'1870' Reclaims a Cyberpunk Future from Colonial Wreckage

If your life depended on it, could you approach an indigenous community and worldview without being an asshole?

Sep 14 2018, 7:23pm

Screenshots taken from '1870' by Gaby Aveiro-Ojeda

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Gaby Aveiro-Ojeda’s 1870 opens with a conversation taking place on windblow plains. A blurry line of text announces first-person thoughts: “All I see so far is the vast and imposing horizon where the sky meets earth, and where our civilization dissolves.” It’s followed by a line of regular, more recognizable type: “The Hub is far in the distance now, away from the vastness and overwhelming night that threatens to cloak you in oppressive darkness.” That place, The Hub, blinks in sharp red. With these two lines, Aveiro-Ojeda is building a cyberpunk world slightly out of step with our own.

It’s cloaked in familiarity. The Hub is the city we’re living behind, with its wired technology and always-online connectivity, and we’ve progressed out into the desert of the hinterlands to search for something else. We’re not Neuromancer’s Case, working a job to get some benefit from a corporation; our protagonist is looking for something beyond those limits.

1870 is a game with a hope for escape that is bracketed between the return to the familiar city and the promise of the desert. Crucially, and unlike other games, 1870 doesn’t present that desert as some kind of absolving, saving place. It is its own world, with its own set of rules, and the player does not get to set the pace of play there. It is, though, undeniably cyberpunk, which is a genre or a mode of writing that is all about interlockings. Corporations and governments and smugglers and back-alley engineers are all hooked together, collapsed into a mire, and escape is usually impossible or unlikely.

In 1870, we still have that sticky interlocked reality. Early on, we learn that we’re a disconnected cyborg who has fled from The Hub to avoid an upgrade. The desert isn’t a place for us, this melding of the human and the machine, and luckily we stumble on a buried cable that has come uncovered. We follow it to a village. And there we have a conversation about the shape of this cyberpunk world.

In a recent talk, Aveiro-Ojeda presented traditional cyberpunk as a formula: Cyberpunk is technology multiplied by transgression divided by capitalism. If put into the context of indigenous futurism, then we can think through a similar formula to discuss indigenous cyberpunk: cyberpunk equals “traditions” multiplied by transgression Again, divided by colonialism. In the talk abstract, Aveiro-Ojeda puts it succinctly: “indigenous futurisms can help mend the gap that exists between technology and indigenous cultures as a result of colonialist attitudes.”

Normally when we see indigeneity brought up in contemporary discourse, it is via the comparative. Unexamined ways of positioning indigenous cultures as somehow lacking technology or science persist, and it is underwritten by a colonialism that assumes and asserts that indigenous could not and continue to be able to govern and enter into full technological modernity. This is, of course, completely false, and indigenous futurisms re-center the sovereignty of indigenous cultures while working against the constant assertions of dominance from a colonial order. As Rebecca Roanhorse (Ohkay Owingeh) explains:

Indigenous Futurism asks us to reject these colonial ideas and instead re-imagine space, both outer and inner, from another perspective. One that makes room for stories that celebrate relationship and connection to community, coexistence, and sharing of land and technology, the honoring of caretakers and protectors.

The conversation that takes place between the villagers and the protagonist of 1870 is that alternate formula put into practice.

It is worth noting here how the imagery of 1870 is delivered. Sometimes it is through highly descriptive language on the right side of the screen. Sometimes it is literal images instead of text. Sometimes it is in the form of more detailed drawings on the left of the screen that illustrate things that the protagonist is seeing. When we meet a villager with a metal band with “spiraling shafts of metal” sticking out of it instead of a jaw, we see her as well as get a description of her. And she wants to talk about our cybernetics and the AI we have implanted in our head.

Despite being far from The Hub and being an AI that borders on obsolescence, it sets the parameters for our experience of this world. We realize that the blinking red of The Hub is the AI flagging the word. Speech from other people is qualified with categorizing words; “hostile” appears again and again.

The reality of the AI sinks in a few sentences into a conversation with the villager when the protagonist begins to explain their cybernetics: “You scratch your temple where they implanted me so I could reach your brain more easily. There’s a flat knob just hidden by your hair that can power me ‘on’ or ‘off’- but that stopped working long ago.” With this sentence, and the claiming of the word “me” by the AI, begins our trouble with boundaries and categories. Who is doing the narration? Whose body is this? Who is doing the exploring of the desert far from The Hub?

