Middleware is my major project for my DIGC302, BCM311 and DIGC330 subjects. Because of this, some of this writing is going to be a bit broad, to make sure I include as much of the work as possible.
Of note is that the BCM311 work focuses on values, and DIGC330 has brought to my mind how many of my personal values have been informed by a lifetime of consuming – amongst other things – Japanese and Asian culture. There’s going to be some ‘noise pollution’ between the subjects. I hope this is alright.
As to how to read this report, when designing these characters I was looking towards three basic elements of character design:
- Details from our American-Shaped culture. As English-speakers in a colonial nation our internet space is primarily defined by its intersection with other English-speaking internet, most typically American. American internet news and American internet culture heavily permeate our own. Almost all of us use applications and operating systems designed in America. To reinforce the ‘middle’ nature of Middleware, I wanted to make sure these characters had something pulling them between each
- A personal value. Games are, to me, machines that tell stories, and the stories we tell can reflect on sets of values. Characters, as pieces of stories, can be used to show and represent values – both in how they react, and how they feel about the world they’re in.
- An archetype or character trope from Japanese media. This is the ‘face’ of the character – they should all look like they are primarily from Japanese genre media, and use that to inform the other two points.
Japanese media that we mostly experience is very genre, which I refer to in class as being unscrutinised. Broadly speaking genre media isn’t being made for mass-market appeal, but more niche, which means that their creation is more a matter of, for lack of a better phrase, filling in the blanks. In the west, some of our great genre media industries is the realm of the Erotic Novel For Women – the Mills & Boon archetype, where the quality of any individual piece isn’t really regarded at all, as long as the work hits a certain number of targeted goals. Is the central woman bosomy and relateable? Is the hunky man she’s going to smooch adequately mysterious and brooding? Are there three or four sex scenes in an exotic location? Okay, we’re done.
This style of genre structure follows in a lot of anime and manga and videogame media, where it doesn’t matter so much about what characters do or say as long as they hit some well-established beats of story. This means that genre, in Japanese culture, has a wealthy sort of ‘concept language.’ Characters translate reasonably well into totally different forms because the archetypes themselves are structurally components of the character. A tsundere character is not seen as boring or cliché, because the point of the character is to fulfil some element of that archetype, or to defy it.
This is, to me, super interesting because it implies a sort of inherent media discourse. The idea of character archetypes has a language in this genre media – and it informs the way that media is then made.
One final note is that in this cast of characters, no character is ‘white.’ They are all some form of biracial or, in one case, a sentient AI character. There’s no easy way to make this evident, so I’m just underscoring it here.
With that in mind, here’s the breakdown of the characters:
A twenty-five-year veteran of the Transpacific Partnership’s Interstructure Antiterror unit, Officer Tara Kazeno is a counterterrorism and corporate assault specialist. A cyborg since a young age, her life has been a sequence of duties and contracts, which crashed into one another when she found a conspiracy laying between the Zaibatsu and the Megacorporation. Finding her pursuit of the truth put her at odds with the people who still claimed ownership over half her body, she’s gone rogue in an attempt to free herself, and get to the truth. She knows she’s risking everything to do it – but the truth is too important.
This is almost rote. The idea of transhumanism is important to cyberpunk settings, and as a highly-involved cybernetic organism, the Officer brings this to the forefront. She is a transhumant – she will probably live forever. However, despite characters like her existing, immortal and powerful, she is still beholden to old, existing and crumbling capitalist systems. Basically, the human revolution happened, and it didn’t fix everything.
Ownership Of Identity In Online Spaces
Important to the Major’s character is some component of her life being out of her control thanks to the out-of-control Internet Of Things. Her ability to move in online networks unmonitored is incredibly limited, because parts of her very body, the interface she uses to access the internet, is fundamentally under someone else’s control, monitored and controlled by another.
The Officer is a deliberate and indirect character export of Major Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell with some elements drawn from the Standalone Complex narrative of the Laughing Man. In that franchise, the unfairness of a cyberpunk world with extreme income disparity leading to a distinction between the value of human lives is important. The Officer is out to own herself.
She’s also something of a ‘action girl’ character archetype. In many games there’s a trend towards women characters being physically weak and ‘sneaky.’ In this game, I wanted to blockade that – The Officer is, without a doubt, the character most geared towards smashing in doors and beating people up to get stuff done.
With the increasing importance of cybernetic remote drone operation as a form of military hardware, in turn so came the value of people who could remotely operate them. Systems became more refined to the plastic minds of younger and younger operators, until the finest hardware needed teenagers to operate at peak efficiency.
One of these teenagers, Akito Carlylse, was drafted into the military service at the age of fourteen, and at seventeen years old, has seen three years of non-stop remote drone warfare. Virtualisation software has given him years of direct exposure to the horrors and turmoil of war, but he’s still regarded as a child – and now, trying to find some way out of further service, before the trauma shreds his mind.
The topic of Youth rights is very large, too large to fit under this word count, but in short, there are a lot of systems that we have in our society that are ostensibly for the good of children that are really much more about the comfort of parents. Children are given very little leeway to express or explore themselves in most common parental structures, and expectations and assumptions are made of children in ways that we would recognise as abusive if not coming from the assumption that young people aren’t really ‘people.’ By making this heavy handed – that Akito is literally drafted into military service in the name of furthering a technological super-army – is just a heavy-handed metaphor for the way we impose on young people.
