The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 154 | East-meets-West in Antony Johnston’s story for Binary Domain

Leaving Proof 154 | East-meets-West in Antony Johnston’s story for Binary Domain
Published on Thursday, October 18, 2012 by
Acclaimed comics writer Antony Johnston melds Eastern and Western perspectives on robots and artificial intelligence in his work on Binary Domain, a surprisingly affecting video game from Sega and Toshihiro Nagoshi.

Author’s note: This article contains plot spoilers for the video game Binary Domain.

Box art for the Japanese edition of Binary Domain

I spent the past week playing the Sega-published Binary Domain, a third-person perspective “cover shooter” released earlier this year and developed under the creative direction of Toshihiro Nagoshi, who is perhaps most familiar to gaming audiences for his work on the popular Super Monkey Ball and Yakuza video game franchises. It’s quite the entertaining game, an intriguing attempt by an established Japanese developer to delve into what is commonly regarded these days as a Western video game genre typified by Epic Games’ Gears of War and Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon games (although 2003’s Kill Switch, generally credited as the first true third-person cover shooter, was created by Japan’s Namco). Binary Domain‘s movement, shooting, and camera mechanics are rock-solid while the sleek and high-tech near-future urban setting and visual design are a welcome respite from the brown and drab modern-day military shooters that currently clog Gamestop and EB store shelves. But what really stuck with me from the experience of playing through the game’s main campaign twice—the first time to get a feel for the controls and pacing, the second with a game guide in hand to get all the in-game collectibles—is the story, adapted and extensively fleshed-out from Tsuyoshi Furuta’s basic plot by Antony Johnston, the writer of the Harvey and Eagle Award-nominated Wasteland comics (published by Oni Press) as well as a number of other titles from publishers like Marvel Comics (Daredevil: Season One) and IDW (Dead Space: Salvage).

Undated photograph of a performance of Čapek‘s R.U.R.

Johnston’s narrative reiterates many of the themes in Czech playwright and author Karel Čapek‘s 1920 science-fiction play R.U.R., which first introduced the world to the word “robot” (the play’s title is an acronym for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”). Just as in R.U.R., the robots of Binary Domain are “artificial people” utilized as cheap labor—”robot” is actually derived from “robota”, which means “labor” or “job” in Slovak, Polish, and the Czech of Čapek’s time. The game’s plot shares a major narrative element central to Čapek’s famous work, that of humanity under threat from a violent revolution by robots who, besides being able to pass for humans in their external appearance, have achieved self-awareness and free will. Given the social and political context of its writing, R.U.R. lends itself easily to being read as a commentary on the exploitation of workers during the Industrial Revolution and its role in the catalysis of the competing movements of communism and fascism in early-20th century Europe, especially in light of the fact that Čapek frequently criticized both corporate greed and authoritarian regimes in his work and public discourses.

In Binary Domain, Johnston updates the symbolism of Čapek’s pioneering metaphor with a thinly-veiled paralleling of the plight of highly advanced, human-looking robots (referred to in the game as “Hollow Children”) with that of minorities and migrants. Additionally, Johnston combines the social and political undercurrents of R.U.R. with the philosophical themes found in much of Japanese robot science-fiction: Popular manga and anime featuring humanoid robots, from Osamu Tezuka‘s Astro Boy to Masamune Shirow‘s Ghost in the Shell, tackle fundamental inquiries in the study of human consciousness as well as artificial intelligence such as “What is ‘mind’ and does it exist separately from physical strata?” and “Can sufficiently advanced machines develop mental states and consciousness similar to that experienced by humans?”

That Astro Boy, Ghost in the Shell, and other Japanese robot science-fiction are overwhelmingly focused on examining the notion that robots can gain the capacity for human thought and feeling shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone familiar with Japan’s long-standing animist tradition. Contemporary animism isn’t unique to Japan, of course—as a child growing up in a remote mining community in the northern Philippines during the 1980s, I remember being instructed by my elders to ask permission from the spirits dwelling in anthills, tall shrubs, and old trees when walking past them—but as Waseda University’s Naho Kitano explained in Animism, Rinri, Modernization; the Base of Japanese Robotics, animistic attitudes that extend to artificial and man-made structures and implements seem to be distinctly Japanese:

In Japan, there is a traditional belief of the existence of spiritual life in objects or natural phenomena called mi (the god) and tama (the spirit). From the prehistoric era, the belief in the existence of spirit has been associated with Japanese mythological traditions related to Shinto…

This thought has continued to be believed and influences the Japanese relationship with nature and spiritual existence. This belief later expanded to include artificial objects, so that spirits are thought to exist in all the articles and utensils of daily use, and it is believed that these spirits of daily-use tools are in harmony with human beings. Even after the high-automatization and systematization of society, Japanese people practice the belief of the existence of spirits in their everyday lives, in an unvocal manner.

I’m not entirely certain how prevalent Kitano’s views on animism and Shinto’s influence on social attitudes towards robots are in Japan, but I will note that in a lengthy discussion I had with a Japanese classmate in an advanced topics cognitive science class several years ago, she agreed with the suggestion that the animist/Shinto tendency to ascribe human qualities to inanimate objects—even man-made ones—might be partially influencing Japanese robotics engineers’ continued interest in designing bipedal and humanoid robots while much of the rest of the international robotics engineering community had settled on wheels and tracks as more practical and efficient modes of robotic locomotion.

Johnston could have simply positioned the autonomous, self-aware, and intelligent Hollow Child as Binary Domain‘s Constitutive Other, the game’s villain, the Terminator to the player’s Kyle Reese, so to speak. Instead, in a not-exactly-unpredictable late-game twist made that much more effective and emotionally resonant by the game’s Consequence System and the uncommon voice acting chemistry of the husband-and-wife team of Travis Willingham and Laura Bailey, the putative robot Other is revealed to be an extension of the human Self, subtly mirroring the epilogue of R.U.R., where the robots Helena and Primus begin to exhibit the human qualities of love, empathy, and altruism.

In a February announcement trumpeting the retail release of Binary Domain, Johnston candidly admitted that “the culture clash between Japan and the Anglophone world reared its head more than a few times” during the course of his writing for the game. The end-result is very much worth Johnston’s efforts and struggles, though, a surprisingly affecting video game and work of interactive science-fiction that explores the ethics of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

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