The conversations that negotiate these ideas are mediated by a “suspicion” plugin from the AI. By reading the words and emotions of the villagers, it tells the player how suspicious they are, and how certain conversation choices will impact their suspicion. Too much suspicion and they shut down. It is a carefully managed situation that is all the more bizarre due to the way that the AI forces the questions into specific numerical functions.

Without getting into specific spoilers, the “best” method to manage suspicion is to be open and honest. Interrogating processes and using the language of The Hub to talk to the villagers results in higher suspicion; using their own language to talk about their technological developments and the AI/body melds they call “vessels” keeps suspicion low. The long conversation that makes up the bulk of the game is about listening and paying attention; it is about meeting the villagers on their own terms rather than bringing your assumptions to them.

Rather than a place without history or culture, the village outside The Hub has pre-existing relationships that are constantly recognized by the text. It has its own modes of thinking and considering the relationship between humans and technology. It is not a place that simply needs to be reconfigured in The Hub’s model. The village is similar to the Abenaki concept of wǒlhanak as discussed in The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northwest by Lisa Brooks (Abenaki). “When humans deliberate on their relationships with the other beings in their wǒlhana,” she writes, “their thoughts lead to more conscientious action within that environment.” Rather than being a space that is awaiting the player to come and give it meaning, it is a location that is already full of meaning, and “correct” play of the game means bending the player’s will toward that conscientious action.

The critical, and decolonizing, move that Aveiro-Ojeda makes in 1870 is to put two modes of understanding technology into discussion with each other and denying the player’s potential desire to overpower the situation. In a mode that neatly inverts the power fantasy of most games, the player needs to be committed to learning from the encounter in the moment rather than playing in a way that most games would ask you to. The player needs to take seriously what Grace Dillon (Anishinaabe) calls “indigenous scientific literacies,” or the “practices used by Indigenous peoples over thousands of years to reenergize the natural environment while improving the interconnected relationships among all persons (animal, human, spirit, and even machine).” The player character is a cyborg, the people in the village are cyborgs, but the way that each understands what that means is radically different.

And if you, like me, don’t quite understand this radical difference to begin with, you’ll find yourself rejected from the encounter. Or, if like me in a different play experience, you try to listen but find yourself still too stodgy, too unwilling to break from the modes of knowledge from The Hub, then you might find yourself outside the village again with your AI spiraling in a failure loop. You might find your body, the blurry words, trying to liberate itself by removing the AI from its skull with a knife in the middle of the desert.

Like me, you might try to play the game several times, achieving several endings that never render the villagers and their practices sensible in the normal terms of a science fiction game. The characters refuse to deliver a massive monologue that renders their beliefs totally transparent to me, and the player never steps in as the savior of the villagers. You’re not learning of their plight and taking the fight to The Hub and the high-concept villains there.

Instead, I am left sort of understanding vessels and how the villagers conceive of the human/AI relationship. Over my several playthroughs the game never allows the player to render the villagers transparent and fully knowable or rendered into comfortable video game knowledge structures. There’s no shortcut terms like “replicant,” and at every turn the villagers explain things on their own terms rather than adopting the big concepts that we might normally associate with science fiction games. In the language of Édouard Glissant, they retain some of their opacity in regards to the player. They refuse to be forced into a comfortable or categorizable colonial framework.

And in many of those endings, that inability to render these practices coherent for the AI ends in the utter destruction of the protagonist. The reboot. The blue screen of death. The red warning. All of these things collapse into each other a create a brutal crisis of identity and knowledge. This is, in fact, the exact thing that the game itself accomplishes; it holds players accountable for bringing a typical colonial approach to the play of the game.

1870 refuses the easy answer of the “empathy game” and instead presents a framework of indigenous futurity that operates at the level of gameplay. Cyberpunk is a genre of dealing with the material consequences of technology, and if colonialism underwrites this system, then a properly critical cyberpunk game can mount a response to that colonialism. 1870 masterfully grabs the reigns from an AI that presents the world in universals, in hubs and hostiles, and turns it back on itself, short-circuiting the settler-colonial imagination.