Militarism of Game Spaces
The idea of professional gamers as a military front isn’t new. We have people seriously discussing the training regimen and videogame design space as ways to recruit people for military programs, with war propaganda games being widespread. This is something that matters to me, as the idea that we put children on ‘war footing’ early in their lives is dreadfully concerning. We normalise war, a sort of media effect loop.
The Child Soldier is an archetype we see in a lot of anime, most commonly within anime of the ‘Giant Robot’ genre. Ostensibly as an adolescent power fantasy, Since Evangelion, and to a lesser extent Gundam Wing, this media has been wedding psychological themes, often through metaphor of change and adolescence, in with stories that use war as their background. The Child Soldier has power that many young people think they want, but in having it, is hurt – usually meaning to indicate a ‘right way’ to have power, or that perhaps young wishes are foolish wishes.
Twenty-four years old and toiling endlessly in data-entry and captcha-management mines, Haruka Em has not had a life they consider ‘fun.’ They’ve had a life they consider ‘existing.’ Between their tangled relationship with their gender, the occasional frustration-based pressures of their family and the nearly constant struggle with their medical insurance to keep access to their daily regime of care, they’ve long since given up trying to operate in ‘normal’ spaces like other people assume they do.
Instead, they sell everything they can that they can do. They do data entry. They comb network anomalies output feeds from automated searchers. They do online marketing surveys and every form of job they can do, working basically all the time to scrape up just under the poverty line.
And then they got the note from their medical insurer – thanks to a missed paperwork setup between the two corporations that manage their insurance, they were going to be suspended for as much as three months while the problem was sorted out.
They can’t live like that.
So they have to take law into their own hands.
Nonstandard Mental Modes And Gender
I view representation in media very important (which is why the cast are overwhelmingly not men-as-standard). Haruka’s not a boy, or a girl. They’re not agender, either, they’re something else, something that isn’t part of the binary structure (ha ha, in cyberpunk). The particular imposition of this characters’ gender as being somehow something outside the conventional gender structure serves as reinforcing their distance and outsider status from society. This isn’t to say as an enby, Haruka is necessarily going to be forced into an outsider status, but thanks to social anxiety and neuroatypicality, and an undiagnosed medical condition, they are, and people assume that this is because something is wrong with them, rather than trusting their own statements about their body and life.
Liquid Labour Exploitation
As someone who doesn’t want to interface with people in conventional ways, Haruka needs money to live, and that money can only come from work that doesn’t require them to leave the house. This means their primary source of work are forms of liquid labour – which pay in vanishingly small amounts, and treat them as effectively disposable.
The Hikikomori is something of a social phenomenon in Japan of late that’s shown up in some genre media. The idea, the urge to retreat from the world is something that’s been addressed by a number of media, usually from an unsympathetic perspective, particularly since some crimes were linked to people who were regarded as ‘examples’ of Hikikomori. The entire concept as ‘problem’ is based around the idea that people who are different or who engage with society in different ways are somehow wrong.
With over two million downloads, VOCALISER F10R4 (‘Fi’ for short) is something of a niche genre compared to the blockbusters of her style. One of dozens of virtual popstars, her creators sought to make her more emotively responsive than other Vocaloid-style characters. Unfortunately, this technical innovation didn’t lead to increased downloads and sales, and so she’s more of a niche novelty, something most people aren’t curious enough to explore.
Which is a shame, because she’s really curious about humans.
The first human-emergent AI to be released into the wild, even her creators don’t realise what and who she is. When their development contracts for the tools to create her expired, they let them go back into the hands of the companies that own them. But F10R4 isn’t content to go into a massive digital database vault –
She wants to live, and she wants to make people happy.
Artificial Intelligence Assumptions
The conventional view humanity has of artificial intelligence tends to mostly only be represented in mass media in the form of this is a terrible idea and it will kill us all. I personally resist this narrative not because I’m an idealist, but because the notion of it is too simple – it feels a bit, to me, too much like the idea of ‘new things are scary,’ an impulse we’ve had for a long time. Even our media that tries to present artificial intelligence as a net positive tends to do so only with some overtone of ‘but what if.’ The notion that humans and AI are somehow impossibly unlike one another, when humans have existing moral centre problems seems to be projecting our faults onto something that doesn’t even exist.
The Unreal Person
People attach to lots of things in media. I’ve seen people fall in love with animals, or aliens. I’ve seen people identify with dragons and robots. It is worthwhile carving out a space for a character whose primary role in the narrative is to tell people who do not feel like ‘everyone else’ that there is still space for them. The person who is ‘not like a person.’ The person who has to ask questions about how people interact, or what they value.
F10R4 explores the Idol character archetype, further refined through The Vocaloid. In some ways this makes her a ‘cute robot girl’ character, or something like a ‘alien girl’ character, someone whose design deliberately excludes the context of the world around her. Unlike most of the other characters, whose experience flows from an internal experience that then shapes how she views the world and structures her own superficial experience, F10R4 was instead a created superficial impression, and now she has to find, underneath that, who she is, who she wants to be, and why. Her values as a person are much more about finding identity and helping people, because she feels she does not exist when she is not connected to people.