The Face of the Enemy (Story Design Ponderances)

21 08 2008

Who is the enemy? Who is the antagonist?

That alone defines your protagonists. It defines where they stand, since they stand in opposition — maybe not full opposition, no black and white, but a clear difference between You and Me which cannot be resolved without conflict.

YARR.EXE, in initial pitch form, is about software pirates. Hackers and thieves who (somehow) make a living by stealing data from legitimate companies and.. I don’t know. Selling it? Distributing it for free? And if so, why? But that’s only a minor facet of the problem.

The real problem is that, as an independent game developer, as a reformed RIAA/MPAA mindless detractor (I still detract but I’m quite a bit more mindful now), I can’t justify my protagonists being hackers hitting legit targets. I can’t even skeeve it in my direction by saying “They’re all ACTUALLY bad guys, evil puppy-kicking corporate bastards!”. No. That’s a cheat. It’s a cheat and a black and white adherance to a trope of the noble cyber-rebels vs. the evil faceless all-powerful corporate overlords.

I kicked that trope to the curb in Unreal Estate, and again in HeX coda. In both of those, you were ostensibly aiding rebels against a monolithic corporate empire of absolute control and dominance. But in the end, you saw that they weren’t really as sinister as that; they were the evolved outcome of their respective environments, the natural end result of people’s willingness to go along with monolithic corporate empires in the name of harmony and secury. If I dumped into YARR.EXE the 80’s cyberpunk staples of evil capitalists, it’d be a step backwards.

So, we can’t do the cool rebels and the evil dollar bills anymore. What can we do? Who is our enemy? Let’s get one off the table right now — the government. Anti-capitalism goes hand in hand with anti-government, but the reality is rarely a cut and dry facist state. This isn’t the blatant Knight Templar state of NIN’s Year Zero, which was engaging and entertaining but ultimately a hollow and simplified target. Attacking Evil Facist America is no different than attacking Evil Corporate America. It’s used, over, done with.

So. Who are our hackers targeting?

Right now… I’m thinking other hackers. The bad guys. The blackmailers, the data thieves, the griefers, the defacers, the ones who give the Internets a bad name and who do real harm to people. They’re a harder target to write about and a harder target to take down in any realistic manner — Anonymous is a persistent bastard, he is. But that’s the way I think it has to be. Because once you kick the Supposedly-Good-Yet-Evil guys out of the picture, you’re left with having your Supposedly-Evil-Yet-Good hackers fighting the Actually-Pretty-Evil guys. That’s a trope, too… but it’s not one I’ve really hit on much. I think it may work.

Now, back to preplanning.

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26 responses

22 08 2008
tozetre

Hey man. I continue to stand in awe of your story-crafting talents and eagerly await anything you do. I realize this post was mostly just thinking out loud, but if you don’t mind my inserting a couple ideas you may not have mulled on yet, cyberpunk and hacker culture being a hobby of mine;
1) The Jargon File strongly suggests that the opposite of a Hacker is a Suit. Not corporate America, since hackers do hack for money, but the antithesis of the hacker’s clear, articulated, specific, meritocratic worldview; vague, full of buzzwords, obsessed with form over function, egotistical, aggressive, and territorial. Since hackers have to eat, it’s not impossible to create a setting in which hackers work for a company and spend their time sneaking into areas they shouldn’t, but need to. Now that I think about it, most major corporate environments I’ve been in or seen have involved a lot of the hackerly types doing clever things in order to break rules and escape notice in order to do their job. I personally do a frightening amount of stuff daily that I’m not supposed to (i.e. “don’t install open source software, it’s against policy”) in order to access and manage servers it’s in my job description to manage, but corporate denies me the permissions to access legitimately. My friends and former employers have read notices from corporate, nodded, and then done the exact opposite in order to accomplish goals, stay under budget, avoid going to jail, keep the company out of the newspapers, etc. Of course, even while it’s perfectly true to life, Hackers vs Suits may too easily fall into Hackers vs Evil Corporate America or the like.
Really, you’re right about the reasonableness of hacker vs cracker, since it does happen in real life, to an extent, in White Hat vs Black Hat hacking. I’m just sayin’, if you need a foil, “but the system tells me to do X, I will do X in the face of its obvious folly” is also pretty believable. So is “I don’t care if it’s illegal/expensive/will break everything, I’m telling you to do it.”
2) The Bastard Operator From Hell depicts an “evil” sysop that geeks nonetheless find heroic, like the African or Australian thief-god heroes whose charm lies not in being good but in doing bad things in a clever way. It’s the elegance of the solution, not the motivation or the ends, that makes a hack “good.”
3) The classic but difficult enemy for a protagonist is “environment” or “circumstances.” Gibson and Stephenson did it really well; the protagonists face an inscrutable, Clash of the Titans sort of environment where unpredictable interactions between complex corporate systems creates sharply distinct reactions they have to deal with. One day they’re drawing a check, the next they’re fighting for their life. It really turns cyberpunk into Greek tragedy; the gods are ultimately powerful but totally unpredictable, and will stamp you down if you make yourself obvious.
Well, that got rather long- sorry. Hope there was something you could use.

