to log in and repeat a set of mind-numbingly simple tasks over and over again until you log out, you’ve got plenty of options already (*badum-tish*, thank you, I’ll be here all week). You could get PvP in there with a couple of human factions (say, a suitably generic EastBloc and WestBloc, who haven’t quite been able to let go of traditional animosities, then you can play entirely PvE, just taking on the machines, or have a zone on the borders of their territory for a bit of PvP as well), but mostly the unending supply of implacable machine opposition would give a slightly more believable and ethically justified framework for your standard PvE quests, rather than “Kill ten spiders. Now kill ten snakes. Now kill ten bears. And vultures. And wolves. ANY WILDLIFE YOU SEE! DESTROY IT! WIPE OUT ALL NATURAL LIFE ON THE PLANET AND BRING ME ITS INTERNAL ORGANS!1!1!!”

Course, for a dystopian machine-ruled future MMO, we’ve already had The Matrix Online. And I still mean to get around to trying that at some point, only last time I could be bothered to look I couldn’t find anything saying “HAY FREE TRIAL THIS WAY!”, and I must’ve searched for at least thirty seconds, maybe even a minute. There’s a couple of things that put me off, though, namely The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions (I mean, they’re not the most appalling films in the history of time, but after the first they’re a terrible anticlimax). Also, I gather one of the careers you can follow in The Matrix Online is a programmer, and me, a programmer, on a computer, playing a programmer, who finds out that “life” is an artificial construct, wakes up, hacks back into the matrix… that’s getting just a touch meta for me. I’ll stick with big guns and robot nutters, I think. I need your clothes, boots and your motorcycle…

Posted by Zoso at 2:26 pm