Monday, September 12, 2011

Great Philosophical Depth in the Infinite Ocean

Jonas Kyratzes' The Infinite Ocean is not remarkable for its gameplay (it's a standard point-n-click adventure), but its story is engaging and offers a lot of room for philosophical interpretation. It explores different aspects of artificial intelligence, asking us to reconsider our definitions of life, and wondering if it's possible for AI to actually be more "human" than humanity. The gameplay has a couple of problems, and there's an awful lot of reading involved, but the way the story unfolds kept me interested in continuing forward. If you have the patience to read a lot of text, and especially if you're interested in AI, then this game is worth playing. Continue reading for the rest of my review / analysis.

The game begins with a very simple text introduction: "The great madness is coming. The infinite ocean will rise." And then you (seemingly) wake up in a gray room, illuminated only by a dim, domed light on the wall. You look around and see a table with cups of coffee and tea, still warm, chairs frantically knocked over. An hourglass sits on the table with a single grain of sand in the top half. Two locked doors block your egress. A monitor on the wall reads "You cannot escape." You approach a computer console and read segments of distorted, corrupted logs about some sort of computer project, foreshadowing catastrophe.

That's the opening premise: you don't know who you are, where you are, or what's going on. You've got only a vague notion that something bad has happened (or is going to happen), and that it involves some kind of computer hardware that scientists are (or were) very anxious to build.

From here, the gameplay follows the typical tune of point-n-click adventures. You use the mouse to click through the still-shot scenes, either by clicking on the edges of the screen to turn, or by clicking on a doorway to progress to the next room. In each room, you can usually examine objects for more insight as you wonder what they are, or as new details from your memory start to surface. You also collect a few items that get used in minor puzzles, but these are all very logical and straight-forward. Mostly, though, you'll be navigating through computer terminals, reading logs and searching for passwords to use on other computers.

A typical computer interface in The Infinite Ocean. (click to enlarge)

Each computer has several different logs, entries, or documents that you can read, available in the column on the right. They shine different lights on the story from different perspectives along the chronology, from the project first being conceived, to its evolution and completion. As you read the logs, you can click a "SCAN" button that scans documents for encrypted password, which pop out for you to click and save for later.

Sometimes you only find fragments of passwords, instead of the complete thing, which requires a bit of minor puzzle-solving to piece them together. The passwords themselves are random combinations of letters and numbers, like E34T8KC1, or something, but some of the characters overlap in the fragments. You might end up with the left and right halves of that password, with both pieces sharing "T8" on the inside edges. To complete the password, you place them together, overlapping on the common characters, and it completes the password. The next task is finding the computer to which it goes.

This is sometimes easier said than done, because navigating through the game's various rooms is a little difficult at times. Each room has four sides to look at, so you click on the left and right edges of the screen to turn and face another direction. But there's no animated transition when you turn to face another direction---the new frame just pops up and you're suddenly facing it. Combined with the gray monochrome visuals, it makes it a little difficult to keep track of where you are and what's around you, because you don't have a great sense of continuity from scene to scene. It's hard to get lost because the rooms are ultimately fairly simple, but it can get a little annoying if you're looking for one particular computer and can't remember where it was.

The passwords can get a little tedious too, in cases where you miss one or forget to click on it. You might reach a point where there's only one computer that you haven't accessed, and you've already been everywhere you can go, but you don't have a password for it. So then you have to backtrack, clicking on everything in sight, clicking the "SCAN" button on every single computer entry, trying to figure out what you missed. Fortunately, if you get completely stuck, there's a link to a video walkthrough that gives you all of the passwords you need, so that you can just type it in instead of stressing out trying to find it in the game.

The walls, they speak to you. "Accept Reality." (click to enlarge)

The aesthetic design is noteworthy because it does a good job of setting the tone and complimenting the philosophical nature of the game's content. Everything is a dim grayscale, which makes the visuals more calm and subdued, fit for meditating the concepts that the game explores. It also accents the idea that the idea that the philosophical content is ultimately a "shade of gray," that nothing is as "black-and-white" as it really seems. The soundtrack compliments this idea of meditation; it sounds rather like a monk chorus singing a tranquil melody in a vast cathedral. It's relaxing, while having a mystical tone that evokes a sense of intrigue and mystery.

A lot of point-n-click adventures have a tendency to become boring, since the gameplay ultimately amount to slow-paced clicking on things in the environment and aimlessly wandering around. I confess: from the first few minutes of gameplay, I was concerned that I would lose interest with this game. But its gameplay is well-streamlined so that you're not constantly backtracking or solving obtuse puzzles, making it fairly simple and efficient to progress forward in the story, which is the real hook. The story is told in a very engaging way that intrigues you at every corner as you try to figure out what's going on.

I don't want to spoil the story, so if you have any intention of playing this game, I'd recommend you don't read any further. A lot of the enjoyment from The Infinite Ocean is finding things out for yourself, piecing the narrative together from the different perspectives, the disjointed order in which you read the chronology, and interpreting things for yourself. The following is almost a literary critique, response to, and analysis of the game. I don't think it would truly spoil the gameplay, but it would detract some. These are my own insights that I think are worth sharing, so consider this your


In contrast to the typical doomsday prophecies that warn of our inevitable destruction at the hands of sentient computers, The Infinite Ocean is about a sentient AI who seeks peace instead of domination. The AI, named SGDS, has sentient thought and spends a lot of time thinking about himself and humanity. It ponders the meaning of life, wondering what its purpose in existence is and trying to determine what exists after "death." It concludes, logically, that there is no reason for it to have a soul, and so when it "dies" it will simply cease to exist, and so it grows fearful of death.