22 08 2008
Anonymous

I realize you just said ‘no government’ but what if the characters aren’t taking on their own government per se. Cyberspace doesn’t have to correspond to meat-space, so…
Hacker Group A is generally aligned with Country B. Country C (at least on the surface, twists are part of the story) is opposed to B idealogically, but B can’t do anything about it. A has therefore decided to take matters into their own hands. C, naturally, demands the capture and execution of A, and B isn’t in a position to refuse.
On the other hand, that may include some espionage elements you don’t want and make the whole thing too big. Just throwing the basic idea out there.
-TH

22 08 2008
kublaikhan

You could pull a ‘shadowrun’ style environment, where a Mr. Johnson hires them on for various jobs; they must then complete said jobs which may or may not make sense to them and may or may not be suicide missions or calculated to screw them over in some fashion. Said jobs may be even by conflicting agencies (whether corporate, governmental, or other) who are all trying to meet their own ends–lots of room here for plots within plots and plans within plans, not to mention for double or triple agents and completely off-the-wall angles, if you’re sufficiently clever. As mentioned above, this can lead into a sort of Stephenson-esque “whoops, we have to save the world now” situation, per, say, Snow Crash.

22 08 2008
cmdr_zoom

So our heroes bear one or more “Letters of Marque and Reprisal”?

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Yeah, but “suits” are overplayed. Invariably they’re capitalist corporate tycoons and control freaks who wanna corral the radical rebels… it’s really hard to get away from that. And I definitely don’t wanna write a bunch of office drones who use dodgy means to accomplish fiscal quarter objectives. That’s kinda boring.
I think White Hat vs. Black Hat’s the way to go. It’s very Batman, you know? A bunch of colorful, destructive, quite possibly nuts bad guys run wild on the good people of the city, and it takes a colorful, destructive, quite possibly nuts good guy to take them down. Batman’s technically an outlaw, a vigilante, an armed assault felony hiding behind a mask. Sounds good for a bunch of counter-hackers.

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

That’d fit the piracy idea, but the problem is that you end up in international politics when you have teams of hackers and counterhackers working for the government. I really think our heroes need to be independent heroic types, not in the employ of Uncle Sam — officially or just voluntarily.
I think it’s better to shoot for aligning with ideologies rather than countries. For example, our heroes have the ideology that dangerous technology is best aimed at people who would misuse it to hurt others. The villains can be the usual lot of techno-anarchists, data blackmail hoarders, lulzy griefers, etc. People who have no empathy for others and are willing to exploit the system to tear down a target while building themselves up in some way.

