Thursday, 14 July 2011

Chris Roberts is a Witch! Burn Him!

This Cracked article, published this weekend and apparently accidentally duplicating a similar AV Club one from a year earlier, reminded me of a similar one I wrote up on Facebook back in February, which I feel is worth reproducing here, with some slight improvements.

There was a time, about a decade and half ago, when it was pretty common for people with shiny new PCs to have a copy of the Creative Labs demo CD that included 3 or 4 games: Syndicate Plus, Ultima VIII, Wing Commander II and Strike Commander (I think some versions of the CD left off Syndicate for some reason, perhaps because it was the only one not made by Origin Systems). The point of the CD, I believe, was to simultaneously demonstrate how froody Sound Blaster audio could be, and to promote Origin's selection of games, as a sort of free sample to get you to buy their upcoming sequels.

But I digress. Chris Roberts is a witch.

Of those games, Strike Commander is most interesting to me right now, because it was furthest from fantasy and closest to reality, very technologically conservative and set in the not-too-distant-future year of... 2011! And scanning through the game's fictional future-history, it's amazing how much they got right. As I'm sure you'll agree by the end of this, the only possible explanation is that Chris Roberts (head honcho behind Strike Commander, as well as the Wing Commanders) is a witch, who somehow magically predicted the future, and used this amazing ability to write the plot for a game. If you have any doubts, consider the following:

1. Perhaps the core prediction of the whole game was the rise of the private military company (PMC), freelance mercenary companies that have always existed, but which have become unusually common and successful since 2003, when the US used them to heavily supplement their regular forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The game also correctly predicted that these mercenaries would be given sweeping legal exemptions, making them less culpable than members of official national militaries. The only major thing the game got wrong about this was the idea that there'd be mercenary fighter squadrons flying around, in addition to the old-fashioned land armies. In reality, the starting capital for that sort of aviation thing is stupidly high, and even the biggest PMCs today operate, at most, a few cheap transport planes and helicopters.

2. The second general prediction that the game relied on was that decreasing availability of oil would be one of the major sources of conflict of the early 21st century. An easy one, perhaps, but still a definite hit.

3. In the game's fictional history, the US invades Iraq to destroy Iraqi nuclear weapons (which, in the game, actually existed). However, things get messy when US forces kill a lot of innocent civilians, leading to an anti-US backlash in the Middle East, which sees a lot of non-combatant Westerners killed in revenge and as warnings to others.

3. To reduce US dependence on foreign oil, drilling in Alaska is increased, causing significant environmental damage and pissing off environmentalists. Attempts to stop this are overruled by the federal government.

3. NATO forces engage in operations to stabilise Eastern European conflict areas that would previously have been under undisputed Soviet influence.

3. A major fuck-up in the world economy due to US banks' excessive bad debt.

3. The Vatican, driven more by public relations than religious conviction, loosens its ban on birth control. In the game history, this is implied to be a general acceptance of birth control, whereas in reality it's barely been a shift at all so far (they now permit it for married couples with extreme medical risks, with special permission and more silly hats than usual). But it counts, really!

3. Mauritania has a civil war. The details are a little off, but more importantly, who the fuck even knew Mauritania existed? The Wikipedia section on the country's history between 1991 and 2000 is only two lines long. I'm sure Chris Roberts was as surprised to learn of its existence as anyone else, when his crazy voodoo ritual revealed its future to him. Also, its capital is Nouakchott, which is a pleasing noise to make.

3. Conflict in Egypt and Libya. It starts with a Cairo kerfuffle (threatening the tourism value of the pyramids), then there's some conventional serious fighting Westwards towards Libya.

3. In the game, very few advanced aircraft are presented; nothing that wasn't already in widespread service by 1995. This fits with the post-depression setting, where the apparently unceasing progress of the 20th century has hit a wall. It also saved the game developers from having to include in-development aircraft in the game that might never have actually gone into production; a wise choice, considering how common that is in the real aviation industry. It would have made the game immediately less realistic (and thus harder to suspend disbelief of) if they'd put it on the market and the very next day, Boeing or Lockheed had announced the cancellation of one of the aircraft designs central to the game.

But I digress: Strike Commander did include 2 potentially risky aircraft, and managed to do so with remarkable accuracy. The first, the F-22 Raptor, was supposed to become the US's standard #1 super-duper fighter by about 2005, but in the game they're rare as all fuck, hardly any to be found. And in reality, they're proving equally elusive, with far fewer in service than any past estimate had guessed, and with production due to be capped at 187 (compared with the 750 originally ordered and the 1,200 F-15s they were intended to replace).

The second plane, the YF-23 Black Widow, was a competing design for the same contract as the F-22. It lost. Only 2 were ever built, and by the time this game was being made, they were already on their way to becoming dusty museum pieces. So why include them in the game? Why assume that even one would still be flying in 2011? Again, Roberts is a witch, who was able to foresee that in 2004, one of the two old YF-23s would be restored to working condition, to serve as the basis for a proposed new fighter-bomber. Only possible explanation.

Of course, the game had some significant misses too (or perhaps they're just not hits yet), but as you'll see, there are far fewer of those than there are hits:

1. Corporate sovereignty and open corp warfare. Unless I've missed something, no corporation has openly declared itself independent from any national laws, and they certainly haven't been hiring private armies to invade and destroy other corporations. If modern CEO #1 wants modern CEO #2 dead, he still does it the old-fashioned sneaky way, and not by hiring fighter planes to shoot down CEO #2's private jet in mid-flight. That said, there was a report on the news a few months ago about a coalition of companies trying to organise a private anti-piracy navy, to supplement the national navies currently patrolling the Somali coast.

2. There wasn't a massive secession craze after the Soviet Onion broke up. In the game, even more bits break off of the USSR, including Siberia, Scotland and Wales leave the United Kingdom, Quebec and British Columbia declare themselves independent of Canadia, and crucially, at least 17 states splinter off from the US. It's hard to call this anything other than a total miss.

3. South American conflicts feature heavily in the game, but in reality that continent has been pretty quiet for the last decade or so. Colombia's been as rough as ever, but that's about the worst of it.

3. In earthquake predictions (always popular among psychics), the Big One was due to hit California in 2000. That's obviously not right, although there was a 7.1 quake in October 1999, which is not terribly far off, date-wise, but that was apparently the only major quake there between 1994 and 2003.

Still-pending prophecies for 2012:
1. South Africa-Zimbabwe border dispute leads to open war. The first chance the South African Air Force gets to bomb something since Angola, and we hire outside contractors instead. Makes sense. On the plus side, this must mean Zimbabwe can afford shit again next year! This may also count as a hit in that the increasing militarisation of South Africa in recent years has included a return to military border patrols to regulate illegal immigrants; this may well get out of hand in 2012. It may also count as a partial hit if we consider the massive number of Zimbabwean mercenaries who've been messing around the continent recently.

2. Hijacking of nuclear weapons, used to bomb Ireland out of existence. Yep, that's what I'd nuke if I could. No, wait, I meant to say Grahamstown.

So there you have it. Irrefutable proof that Chris Roberts is a witch. Or, possibly, that Origin always put a lot of thought into the back-stories to their games and were able to make decent educated guesses, and that with the benefit of hindsight and a strong bias in favour of finding proof that the game history must match real history (not to mention glossing over way more misses than I've included above), it's hard not to make it look like an unusually accurate prediction.

Or, you know, witchery. In which case, I look forward to the invention of the jump drive and the foundation of the Terran Confederation.