From a Great Height
The Burnt Offering is where Stu Horvath thinks too much in public so he can live a quieter life in private.
The following is a reprint from Unwinnable Weekly Issue Five. If you enjoy what you read, please consider purchasing the issue or subscribing for a month.
On a balcony, a rooftop, a cliff above crashing waves, you look down and you want to jump. The urge is sudden and powerful. You feel compelled, as if a phantom hand is pushing you closer the brink. Take the leap, your muscles say. Be free. Fly.
Adrenaline. Your heart pounds and blood surges to your head, thundering in your ears, as your whole body fills with both terror and elation. Is just that the breeze, or the air rushing by you as you plummet through space?
As swiftly as it began, the feeling drains away and you edge back from the brink.
The Fall, a sidescrolling point-and-click adventure from Over the Moon Games, begins with a human form drifting silently through space. The gravity of a nearby planet snares the figure, sending it plummeting first through the atmosphere, then crashing some fifty meters underground where it comes to rest on the floor of a cave complex. A moment later, the helmet lights up blue and the figure pulls itself to its feet.
This is a Mark-7 mechanized combat suit. The pilot inside is injured and unconscious, so it falls to ARID, the suit’s on-board artificial intelligence, to find medical help. However, while ARID can perform basic actions on her own, the AI is not autonomous – many of the suit’s crucial systems are offline and her actions are bound by three directives: never misrepresent reality, be obedient and protect the on-board pilot at all costs.
Without human commands in the mix, those directives quickly come into conflict with themselves. ARID is unable to enable certain abilities of the suit, like semi-automatic weapons fire, without a human command. The AI can only override this lockout in emergencies, when a specific ability will save the pilot from mortal danger. That semi-automatic fire? The only way to turn it on is to get too close for comfort with a powerful, explosive sentry robot. Therefore, in order to shepherd her pilot to medical treatment, ARID must repeatedly risk the pilot’s life to bring the necessary systems back online. This paradoxical loophole strains her three directives to their breaking point.
“The Fall has a lot to do with limitation, restriction and protocol, and the struggle to break free of all of that,” The Fall developer, John Warner, told me. “My favorite science fiction is the stuff that tries to make some sort of interesting philosophical statements. Thankfully, stories about AIs are perfect for asking questions about consciousness.”
That feeling, the urge to fling yourself into the abyss, was recently named High-Place Phenomenon in a Florida State University psychological study. Instead of a death wish, the researchers found there might be something infinitely stranger at work.
When you stare over a cliff, you perceive that a fall from such a height would be physically dangerous, which in turn triggers your fight-or-flight response. On another level, however, your brain is also aware of how safe you are, thanks to the railing and sturdy ground. These two contradictory beliefs, held simultaneously, create a psychological distress that your brain unconsciously attempts to reduce, namely, by concluding you were tempted to jump.
This is an example of cognitive dissonance and, unfortunately, it isn’t reserved for mountaintops. Our brains are doing this to us all the time. It is how we console ourselves and reconcile our disappointments. It’s how we convince ourselves we’re happy.
When Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a Parisian lawyer, witnesses a woman throwing herself off the Pont Royal into the river Seine, he is forced to reconcile a lifetime of farcical good works against his unwillingness to risk his personal safety in attempting to save her. He leaves the woman to her fate, making plain his hypocrisy. Clamence’s ensuing downward spiral is the subject of Albert Camus’ philosophical novel The Fall. His metaphorical fall from a life decorated with dishonesty leads him to believe that there is no objective truth in the world.
ARID’s is in many ways the opposite of Clamence – her fall begins in a genuine effort to save a life – but her transformation, her transfiguration, is no less hypocritical. To accomplish her goal of saving the pilot’s life, she must subvert her three core directives. Unlike a human being, these three directives literally define her existence. ARID is discarding objective truth for – what, exactly? We have no way of knowing the veracity of anything she presents to the player. Is the pilot dead? Is he alive? Is ARID even a suit at all, and not a kind of android?
Perhaps Clamence has the solution:
Don’t lies eventually lead to the truth? And don’t all my stories, true or false, tend toward the same conclusion? Don’t they all have the same meaning? So what does it matter whether they are true or false if, in both cases, they are significant of what I have been and what I am? Sometimes it is easier to see clearly into the liar than into the man who tells the truth. Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.
What is it like to climb to a dizzying height
Only to fall so far
Like an asteroid
Like a women from a bridge?
Follow Stu Horvath on Twitter @StuHorvath.