Keep up with what the Cowboy Errant team have to say! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!

The Future of Predicting the Future

Nite: The good Imperator McAlpine has taken the reins this week. Enjoy!

Anyone ever wonder about future history? Anybody enjoy the futurologists who try to predict how things will go? Well, then you may want to take a look at Issac Asimov’s Foundation series; it’s about exactly that and more: trying to force the future down a desirable path through the clever application of mathematical algorithms. In the first trilogy, this is done through the science of Psychohistory. The books are, admittedly, a bit light on characterization and the science is, unsurprisingly, dated but, even seventy years after its publication it’s a yarn well worth your time.

So what of Psychohistory? The entire idea is that with a sufficient understanding of psychology and statistics, patterns of behavior emerge which enable you to predict or potentially guide the course of nations and other large groups. In the context of the Foundation series, the entire plot revolves around efforts to limit a dark age of barbarism from thirty thousand years, to a mere thousand by means of the titular Foundation on the edge of Imperial Space. Sure, it may go off the rails from time to time -literature has to take its liberties- but it’s a conceit worth exploring. With the right influences, a few carefully placed nudges, you could guide a society long after you’re dead.

Of course, Psychohistory in the Foundation Trilogy has its limitations, among them that a potentially exceptional individual could upset its predictions, and it’s notoriously difficult to apply it to any single person. It can only reliably predict the actions of large groups. Interesting enough idea by itself, but here’s where it can get downright fascinating. What about introducing changes deliberately to steer a society or a nation? In the original Foundation Trilogy we see this discussed in “Second Foundation” where a group attempts to correct the psychohistorical equations and shift the course.

Asmiov wasn’t alone in his musings on this idea. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time features this concept as well, forcing history into a cycle of ages. The ancient Greeks had an idea of a cycle of ages, too, from golden ages to iron ages. More specifically, in sci-fi we see the trope pop up in John Wright’s Count to Eschaton series where it goes by the name of Cliometry and is used by the main characters to try and introduce variables that can alter the future.

All of this leads to one big question: could, through the utilization of a guided history, we make interesting stories? At first glance, one might say yes given the Foundation Trilogy. However, it does lead to a degree of moral dissonance – that would require skilled hands to work. For instance, a character could attempt to justify a certain action causing grievous harm in the now only to have a future benefit greatly, thereby, arguably, outweighing the harm, allegedly backed up by this influenced history. Does this make it moral? For instance, today people can be forced off their lands – sometimes without compensation – in order to make room for a new dam deemed to be of benefit to large numbers of people. With a guided history, could even larger displacements or greater injustices be excused?

We could list example after example about this; toying with the future of a species makes for some compellingly murky ethical drama, and leaves us with more than few unsettling questions about our own future. So, what do you think? Is it worthwhile to explore it further in our science fiction? Something we’ll ever be able to do? Leave a comment and let us know!

Imperator McAlpine

Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better

So, the release of a certain particularly notable video game about space exploration has once again brought to light an issue that never seems to stop plaguing the games industry: the misconception that game length equals game quality. Yes, we’re talking about No Man’s Sky, a game that honestly deserves a few blogs to discuss its merits, its shortcomings, and the myriad issues the hype surrounding its release had helped bring (back) to light. But for now, we’re going to focus on the thing that irks us the most: a big game is not necessarily a good game, and a small game is by no means a bad one.

No Man’s Sky promised a near-unlimited amount of play time, an unprecedented amount of stuff to explore, and a universe wherein each and every planet is different, all thanks to the wonders of procedural generation. Come to find out, upon its release, “near-unlimited” still means “limited.” How limited? Thirty hours, if you believe the outrage surrounding some videos of the game that claim that that’s how long it takes to reach the center of its virtual cosmic expanse. Now, there has been some debate about whether or not the payer that first discovered this was making a beeline for the center (he claims he wasn’t), but again, aside from the developer over-promising a little, what’s the problem here? Thirty hours is simply how long it takes to get to the middle, meaning the whole galaxy is probably about twice that from edge to edge, and that’s a whole lot more than something like Skyrim, a game widely accepted as jam packed with hundreds of hours of content. It probably only takes about an hour or two to traverse its map, but still its easy to get plenty of play time. There are simply too many variables here for one to take that evaluation of No Man’s Sky’s length seriously. It’s the sort of game that will last as long as you’d like it to. Provided you keep finding the experience fun, the game will have worlds upon worlds upon yet more worlds for you to explore. But absolutely none of this matters because, again, length of time invested is not an indicator of quality.

We’ll be among the first to say that games aren’t movies or books and need not concern themselves with becoming more like either one, and that the time of those working within the medium would be better spent exploring how to make a game a great game as opposed to a game more like something it isn’t. But it’s worth noting that games are the only form of art that are judged according to how long they last. When was the last time you read a review saying “It only took me 30 hours to get to the end of this book. 0/10?”

Look at a game like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Each episode lasts maybe two hours, but it’s a carefully crafted, thoroughly compelling two hours. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a game like Fallout can last hundreds, but it’s not good because of those hours spent; it’s good because of what you get to do with those hours. A compact, refined, experience is just as artistically valid as a sprawling one.

We aren’t here to argue whether or not No Man’s Sky is a good game, we aren’t here to discuss whether or not the game’s criticisms stem from legitimate concerns about how it was advertised, and we aren’t here to discuss the greater financial investment gaming requires arguably necessitating a greater return in terms of time. Well, not yet, anyway. But we can’t help but notice how limiting this misconception that a game with more stuff in it is inherently better is. Any work of art needs to be as long or as short as it needs to be, and any additions or removals should be made to serve the work’s greater purpose, its story, its heart. No Man’s Sky isn’t good or bad because of how big it is, but rather because of how well the game’s myriad elements fit together, or how badly they fail to. Big doesn’t mean good. Good means good.

