Crysis and the biological singularity of life
A recent game release that has done well both critically and with fans is Crysis 2. A ‘First Person Shooter’ (FPS), the player looks through the eyes of the character they control, shooting enemies and being shot at. That’s all good fun if you like that sort of thing, but why are we writing about it here? Well, like Deus Ex (covered in an earlier post), Crysis 2 explores a number of interesting biomedical ideas.
The story is set in a war-torn Manhattan, where an alien incursion has turned the city into a dangerous no-go area. The few civilians who remain have become infested with an alien virus, while the aliens themselves have set about building mysterious funnel-like structures that reach into the sky. You play a rogue solider equipped with a powerful state-of-the-art nano(technology)-suit who is hunted by both the CEPH (the aliens) and human forces trying to control the area. The player’s technologically advanced suit is a pawn in a much bigger game that many people wish to possess.
Much of the plot centres on the nature of this nano-suit. A key narrative concept is that it reacts to the alien tissue it comes into contact with. In the game, the nano-suit begins to change after contact with alien tissue samples the player needed to collect.
What interested me is the idea that both CEPH life and human life are compatible because both are ultimately carbon-based and indeed both use DNA. As Chris Auty, a lead designer at Crytek, the developers of Crysis 2, told me:
“Both CEPH and Humans share carbon based DNA and is the basis for their compatibility. The nano-suit is able to interface at a low level with the alien material and adapt and rewire itself internally as a result. The suit itself is partially biological and forms a close bond with the users own DNA/biology.… The alien DNA alters the base functions of the suit and merges with it somewhat, eventually creating the catalyst to destroy the aliens themselves by re-programming their spores against them.”
What also interested me in this narrative is that, as humans, we’re used to thinking of gene transfer as being related to sexual reproduction and written into each new generation of offspring produced. We don’t think of it as something happening without the parent-child relationship. But for bacteria, pretty much anything goes when it comes to gene swapping. They routinely indulge in Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT), where sections of DNA are exchanged between bacterial cells even though there may be no familial relationship.
Genetic engineering can make use of this idea; geneticists are trying to alter the existing genes of a living organism artificially, often by introducing new genes. So although the idea of a nano-suit exchanging DNA with an alien is science fiction, the idea of introducing desired genes from one species into another to adopt those traits is a reality. There’s even a Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute project looking to better predict some HGT results named ‘Alien_Hunter‘!
Another interesting aspect of the biology of Crysis 2 is the idea thatthe CEPH are trying to remove the human population as if it is a disease. As Auty told me, “The main goal of the CEPH is to reduce the planet back to a natural state, primarily by eradicating the ‘pests’, in this case human civilization. The tower/spores role is essentially to infect and break down biological matter into base components that can be collected and used as biofuels. The CEPH see the human colonization of earth as little more than a viral infection of the planet”.
Deliberately wiping out a species has, sadly, been all too easy in some cases, the Dodo being a famous example. The extinct bird had simply not evolved far and wide enough to survive its encounter with a more powerful species (us). Wiping out a disease is, sadly, much harder given their diversity and geographical spread. Would we humans be easy to eradicate? As the dominant species on the planet, we all too often bulldoze over other species. If we ever did encounter more powerful alien lifeforms, we have to hope they were enlightened enough to see the value in concepts such as biodiversity!
Finally, Crysis 2 raises the concept of immortality via technology. As the suit grows in power, which enhances the players skills in the game, so too does its role in the game, to the point that it seems to become a vehicle for a technological singularity; a means of prolonging life after the biological death of the body by the transfer of consciousness, using the prowess of advanced computing. Auty points to this in the motivations of one of the main characters, Jacob Hargreave, who covets the suit.
“Hargreave’s higher motivation is to use the suit to stop the CEPH in the same way [the player] does in the climax of the game, by re-programming the alien spore. His secondary motivation is the freedom the suit would provide to him outside of his existence in the Prism [life support] capsule. As Hargreaves’ consciousness effectively exists within the AI of the Prism capsule, it is possible to transfer this to the suit itself. Another dead man walking so to speak.”
Whether or not the technological singularity is possible is an interesting topic of debate. A prominent advocate of this is futurist Ray Kurzweil. On the other side are critics such as the British philosopher John Gray, who considers the idea to be nothing more than a modern day re-hash of age old fantasies about immortality. Who says games can’t explore deep and complex themes?