Videogames have been obsessed with the interplay between man and machine since long before the current wave of virtual reality. A sci-fi author who helped popularize the now classic battle of man-versus-machine, William Gibson, is currently working on his own videogame, MEG 9, which promises to explore many of the same themes that run through Gibson’s fiction.
Oddly named developer Skunkwerks Kinetic is treading familiar sci-fi ground with MEG 9. It casts you—the player—as a soldier who remotely controls a well-armored and -armed vehicle called the Rig to discover why MEG 9, the AI running a secret research center called Horizon, has sent out a distress call. The game plunges players into a nightmarishly stark alien landscape that could be a dead alien world, where technology is evolving into hideous creations called the “corrupted” who are bent on survival and destruction.
Along with the mutating powers of the Rig, which allows players to change and adapt its weapons and abilities to survive new situations, you’ll also have a faithful robot canine (also named MEG) to help solve problems. The game skirts between fast-paced tank combat and something akin to tactical battles. This second aspect will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a “tower defense” game—one where you set up defenses to fend off encroaching enemies—on their phones. When a situation requires the player to set up a line of defense, you—as the remote pilot of the rig—will strategically drop defensive structures (called “deployables”) like gun emplacements to help cover your back.
MEG 9 is sporting a heavy focus on the player’s ability to think both tactically and creatively. There will be a wide range of deployables to help accommodate different play styles, although the only ones on display at the moment are the sentry guns, mines, shield walls and beacons. But it’s William Gibson’s involvement that makes MEG 9 so interesting.
Gibson is a pivotal figure in the evolution of how we’ve come to perceive both the future and the present. His prescient novel, Neuromancer, was released in 1984 and officially marked the replacement of the old wave of shiny, optimistic science fiction with something more realistic. Neuromancer showed us a dirty, violent future where people are slavishly jacked into the matrix (the internet, before there was an internet) at all times and giant corporations rule the world. He also took the concept of a supposedly helpful AI construct gone bad from the historic science fiction classic 2001 and ran with it. In one fell swoop, Gibson created the dystopian subgenre of science fiction known as cyberpunk.
Gibson is a vital part of the creation of MEG 9’s world, characters and plot, which is a rare claim for any game. In the mid ‘80s there was a terrific game based on Neuromancer, but until MEG 9, Gibson has largely kept out of gaming. So, what changed? The answer, it turns out, was all about location.
“We’ve known Bill for years. We live in the same neighborhood,” Skunkwerk’s Craig Martin told me. “Bill has always been good at trying new creative outlets. He’s been heavily involved in crafting our world and the characters within. He’s provided the backstory for the game and continues to help us.”
For long-time fans of Gibson’s work, however, the barren landscapes portrayed in MEG 9 will feel more than slightly alien. From Neuromancer on, the author’s gift for storytelling has always been in the vivid details of urban barely-future sprawls. His cities are contradictions of filth and glimmer, extremes of wealth and poverty. To look at the landscape of MEG 9, you’d never associate Gibson with such a rocky, desolate shore.
MEG 9 ties into Gibson’s other defining trait—an obsession with the progression of technology and how it intertwines with humanity, right up to and including the flashpoint where all that tech decides humans are a distraction and tries to kill us all. Gibson ran the idea of a rogue AI into a vibrant and violent new setting—one that has been used mindlessly by countless science fiction games and movies by now.
So, seeing the author return thematically to his roots of exploring how mankind and artificial intelligence will interact, albeit on an alien world, should still make MEG 9 worth the price of admission. Gibson might have invented the genre of cyberpunk 30 years ago, but a lot has changed since. Yet, with science and technology icons like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking very vocally warning us about the dangers of AI development, it seems like the perfect time for Gibson to get back (quite literally) into the game.
Jason D’Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.