Major Col. Supervisor Guadalupe Ruiz Del Frontera
Like our stuff? Want to get in touch? Go ahead and drop a like and a comment on our Faceboook page! We read those!

Re-branding the Megacorporation

Notice: Despite the deceitful post header, this piece is indeed brought to you by the good Imperator McAlpine. Enjoy!

Ever watch Terminator and wonder what exactly Cyberdyne’s business plan is? Kill all humans, ????, profit perhaps? Alright, maybe it’s a touch more complicated than that, but the image of that being presented to an investor is a strange one. From Shinra in Final Fantasy 7, to Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, megacorporations can play a substantial role in fictional settings, and we think it might be time to look at some new ways to approach this mainstay of science fiction.

After seeing the trope used again and again as a monolith of villainy at worst, or as naively toying with powers they don’t understand at best, one starts to wonder if, perhaps, there might be a more nuanced way of handling them. Sure a movie has limited run time, so an extended presentation of org charts might be out of the question, but, frankly, you don’t need them. So let’s explore some more efficient, and potentially more interesting, alternatives.

First, why not reframe the whole concept? Instead of one monolithic corporation, why not two or three fighting vying for profits, with all manner of unsavory dealings taking place behind the friendly smokescreen of ads? Shadowrun does this masterfully; it’s a central conceit of the setting. Ten huge megacorporations fight covertly for supremacy and stock prices.

But that still leaves us with the question of how the characters might get involved. How do you incorporate the shady corporate dealings so critical to your world into your narrative?

For your consideration: a CSI-style police procedural where the ethically gray companies make the equipment or administer the DNA tests. How might that muddy the moral waters of police work? What if in a political drama like House of Cards, the new party official has to deal with two primary backers deciding to feud amongst themselves right before an important vote? You could even develop it further. For instance, as in Shadowrun, taking jobs with one corporation against the others. Though it would be harder to fit in a time-limited medium, three or more megacorporations entangled in a complex web of shaky alliances and locked in a perpetual, no-holds-barred territory war could lend a fantastic amount of depth to your setting.

Second, and perhaps the strangest idea on the list, is the megacorporation as a fair weather benefactor. No, really. Think about it. Jurassic Park might, arguably, fit this mould. After all, it provides a service. It helps bring back dinosaurs! Unfortunately, when something goes wrong it’s nowhere to be found, leaving the heroes up the creek without a paddle. So how does one take advantage of this particular spin on the trope?

Maybe in a zombie apocalypse style film, the characters begin with full sanction and backing, helping citizens with tons of corporate resources and support. But as soon as it looks too costly, the megacorporation disappears, pulling out or executing a diabolical ‘exit’ strategy. Possibly in a Supernatural-style one-off episode, a mysterious tip comes from the megacorporation helping the protagonists, but, of course, said tip comes with a tangled mess of strings attached. Or, in a courtroom drama, the forthright enterprise could help out, only to suddenly cease any and all assistance, going full antagonist over a perceived threat to stock price.

Third, why not go inside? Where better to get to know the corruption that runs rampant higher up, where else are you going to get clearer insight into the thinking behind the company’s diabolical projects? And consider: isn’t it strange how every two bit journalist in fiction manages to, as one does in Zoo, crack open a major conglomerate without the aid of an inside source? Well, here’s your inside source. And think about what internal struggles might lead someone to bite the hand of the vengeful, ubiquitous entity that feed them! It’s not only a deeper exploration of the concept of the multinational company, it’s compelling character drama. And we can’t help but notice how, even in the face of such egregious breaches of ethics, nobody seems to hand in their resignation papers. Why is that? Well, someone in this deep might just be able to tell us.

Maybe this angle could lead to in a corporate civil war amongst a board, leading to superhero intervention as the battle of the boardroom spills outside. A member’s resignation could get an intrepid journalist their start in bringing it down. Want to complicate things even further? Make the amoral business a news organization. Likewise, the possibility of such a internal schism could be worthwhile cause for adventuresome plucky space rogues to venture forth. Just imagine the intrigue in trying to exploit a power struggle in the far future!

Fourth, the megacorporation in foreclosure, or on its way out. Everyone’s heard of the phenomenon where a big box store moves into town, closing all the small shops, right? Well what happens if it leaves? Would the results resemble the deserted oil and mining boom towns? For science fiction, imagine this happening on a planetary scale. What kind of the devastation would this cause? How would a planet regress if its economy was severed at the jugular? Or if they were involved in dangerous experiments, what might be unleashed if their facilities were shut down?

Fifth, a more dystopian view: that of the megacorporation as the law, private prisons on steroids, if you will. Imagine if, to keep costs down, they made a prison city, or a prison planet. Chronicles of Riddick did it, Escape from New York did it, and it can be very evocative. But what if, on top of just lazily sectioning off entire swaths of society, they controlled the outcome of law? Imagine Judge Dredd breaking up a fight, then offering the choice of shooting both, or letting the combatants have a bidding war with whomever pays the least being guilty.

So there you have it: our comprehensive breakdown of but a few ways writers might get more bang for their buck if they decide their world needs a monolithic corporate entity or two. Let us know what you think! Could these ideas add to a setting? Would they be too difficult to integrate into visual media? Or did it add to some thoughts of your own?

Imperator McAlpine

Like our stuff? Want to get in touch? Go ahead and drop a like and a comment on our Facebook page! We read those!