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Crafting the web-browsing, murder-solving tools of Neurocracy

Road to the IGF: Neurocracy is a murder mystery, borne from the storybible for a completely different game. This Excellence in Narrative nominee plays out over a series of Wikipedia-like articles as players follow a complex storyline and solve a murder.

Joel Couture

March 10, 2022

7 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Neurocracy is a murder mystery that plays out over a series of Wikipedia-like articles, with players able to follow a complex storyline and futuristic world as it's described on each page. As players follow links, read articles, and delve into story threads, they'll steadily unravel the sinister plot that threads through the game's events. They just have to start by grabbing a random article and seeing where it leads.

Joannes Truyens, creator and co-developer of the IGF Excellence in Narrative-nominated title, spoke with Game Developer about how a story bible for a whole other game would accidentally birth Neurocracy, the challenges (and interesting tools) that come from telling a story in a Wikipedia-like format, and the research that would form the backbone of its real-world inspired explorations into artificial neural networks, implanted neural devices, and neurodegenerative prion diseases.

Game Developer: Who are you, and what was your role in developing Neurocracy?

Joannes Truyens: My name is Joannes Truyens, and I’m the creator and co-developer of Neurocracy. I acted as lead writer and narrative designer for the game’s development, and I was fortunate to work with a fantastic team of contributors as well as a generous community of players in bringing it to life.

What's your background in making games?

Truyens: I’ve been playing games as far back as I can remember, hyper-focusing on FPS games first and branching out from there. When I started making custom 3D models for Half-Life and joined its modding scene, I learned that if I wanted to make a game of my own I could go ahead and do that. I worked on a couple of failed mod projects, then I spent a few years as a game journalist for various outlets while keeping up a personal blog in which I analyzed game narratives.

In 2009, I learned that the role of narrative designer was a thing in game development, and as nebulous as the term was back then, I intuitively felt that it’s what I wanted to do. My first couple of outings as an official narrative designer were creatively fulfilling, but occurred under shitty circumstances (mismanaged studios that failed to pay me ever). All throughout, the story world of Neurocracy kept crystallizing in the back of my head, and in 2018 I made the jump to developing it full-time.

A fictional Wikipedia-like page for Cariappa-Muren disease, with several keywords linked to other articles players can explore to progress the story.

How did you come up with the concept for Neurocracy?

Truyens: Neurocracy finds its strongest roots in Deus Ex, a highly influential game that I replay at least once a year (and I discover new stuff each time). Exploring its grounded cyberpunk world instilled in me the desire to create such a world of my own, which I initially tried to do in the shape of a Half-Life 2 total conversion called Omnius Global.

This wildly overambitious mod unsurprisingly collapsed in on itself, but it did produce two pieces of writing that proved invaluable in setting the stage for Neurocracy. The first was an outline of Omnius Global's story in screenplay format, written as a hackneyed conspiracy thriller with lengthy monologues and exposition scenes, no meaningful female characters to speak of, and action/stealth encounters contrived to make the player face dozens of enemies. As dubiously as I look back on the Omnius Global screenplay now, it was the first time all the ideas I had floating around for my own sci-fi world in the vein of Deus Ex coalesced into something that was complete, scripted from start to finish.

The second piece of writing to come out of Omnius Global was, without realizing it at the time, the earliest conceptual version of Neurocracy: a story bible of Omnius Global's world-building details, written and formatted to resemble Wikipedia articles using MediaWiki software. If only for my own enjoyment, I made this wiki appear as authentic as possible by embedding hyperlinks and adding placeholder photos, maps, diagrams, and logos to the various articles. Eventually I realized that the ideal format for Neurocracy was staring me in the face, and everything fell into place from there.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Truyens: When I decided to have Neurocracy play out on a fictional Wikipedia, I reached out to Matei, a web developer friend I had met in the Half-Life modding scene. Since MediaWiki didn’t bend to our will the way we needed it to, Matei settled on using Drupal to create Omnipedia, Neurocracy’s Wikipedia analogue, from the ground up. We also adopted Discord to create a venue for players to come together and debate story theories as part of Neurocracy's interactive elements.

What interested you about creating a murder mystery with the structure of Wikipedia?

Truyens: World-building is my favorite part of writing, and committing to the Wikipedia format allowed me to indulge that to the fullest (the same goes for my encyclopedic writing style). Of course, players needed an incentive to explore the world of Neurocracy beyond the world itself, no matter how well it was put together. That’s why I maintained the murder mystery angle I had developed in the Omnius Global screenplay, which had the added benefit of turning players into detectives and every piece of information on Omnipedia into a potential clue.

On Omniapedia page for the character Xu Shaoyong, a businessman and politician.

What challenges came from creating a murder mystery with a Wikipedia structure? What neat opportunities came from using this structure?

Truyens: The biggest challenge in translating a murder mystery arc to Omnipedia was how to gate information and prevent players from finding the articles with the answers right away. Since we allowed ourselves to use only the tools or systems that Wikipedia already provides, we ended up adapting its revision history to serialize Neurocracy’s story across ten episodes, with players able to view incremental versions of the same articles.

The episodic format then opened the door to an interactive storytelling element where we could release one episode a week and gradually build the final product in dialogue with players by feeding their evolving theories and interpretations back to the world of Neurocracy.

Realism was important to the world of Neurocracy. What sort of research went into creating a world that was realistic politically, scientifically, and socially?

Truyens: The Neurocracy title refers to the three intersecting pillars that support the game’s world-building: artificial neural networks, implanted neural devices, and neurodegenerative prion diseases. Each of these pillars was based on present-day research and technologies that I extrapolated three decades into the future with the help of some amazing scientists and experts. I got into the habit of getting in touch with the authors of papers I consulted, which often resulted in a correspondence that resulted in fresh ideas.

A large part of Neurocracy’s worldbuilding centers on a fictional pandemic, which was imagined and written years before an actual pandemic came knocking. That offered an unfortunate live lesson in how modern society would react to a pandemic, which went on to inform the sociopolitical realism of Neurocracy.

Bringing in additional writers was also crucial to expanding the world of Neurocracy with voices and perspectives other than my own. Each writer approached the world of Neurocracy from a different angle, which turned the game into something of an anthology and strengthened the fiction of multiple editors contributing to Omnipedia.

Can you tell us about the work that went into making this feel like a fleshed-out, full Wikipedia? Into giving the player so many directions they could go in—into making them feel like they are freely wandering an encyclopedia/news database?

Truyens: Adopting the Wikipedia format came with the benefit of not having to "tutorialize" players in how to navigate Omnipedia, as there is an immediate literacy there. It then became a matter of replicating the sheer expanse of Wikipedia's content in a condensed form, without having to write hundreds of articles and expecting players to navigate and read them all. Using Wikipedia’s article previews, which display a brief snippet and header image when hovering over a hyperlink to another article, ended up solving a lot of those problems.

Ultimately, we decided to trust players to find their own way into the story volume of Neurocracy, whether the murder mystery draws them in or the article about the AI-hosted reality show does. By letting them find the questions as well as the answers, each player brings their own imagination and interests to the world of Neurocracy. That’s why Wikipedia’s ‘Random article’ button is the first thing we carried over to Omnipedia.

This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).

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