Assembling AgNES, Or How I Read Science Fiction

The new revision of AgNES.

The new revision of AgNES.

Definitely the hardest part about working on Agnes so far was trying to come up with some backronym for the name. But I think I’ve finally found something: A(u)gmented Narrative Experience Simulator – AgNES.

As the sole representative of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program in the SciFi2SciFab class, my approach at building prototypes and exploring science fiction themes is likely quite different than that of people at the Media Lab. For starters, I don’t have a background on engineering or computer science, and my “making things” experience is limited. Which has made the class quite an interesting challenge, especially in trying to adapt what the experience of science fiction design means from my point of view.

That’s perhaps why my approach at building something like AgNES takes more of a narrative approach, or is perhaps better framed around larger themes involving science fiction and the exploration of possible futures. Even though I began thinking about AgNES as a version of GladOS from portal, in the process of working out the code and figuring out the design I ended up thinking a lot more about the possible narrative implications of what I was doing. In the game Portal, GladOS has been left behind by herself in an abandoned facility (after she killed most of the people there with a neurotoxin gas), and all of the information we receive from her own history and background comes either from direct interaction, or from subtle clues the designers of the game actually laid around hidden areas in the game’s levels. I started thinking about it from the point of view of far-future archaeology, where someone might find a facility and a system such as this one thousands of years into the future and then start interacting with it, trying to figure out what was going on at the time, and what its designers were thinking.

The rat man's den in Portal.

The rat man’s den in Portal.

If you think about it, most of the technology we use nowadays is fairly well documented – most of the stuff that has been widely used over the last hundred years or so can be traced roughly to where it came from and put into its historical context. If we go back a few hundred years, things begin to get murkier, and if we go back a few thousand, we begin to rely on archaeology to figure things out. So even though we’re able to understand our current technologies, thousands of years from now some people looking back at this time might not have such an easy time. For the most part, even trying to go back a few years to read some data stored on floppy disks can be quite the challenge nowadays. If you account for the evolution of storage media, operating systems and programming languages, interface design principles, and so on, our present technology might be entirely inaccessible to someone from the future. And while a clear chain of influence and evolution can be mapped, at some point, given enough variation, that might cease to be the case.

So that all ended up flowing into the design for AgNES. First of all, how would the design stand on its own to someone using this system, without having access to any information like context, purpose, background, and so on? How could one make inferences as to any of these things strictly from what was provided through the interface? And conversely, how could one exploit this information vacuum for narrative purposes? How can I construct a story about AgNES and convey it to the user strictly through interface and interaction elements?

The abandones facilities of Aperture Science, with GladOS at its core.

The abandones facilities of Aperture Science, with GladOS at its core.

In other words, the point of playing around with AgNES is figuring out a way in which it provides information to the user bit by bit, which the user can then put together to reconstruct the origin, purpose and story behind this system. It then becomes something of a mystery game, but just as in archaelogy, it is not a game of precise inputs and outputs. The user/player can only draw conjectures based on the available information, but the system itself cannot speak its “truth” and fully resolve what’s going on behind the scenes. While looking at the code behind the system might be useful and helpful, that doesn’t necessarily mean all the elements are contained in it to solve the mystery.

AgNES has become sort of a game, and games are essentially complex information systems where the purpose is to strategically conceal information from the player in a way that he or she is driven to uncover that information through the mechanics of the game. The difference is that the objective of this game is only to understand its parameters, yet the feedback mechanism is such that you can never fully know whether you have done so (a bit perverse, perhaps). You can only get closer and closer, testing things out to see what happens: while the original design had five entirely different personality cores that were interchangeable, the new design is closer to GladOS in being built around five cores which provide aspects to one whole personality. The cores can be deactivated, thus affecting the way in which AgNES operates, and prompting her to reveal different pieces of information depending on the active combination of cores. The current design is now drawing from many things we’ve been looking at in class: while Portal remains the main source, there’s a little bit of The Diamond Age’s Primer and ractors in thinking about the purpose AgNES could serve (while it also now has a new confession mode borrowed from THX1138). The personality side of AgNES also bears some influence from the Neuromancer/Wintermute conflict between artificial intelligences.

The new personality core design for AgNES.

The new personality core design for AgNES.

It’s a somewhat different approach at the intersection between science fiction and speculative/critical design, but hopefully an interesting one. The code for AgNES remains available on GitHhub, and hopefully in the near future it’ll be somewhere where it can be tested to see how people react to it. A new demo is also posted below, this new iteration built in collaboration with Travis Rich at the Media Lab.