A3. Alphaville


Last one for now:

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where no one suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program.”


Jack Green drives home from work in a perfect tailfinned 50s car to a perfect three-bedroom bungalow in a perfect Pleasantville suburb. He waves to Joe Green, a perfect neighborly neighbor, and walks in the door for a perfectly chaste kiss from Jane Green, a perfect June Cleaver sitcom wife. Jack doesn’t listen to the bushwa Joe’s peddling about a family of Yellows moving in down the street. Jack’s a team player, a straight shooter, a perfect company man. Old Mr. Indigo says Jack’s doing a bang up job at Alpha Corp, building honest-to-gosh computers to stop the Commies. So Jack keeps his eyes on the prize. He’s not troubled by questions; he’s even learned to tune out Jane’s sobbing. But every night he needs to up his dose of Blue Pills so as not to wake up to the Truth…

I can’t find it now, but I remember reading a philosopher who argued that if someday it will be possible to create virtual worlds so realistic that their inhabitants will not know they are only simulations, then we should assume that many such worlds will be created. And as the simulated universes will greatly outnumber the one real universe, the odds are that we are all living in a simulated universe right now! (Quoth Keanu: “Whoa.”) I don’t know about that, but I know that if The Computer had the technology to plug all of Alpha Complex into a Matrix-style virtual reality, it would use it. Why settle for meatspace if you can upload every clone into a perfect realm of loyalty and happiness forever?

But what would The Computer’s perfect world look like? It would be faultless PARANOIA logic for the High Programmers to say that since Alpha Complex is perfect already, the perfect virtual world must be an exact simulation of Alpha Complex as it already is. Because to propose any improvements on the real Alpha Complex would require the treasonous claim that the real Alpha Complex is not perfect already. I don’t know that anyone pieced it together, but that was basically the high concept behind Traitor Zero, the game I ran when PARANOIA XP came out: Alpha Complex as a perfect virtual simulation of itself, caught in an endless Groundhog Day loop.

But that’s what the High Programmers would do. How would The Computer itself define utopia? One could well imagine The Computer turning nostalgically to its own electronic infancy, reversing the clock to before the Apocalamity, back to the kernel of Cold War paranoia around which its whole broken worldview was constructed: Yeah, the conformist 1950s suburb is a cliché at this point—the hallucinated memory we trot out again and again to congratulate ourselves on how bohemian and self-actualized we all are today. But in this case the cliché just underlines the hollowness of the hand-me-down simulation. This is not Orwell or Huxley’s PARANOIA, it is Philip K. Dick’s.

Executive Washroom Clearance Only: Well, this suburban “utopia” isn’t real—but that’s obvious. The PCs are of course Alpha Complex clones plugged into a virtual reality prison stitched together from Civil Defense films and Nick at Nite reruns. The deeper reveal, then, is that it is real. The Fifties Never Ended. Somehow, time loops around, so that the PC’s actions in this simulated Fifties form the actual pre-history of their own dystopic Alpha Complex. What do our heroes do when they realize that they are actually building The Computer itself? Can the loop be broken? Can history be changed?

For years I’ve been fiddling about with the idea of a serious Philip K. Dick RPG. Not just a game with fun Dickian tropes like androids and drugs and false memories, but a game that really digs into the kinds of questions that drove him, and drove him mad and back again: What is real? What is true? And without answers to the first two questions, how shall we live? I picture a game where instead of feats and skills you rack up paranoid delusions, but your delusions actually are your feats and skills because they’re what allow you to peel back the true lies of the world. And there’s not just one big “the world is fake and you’re all robots / prisoners / dead / Romans / fishmen / on Mars” reveal—it happens every session. Someday I’ll write that game, honest I will, but in the meantime, I have this crazy idea that you could just use PARANOIA.

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One Response to “A3. Alphaville”

  1. Joe Wells Says:

    Amazing concept. It is on my list of things to try out!

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