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Beyond Games Vision: Biological Game Pods in eXistenZ

eXistenZ / Momentum Pictures

Core Data:

  • Vision: Immersive virtual reality driven by biological technology
  • Type: Popular culture – Film
  • As Seen In: eXistenZ
  • Envisioned: 1999
  • Visionary: David Cronenberg (writer/director)
  • Target Date: Undefined (though it looks like the very near future)

Overview:

It’s safe to say the unconventional use of capital letters in the title is far from the weirdest thing about eXistenZ. Then again, anyone expecting David Cronenberg’s adventures in virtual reality to be as simple as plugging in an Oculus headset should probably do their homework on the Canadian writer/director’s unique filmography.

Having made the body-horror genre his own with the likes of Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, Cronenberg crafted a world where gamers willingly insert devices made of flesh and bone into “bio-ports” surgically implanted in their spines. These organic games consoles give users access to virtual worlds so convincing that the lines between reality and simulation start to blur – as Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a newcomer to the technology, discovers when he agrees to follow eXistenZ creator Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) through the looking glass.

It’s a powerful experience, but in Cronenberg’s vision, there’s also something decidedly icky about tech rendered from mutated amphibians, that’s susceptible to disease, and throbs and pulses when you plug in. eXistenZ clearly opens up some intriguing possibilities, but would casual gamers really sign up for anything quite so invasive?

eXistenZ / Momentum Pictures

Key Tenets:

  • Hardware: According to its makers, eXistenZ isn’t just a game – it’s an entirely new game system.
  • The game is played on organic “game pods” made of “MetaFlesh”.
  • Users connect to the game pods via a bespoke “bio-port” installed at the bottom of their spine. In order to interact with the consoles, they need to insert a fleshy “UmbyCord” into the hole in the small of their back.
  • Installing the bio-port involves a fairly simple surgical procedure, which can be performed on the black market. Temporary paralysis is a common side effect of the operation, but players can hook up to the system almost as soon as the surgery is complete.
  • The game pod is powered by its connection to the user, and pulses while in operation.
  • The organic tech is harvested from mutated amphibians and reptiles, specifically bred for the purpose in specialist farms.
  • Technicians have as much in common with veterinary surgeons as they do with conventional IT specialists – repairs are reminiscent of operations.
  • Experience: The world is so captivated by the game pod experience that game creator Allegra Geller points out that “no one actually physically skis now”.
  • How the transition from the real world to virtual reality takes place depends on the game. As Geller explains, “You can get jagged, brutal cuts; slow fades, shimmering little morphs…”
  • The user may require lubricant to insert the UmbyCord into their bio-port.
  • When you arrive in the game, you land in a hub area known as D’Arcy Nader’s Game Emporium. Here you can purchase new games, as well as Micro-Pods you can plug into your (in-game) bio-port to download a new identity.
  • The objective of the game may not be immediately clear – you have to play to find out why you’re playing.
  • Players may find themselves having uncontrollable urges to say and do things they don’t mean to, as the in-built programming of the software overrides real-life reservations – the system is designed to give players just enough free will to keep things interesting. One unfortunate consequence is that you could find yourself tucking into a meal of mutated, two-headed lizard, served with a medley of components to build your own organic, tooth-shooting firearm. You know it’s disgusting but you just can’t help yourself.
  • Non-player characters (NPCs) have the annoying habit of standing in silence until you give the response they require to progress the game.
  • While playing, the user’s body is defenceless in the real world – finding a safe place to plug in is therefore essential.
  • You can pause the game by standing up and yelling: “eXistenZ is paused!”
  • There are significant hygiene risks involved in hooking up to a game pod – a diseased device can pass an infection on to its user.
  • Distinguishing between real life and the game rapidly becomes difficult – to the point that normal life can feel unreal when you return. eXistenZ also features different levels of reality, and games within games within games. This is incomprehensible and disconcerting.
  • eXistenZ may not be real. It’s suggested in the film that it’s actually part of a simulation within a more conventional, microchip-driven VR system called transCendenZ. Are we still in the game? Who knows…
  • Company: eXistenz was created by “game pod goddess” Allegra Geller, working for Antenna Research.
  • Rival developer Cortical Systematics also has its eyes on the eXistenZ system. 
  • Economics: Antenna Research invested $38 million in the development of eXistenZ, which seems a bargain considering the price tag they could attach to such immersive VR tech.
  • IP: As well as the eponymous eXistenZ, titles such as Chinese Restaurant and Hit By A Car are available.  
  • Depending on your reality, transCendenZ (which may or may not feature the eXistenZ tech) is also available. The user interface is electronic and therefore decidedly less icky.

State of Play (December 2021)

  • Hardware: Mass-market computing systems remain predominantly based on the microchip.
  • Processors don’t have to be silicon-based, however. The growing field of biological computing uses organic material such as proteins and bacteria to perform the functions of a computer. Scientists have already developed a biological version of the transistor, while cells of E Coli bacteria have been used to store data.
  • The technology to transmit sophisticated simulations directly into the brain is still science fiction, but interfaces that allow computers to interact directly with a user’s nervous system do exist. Brain implants are regularly used to treat Parkinson’s disease, while scientists at Brown University in the US have used their BrainGate technology to allow test participants to connect to a tablet computer wirelessly (via the Independent).
  • Experience: Present-day virtual reality experiences are usually delivered by a headset that supplies sound and vision to the user – additional haptic devices/gloves that can provide the sensation of touch. This isn’t quite the same as eXistenZ’s vision of total immersion gaming, however.
  • The AI that drives modern NPCs in games is already way superior to what we see in eXistenZ, as characters are now programmed to react to a variety of player responses. In fact, any game populated with characters who freeze until the player gives the ‘correct’ response would be a commercial disaster.
  • Economics: A business trying to bring the organic eXistenZ tech to the market would have some serious regulatory hurdles to clear – big questions would have to be asked of any government who approved tech requiring users to insert unhygienic meat products into their bodies.
  • There’d also be some significant PR challenges involved in convincing the public to embrace such gag-inducing devices – most of the eXistenZ kit could do with an eXtensivE redesign.
  • And would the manufacturers be required to supply a refrigerator to stop the MetaFlesh from going off? All that raw meat is going to stink pretty quickly.
  • That said, if it was possible to grow computers in a lab rather than build them in a factory, production costs would probably be significantly reduced.

Reality check: powerful visuals but far-fetched

When not even the movie can give a definitive answer on whether the biological tech of eXistenZ is supposed to be real or not, it’s no surprise that, in reality, we’re nowhere near creating biological computers with this level of sophistication.

With intricate guns engineered from flesh and bone, and stomach-churning computer interfaces, Cronenberg’s take on human/machine interfaces is every bit as visceral as the one the Wachowskis created in The Matrix (released the same year). Realistically, however, eXistenZ is a vision of futuristic tech that’s more about the art than the science.

Further reference:

Written By

A self-confessed full-time geek, freelance journalist Richard has spent most of his career writing about sci-fi and fantasy – including more than a decade on staff for SFX magazine. He's particularly keen on franchises with "Star" in the title.

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