August 30, 2009

Eclipse Phase Review


Your mind is software. Program it.
Your body is a shell. Change it.
Death is a disease. Cure it.
Extinction is approaching. Fight it.
-Eclipse Phase tagline

It is often assumed by the public that transhumanists hold a rosy picture of the future, that they believe technology will solve every human problem if we just let it develop freely. This is actually not true. Transhumanism is based on the idea that technology will likely allow radical and transformative new possibilities – but if we can enhance ourselves grandly, we can also hurt ourselves equally badly. The possibility of technological singularity is balanced in transhumanist discourse with the awareness of existential risks, threats to the survival and flourishing of the human species.

Eclipse Phase by Posthuman Studios is a science fiction role-playing game that does a good job at showing just how grand and horrifying things could become. The setting is the world ten years after the singularity went bad. The emergence of superintelligent AIs inimical or indifferent to human life caused nuclear, nanotechnological and biotechnological wars, killing 95% of the population of Earth. Survivors had to escape by doing emergency scans of their brains and transmitting themselves into space, becoming a new software underclass. Across the solar system surviving societies form a patchwork of hypercorps (the nimble successors to megacorporations), survivalist habitats, citystates and transhuman clades. They are totally dependent for their survival on the same kind of technology that nearly wiped out mankind. There is no reason to think that the risks are decreasing over time. Alien and sinister things are afoot.

This is a dark setting mixing science fiction and horror similar to the work of Richard Morgan, Peter Watts and Alastair Reynolds. Science fiction and horror are a tricky combination, since typically horror thrives on feelings of lack of control and fear of the unknown, while science fiction often is about exploring the unknown and often reaching some sort of relationship with the alien. But the transhumanist angle allows them to synergize: superintelligence and the singularity appear as unknowable as any Lovecraftian monstrosity – and since they might very well impact us with equal power and lack of concern, they are just as frightening. Actually more chilling, since at lest some of us think they are possible in the real world in a way great Cthulhu isn’t.

It is natural to compare Eclipse Phase with GURPS Transhuman Space. Both have similarities in the system-wide scope, but THS is essentially a pre-singularity game. Everybody is basically human, if enhanced and living in a high-tech environment. Identity is stable. In contrast, by default people in EP are essentially software that can move between different kinds of bodies, make backups, copy itself, merge with other copies, be edited and transmitted. Identity is something fragile, perhaps going the same way as that old quaint concept of privacy.

Similarly the social setting is fundamentally different, and this is in my opinion perhaps the most interesting part of the worldbuilding. THS essentially describes an ultra-advanced version of our current world, with national states, companies and economies that are largely recognizable. In contrast, EP attempts to sketch a post-singularity economy where most material objects can be manufactured at negligible cost, companies are fluid social networks and money increasingly is replaced by a reputation economy (the game system for reputation trading looks very promising). Societies are run in fundamentally different ways from now, and anybody who scrapes together enough resources can invent their own – in fact, there are groups who invest in social novelty. While the nanosocialists in THS were an interesting foil for the rest of the world, they were just a minor player. Here different forms of technology-enabled anarchism and cyberdemocracy are major players. Players interested in exploring truly futuristic forms of governance have their chance.

This is not to say that THS is bad in comparison. In fact, the similarities to the present likely make it far easier for many players to get into. The bleakness of the EP world might not appeal to some players who would prefer the troubled but essentially optimistic THS setting where humans still are the dominant species. At the same time the default campaign – where the characters are working for the secretive organisation Firewall to reduce extinction risks – might have an extra pull simply by being so meaningful. The THS world does not need saving.

If I have any quibbles it is with the introduction of psi. Being a hard sf person I normally loathe it, since it is usually just a magic system by any other name based on some crude vitalism. But even here I think EP does a decent job – both in that it can easily be ignored, and that it is not framed in the usual crystal-waving way. EP psi is something alien and creepy, possibly carrying a terrible price. In this kind of transhuman horror setting it might even be appropriate: postsingularity technology does produce magic-seeming effects that mere transhumanity cannot fathom (or judge the risks of). This ties in nicely with some of the disturbing ideas in the Gamemaster section about psychological horror.

What the game currently somewhat lacks is more descriptions of everyday life and adventuring – but there is a limit on how much can be put into the main book. Describing etiquette for saturnian scum barges or the everyday life of Mrs Brown the Barsoomian cognohacker can wait. It is impressive how much already is within these 400 pages.

All in all, this is a very promising game. It looks quite playable, the setting is plot-inspiring and thought-provoking. I can hardly wait to let loose the TITANs on my players…

[ Full disclosure: I was sent a review pdf copy for the game. ]

Posted by Anders3 at August 30, 2009 11:56 PM