The making of ‘Neurocracy’ – a dynamic murder-mystery told through a fictional Wikipedia

How a reactive community and COVID-19 shaped a fascinating experiment in storytelling

Neurocracy isn’t short of disturbing concepts, from governments that can monitor your activity with brain implants, to an AI game show host that might have committed murder. But perhaps the most chilling element of Neurocracy‘s near-future sci-fi is its references to COVID-19 as a past event. As you browse Neurocracy‘s fictional version of Wikipedia, which details a world twenty years in the future, you’ll see the virus frequently referenced in the context of Neurocracy‘s own, fictional pandemic that sets the groundwork for its futuristic murder mystery.

“It was always going to be about a pandemic, that part was written years before,” says Joannes Truyens, Neurocracy‘s creator and co-developer. “So the fact that an actual pandemic suddenly came knocking gave the story an edge that we were able to really build on.”

It’s a testament to Neurocracy‘s plausibility that these references don’t feel gauche or exploitative, but a natural and necessary part of its world building. Then again, like the website on which was based, Neurocracy was designed to absorb and react to new information. It’s one of the most unusual games to release this year, to the point where calling it a game is not necessarily helpful in explaining it. It’s most closely related to interactive fiction, although it has more in common with the online phenomenon Blaseball than it does, say, a Twine game.

The seeds of Neurocracy have been around for twenty years, ever since Truyens played Deus Ex for the first time. “I really loved its depiction of a contemporary, near-future, grounded science-fiction world, and I wanted to create one for myself,” he says. Truyens began building the backstory of Neurocracy soon after, but struggled to find a mode of storytelling that he was comfortable using. He initially conceived Neurocracy as a Half-Life 2 modification, but decided this was “wildly overambitious” for a teenager with no programming skill. Later, he tried writing it as a novel, but found this equally implausible. “My ability to write prose and dialogue is non-existent,” he jokes.

As Truyens grappled with finding a form for his story, the world of Neurocracy kept growing. Eventually, he decided to organise Neurocracy‘s lore into a wiki. “Without realising it, that was the first version of Neurocracy, because I found myself having a lot of fun putting that wiki together,” he says. “As soon as I got that idea, everything else sort of fell into place.”

Neurocracy
Neurocracy. Credit: Playthroughline.

Wikipedia provided the ideal form for Neurocracy. Its structure was perfect for introducing the people, organisation, and events in Neurocracy‘s world, while providing Truyens with the clear and consistent voice he’d struggled to pin down during Neurocracy‘s novel phase. “It was basically the first idea where I felt that I was comfortable enough tackling it by myself,” he says.

Perhaps most of all, Neurocracy‘s wiki format added to the plausibility of its fiction. Set in the year 2049, Neurocracy‘s plot centres around the murder of a Chinese trillionaire whose company is instrumental in the creation and operation of a controversial biometric monitoring system. It’s a tale that explores many pressing contemporary issues, such as surveillance capitalism and relationships between governments and large transnational corporations. “The story of Neurocracy is hard science fiction, in that the science comes first and then the story in the fiction is built from that,” Truyens says. “The medium of Wikipedia automatically confers a sense of realism and verisimilitude”.

Truyens was keen to capitalise on this, working with web designer and Neurocracy‘s other lead developer Matei Stanca to replicate Wikipedia’s functionality at a granular level. Omnipedia, Neurocracy‘s version of Wikipedia, is a real website that you visit in your browser. It is pitched in fiction as a direct successor to Wikipedia, mimicking many of its page elements, including page revision histories, which let you see how individual pages are edited and updated over time.

This particular element of Wikipedia’s design had a major of effect on the way Neurocracy‘s story was told. Originally, Truyens planned to deliver Neurocracy as a complete entity, one where you’d be able to explore Omnipedia to its full extent and solve its central mystery. But to make the most of the page revision feature, Truyens instead decided to release Neurocracy episodically over the course of ten weeks, beginning with a small number of articles on the site, then adding new entries and expanding existing ones over time.

Neurocracy
Neurocracy. Credit: Playthroughline.

The intent was to reflect Wikipedia’s dynamic nature. But the game’s episodic release would come to define it in ways Truyens didn’t fully anticipate. As each episode dropped, Neurocracy‘s growing Discord community would become rife with speculation and theories regarding the plot and who the killer might be. “They really dove into the world of Neurocracy, picking out the tiniest, tiniest little details,” Truyens says.

Some of these theories would then feed back into the story itself, with Truyens adjusting the story based on some of the community’s responses. He cites the example of the aforementioned AI Game Show host, articles about which were contributed by writer Leigh Alexander. “We intended that as sort of a side quest that also stretches across the episodes that people could follow if they want to,” Truyens explains. “But then the community started incorporating that into the main mystery, to the point that we could amplify in subsequent episodes to keep feeding those theories as sort of a red herring.”

The inter-reactive nature of Neurocracy became one of its most beloved elements by the community, but it also had some less pleasant side-effects. While Truyens was able to source assistance for the initial launch of Neurocracy, running a successful Kickstarter to hire contributing writers like Alexander, as well as the artist Alice Duke, the weekly updates and adjustments after the initial launch were almost exclusively done by him, and this took a toll on his physical health that took several months to fully recover from. “I really did sort of engage in a modicum of crunch. To get there it really took a bite out of me.”

Truyens puts this down to poor planning on his part, rather than any issues with the structure of Neurocracy itself, and remains pleased with the response to the game. Pleased enough that he’s considering pursuing a second season. But he isn’t sure what form that season will take yet, whether it’ll be a direct continuation of the first season’s faux-Wikipedia storytelling, or whether it might take an alternate form. “Twitter would be an interesting format, because the thing about using Wikipedia as a medium is, you don’t really get to communicate anything directly from characters,” Truyens says. “But, like, if the second season takes place on Twitter, then you could bring across character’s voices directly, which is a completely different thing.”

Either way, it’s Neurocracy‘s form that may well prove to be its most significant legacy. It isn’t the first game to adopt the Internet’s structure for the purpose of textual art. Games like Emily is Away and Hypnospace Outlaw preceded it by several years. But those games don’t use the real internet’s own reactivity to influence the story in real-time.

In this way, Neurocracy blurs the line between fiction and reality, letting the latter determine the course of the former in a constant and dynamic way. The consequences of this have been fascinating to see unfold, although reality occasionally proved to be more twisted than Necrocracy’s own dystopian satire. “I have updated the stub for COVID-19, because the deaths and the mortality figures, they keep going up. So we had to make little guesstimates. And then the actual pandemic outstripped those guesstimates,” Truyens says.

Neurocracy is available now, and you can check it out over on its website.

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