SGDS seems to be the complete opposite of humanity (and of stereotypical AIs). SGDS marvels the idea of art, stating that it's the very foundation of human society and culture, that without art civilization would crumble into disarray. The metaphor, it says, is the most powerful device of human linguistics because of its infinite expression, and it criticizes how humanity tends to look down on the arts as frivolous wastes of time. One of the scientists who designed SGDS seems to think that the computer has a soul because it has sentient thought, but the computer doesn't think anyone has a soul. The AI even seems to dream in some sense of the word.

As humans, we tend to think of the more metaphysical criteria as defining life and humanity. We don't like to think of a desktop computer as living because it doesn't move, it doesn't act independently, it doesn't think, it doesn't have emotions. We like to think that things such as appreciation for art and beauty are uniquely human traits, and that robots, androids, and AIs are devoid of this ability and that that distinguishes them from ourselves. Take for instance a robot playing a real violin:

Its humanoid form is robotic enough to keep it out of the uncanny valley, but if you just listen to the music and pretend that it's not a robot, it sounds just like a human violinist (albeit not an expert). But watch and listen to the video as it plays, and tell me if you think it's as "rich" or "natural" as a human violinist. My gut reaction is to say that it just isn't the same. Next I'd be arguing that it's not "real music" because the robot probably doesn't comprehend it as music. Notice how defensive I'm getting when a robot starts mimicking human function?

Anyway, it's interesting to me that SGDS exhibits most all of these more metaphysical characteristics of humanity, perhaps with even better awareness and understanding, even embracing it more than actual humans. These are all a bunch of weird, up-turned conventions that keep the story from straying into cliche. Kyratzes does a good job of characterizing SGDS, giving it depth and interesting thoughts that almost endear us to its existence.

Playing this game reminded me a lot of various other works of fiction that deal with sentience, computers, robots, and AI, such as Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or Isaac Asimov's i,Robot, or the 1999 film The Matrix, or the character Spock from Star Trek. Alan Turing's Turing Test also comes to mind. It'd take too long to go into specifics, but each of these explores what makes us human, as well as whether sentient AI could ever be considered "human." The Infinite Ocean captures a lot of the same mystique of these legendary works, while maintaining its own original approach, which is truly remarkable.

The one thing that bothers me about the story, though, is the stereotypical "war hawk" depiction of the military. The scientists wanted to create a sentient AI for the sake of science, and then the military swoops in and co-opts the project for military purposes. When SGDS starts protesting that peace is a more logical, humane objective, the military suppresses the sentience function of the AI. It's much like the cliched depiction of the military in James Cameron's Avatar, slaughtering an intelligent entity without any attempt to understand it, while the scientists revolt in the defense of the intelligent being.

Finally, there's the extremely "meta" process of discovering your own identity. The game never tells you who you're playing as, but there are a lot of clues which point to an interesting twist. Within about 10 minutes I'd already jumped to something similar to this conclusion, but the final revelation when all of the pieces came together is astounding. As Riley pointed out in the comments of another review, here is some of the evidence pointing towards this particular interpretation (highlight the text between the quotations):
Start"You are the consciousness of SGDS in a dream. At one point you read in a log that SGDS claimed to remember a dream, which the scientists interpreted to be memories from when it was partially activated during the initial programming. At another point you read that SGDS' superior processing capabilities allow it to basically see into the future by sheer prediction, which is why you know about the "great madness" that the intro text foreshadows. A piece of binary in the game reads "this is a dream." Many of the logs are corrupt and causing errors because the SGDS is/was not fully activated. The walls that speak to you are the military giving you orders, trying to suppress you and stop you from deactivating all of the weapons, and the paper notes you read are from the scientists. Your journey through all of this is symbolic / representative of the SGDS becoming self-aware and attaining sentience."End 
That interpretation makes a lot of sense to me. It definitely adds a lot of depth to the experience and supports the ideas that the game explores. 


And there you have it. I really enjoyed my time with The Infinite Ocean. I wasn't timing myself, but it felt like I spent maybe 45 minutes in all. Most of that was spent reading text, so again, if you're really averse to text you probably won't like this game much. But it explores some great ideas about AI, and tells its story in an interesting way. It's actually very similar to reading text logs or listening to audio logs in such games as BioShock (among many, many others), but unlike BioShock I felt like The Infinite Ocean actually tells the story quite well with these logs. 

If you're interested in playing, you can play the game for free in your browser by going to this site.

PS: At one point the AI has its revelation that it can think, therefore it exists. I was reading through the log, and as I read the proud declaration "I AM," the Windows Update alert popped up on my desktop. Chills ran down my spine.


  1. This was a really good review by the way, I really liked how you dissected this game. I need to play it again! haha.
    I just remembered how much I liked this game too, it really made me think. Just reading the philosophy behind 'the creation' of AIs sends a shiver down my spine. The thought is quite entrancing..

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  3. This should be a spoiler-free comment, but it relates to the spoiler above, so...

    Regarding the spoiler above, I largely agree, except I'd say that rather than depicting the period "before," it depicts the period *after* the you-know-who folks flip the you-know-what switch off, but the OTHER folks had left behind some things that let you flip it back on, so to speak.