Wednesday, September 29, 2010


If we were to track trending topics in games, the notion of "transhumanism" would be on a slow rise. You have the well received Freemarket, created by Jared Sorensen (Memento Mori Theatricks) and Luke Crane (Burning Wheel), and from Catalyst Game Labs you have the slick and inviting Eclipse Phase.

Eclipse Phase is already on my bookshelf, and Freemarket will very soon be a welcome addition. I have just one little problem with the setup, though. Either every game which aspires to represent transhumanism is flawed (out of necessity, no less), or the notion of transhumanism itself is a steaming load of bunk.

Wrangling the terminology: Do I need a hammer, or a spatula?

I wanted to start with a definition of transhumanism, but judging by its Wikipedia entry, it's rather a broad topic. The key tenet is that humanity, in its quest for better technology and greater knowledge, will eventually overcome all human limitations. People will reshape themselves and become beings of (dare I say it?) unlimited potential.

The term was coined in 1957, and another term was minted about the same time: Posthumanism. Imagine the state of humanity being so drastically changed that people are not recognizable as such. That doesn't get bandied about nearly as much, and probably for good reason. Consider the postmodernism movement, which was all about a rejection of objective truth in many endeavors. Postmodernism is such an old concept that the term post-postmodernism has been used to describe the modern era, which came after postmodernism. Go figure. (Or don't. I've been trying to, and it just makes my head hurt.)

The scope of transhumanism is up for debate among its would-be practitioners; some regard poverty, malnutrition, corruption, and pollution as aims that should be included in the virtual transhumanist mission statement; ironically, the concept of transhumanism is still evolving. Getting a precise explanation of transhumanism is therefore like nailing the proverbial jello mold to a wall.

So let's stick to the basics. In game terms, that means changeability of human form, and little else. Although, if you think about it, there really should be more. But I'll tear into that later.

Eclipse Phase: Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!

Eclipse Phase is a full-color hardback production which goes into great detail about the world and the technological base, as well as providing numerous ways to trick out a character both mentally and physically (the two are separable, frequently separated, and the latter is fairly easily customized).

And there's a great many pages describing how the Earth was destroyed by the horrors.

(Yes. Mull those two words together in your mind. Transhumanism. Horrors. See how they absolutely fail to mesh? I noticed that too.)

The story goes that humanity was pretty much settled into a transhumanist lifestyle, swapping out of and into bodies as necessity and fashion dictated, with some space exploration and super-science on the side. Then something broke loose (I won't spoil it here) and Earth became almost completely uninhabitable. While science made transhumanism possible, it also broke the planet. Not everyone considers this a fair trade. Additionally, the thingies that caused the mass evacuation of Earth are still there, and some of them are looking for new opportunities to cause mayhem. One of the suggested campaigns is the one where you have to hunt down those thingies, at whatever cost, and make sure they don't cause more trouble.

Here, the notion of transhumanism is kinked by the need to do more dangerous and awful things than you'd think you'd have to do in a transhuman-enabled world, but there it is. And transhumanism has nothing to say about it.

"You won't feel like a hero when you airlock some kid because he's carrying an infectious nanovirus."

Eclipse Phase rulebook, p. 29

The system itself looks good. It's percentile based with point-based character generation, a not-too-long selection of skills and tech, and a novel way of handling new bodies: your mind is better adapted to certain tasks than others. Your body is also better adapted to certain tasks than others, and whenever you get into a new body, you replace the body line and recalculate your bonuses with the various skills.

The game provides an intriguing science-fantasy setting, and even if you don't play with the "proper" technological horror aspects proposed in the default campaign, there are plenty of more conventional opposition.

And whle the game does contain the necessary element to transhumanism, the ability to make drastic changes to your body up to and including swapping it out completely for a different model, the add-ons, both the horrors of The Fall (as it's called) and of political friction run at odds to a lot of the discussed transhumanist options.

Freemarket: Hell is Other People

Freemarket, as Jared Sorensen and Luke Crane created it, is also a slick and inviting full-color book. The art style isn't as ultra-realistic as Eclipse Phase's, but it's consistent and it sets a more inviting, free-wheeling tone.

Project Donut, as the station is called, is home to 80,000+ people in cramped quarters. There, they seek to work technology in all its forms, including their own bodies, to accomplish things. What they seek to accomplish is up to them, but rest assured that if you're trying to do something, someone else is trying to do either the opposite or something tangentially related and bad. And doing something is generally better than doing nothing, because Project Donut is a direct democracy; if you run out of Flow (the social currency) or get enough Frownies, there's a good chance you'll get voted off the station and leave play.

Once you're on the Donut, you can baseline, eat basic food, get basic entertainment, and just basically exist, but the real fun is using your tech and making things happen. People gather in small groups with common interests and pool their Flow to accomplish bigger and better things so they get to use more and bigger and better services aboard the station.

To say that the Donut is free from technological horrors would be inaccurate, though. The system of building and creating things has a way of making things imperfect, and some of these imperfections can be dangerous. They can also be selling points all their own or even more interesting than the thing you were trying to build in the first place. They make like interesting. Other people adding their own special kinks to your projects makes them interesting too. They might get so interesting they'll kill you. (But you'll recover. The question is with how much style?)

The conflict resolution system in Freemarket involves special decks of cards. Each player and GM each get one, and there's another deck full of bugs and tech effects so when a project gets interesting, we find out how interesting. Character generation is also point-based, but it uses far fewer points; the math is in many cases single-digit. (I thought a little about octaNe when I saw the character sheet.)

Again, it looks like a fun game, but while it adheres to the basic tenets of transhumanism (possibly extreme changes to the human form, and retention of spirit across same), when you start mixing in the special features it starts looking a bit conflicted. The cramped quarters, the attacks by total strangers and griefers, the absolute need to maintain your Flow if not keep it growing... all these serve to make transhumanism look anything but promising.

Could a "textbook" Transhumanist game work? Probably not.

Here's the operative word: conflict. All games need it in one form or another. Eclipse Phase gets its conflict from the numerous planetary factions, if not the forces which made the Earth a singularly crappy place to live. Freemarket gets its conflict from the need to stay afloat and ahead while packed like sardines in a space station where everyone is playing a zero-sum game with each other using the community's resources.

If there were no conflict, nothing would move the game forward, and the game would fall apart.

And if the problem's not with the games?

Then the problem is with the notion of Transhumanism. The bare concept involves changes to the physical form and virtual immortality, heedless of many of the other notions which (at least I think) Transhumanism ought to take into consideration. Consider food and water. Yes, people can theoretically live forever, but do they have the resources to survive forever? Is there a strong social striation, which means some people may be faced with living forever in squalor and servitude? There are other questions that can and should be asked.

Because in so many ways, it seems the human comes last. (Hence the title.)

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