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

The old hook of “roving band of mercs who do things for money without asking why — until they get screwed” is kinda, well, an old hook. Plus it doesn’t put your protagonists in any positive light since they’re apathetic at best and saps at worst. In invariably leads to the old “we did evil without realizing it and now must set it right / get payback” plot, and eh.

22 08 2008
j_arcane

They’re a harder target to write about and a harder target to take down in any realistic manner — Anonymous is a persistent bastard, he is.
Actually, I think Anonymous, or some similarly ominous and faceless Black Hat terror cell would be a kickass way to go. How do you fight an “organization” that isn’t really organized, but almost more like the collective meme concept from Ghost in the Shell? They’re faceless, amoral, follow no agenda but pure whim, and seemingly self-replicating.
It’s almost like classic fantasy style Chaos, a seemingly unstoppable horde of shapeless destruction, and from such much of the moral possibilities can spring as well. The White Hat as the balance between the Order of the suit and the Chaos of the Black Hat, caught like a rock in a hard place, fighting a battle on both fronts for the digital soul.
There’s a lot of potential there I think. Some of it still cliche, but at least taking a different angle on it than usual in hope.

22 08 2008
tozetre

Very true. Even the White Hats get people really nervous. I like the idea of a bunch of hackers finally getting sick of not being listened to about security and just taking action. How will you tie this into the pirate theme, though? MediaSentry crackers versus FOSS security hackers trying to defend indie artists? There’s that new “Fifth label” representing the indie artists, and no doubt the major labels aren’t too comfortable with that- but then you’re back into Evil Corporations. Or will you keep piracy at all?

22 08 2008
tozetre

See also GITS:SAC and the “Stand Alone Complex.”

22 08 2008
tozetre

There’s always been that feeling that internet “nations” are made up of ideological groups rather than political parties, geographic regions, etc.
Ooh, ooh! Have you heard of the RBN, Russian Business Network? They’re responsible for vast percentages of spam and identity theft, and they’ve got strong ties to the Russian Mob. Sysops frequently just block Russian IP ranges to avoid trouble. That’s slightly coterminous with Russia as a nation, but they’ve got agents in America and Asia, too- there’s a non-corp, non-govt organization that represents a specific target and a definite danger to white-hats today.

22 08 2008
cmdr_zoom

See also Skies of Arcadia, which divides its air pirates into Blue Rogues (who attack only the armed ships of the Empire – which you’d think would be suicidally foolish, but (1) the Empire suffers from a bad case of stormtrooperitis and (2) as one of the characters puts it, “you guys have the best stuff” … the benefits of a Spanish-style monopoly on trade) and Black Pirates (who attack anyone, and may or may not honor requests for mercy).
Completely silly and impractical, but it suits game morality.

22 08 2008
dkellis

Uplink has several “trace a hacker” missions (in fact, once you get a certain rating, that’s almost all you get, until you improve that rating). The game treats it as a “dark side” option, since apparently hackers need solidarity or some such. Stealing files and destroying data for other corps are “light side” options, because one must Stick It To The Man.
I don’t know.
The only other mission type which has some redeeming moral value is hacking into a bank to trace a transfer, on behalf of a corporation who says that the target is under investigation for corruption. Could be an idea, although one has to wonder why the corporation doesn’t go through more legal means.
The story mode for Uplink has Corporation vs Corporation, so I don’t think that’s an option for YARR.EXE.

22 08 2008
kublaikhan

That could always be modified by a realization that Something Bad is going to happen -before- it happens, thus preventing that trope from actualizing and starting up the plot where they’re now in danger from the guys who were hiring ’em, and need to stop them not only from killing/framing/otherwise harming the group, but also have to stop the plot to take over the world/kill the seals/release the virus/plant the cybernetic mole in the president’s wetdrive

22 08 2008
jengagne

Even before you said “other hackers. The bad guys. The blackmailers, the data thieves, the griefers, the defacers”… that’s what I was thinking. Like oldschool cowboys-to-the-rescue, except sometimes people don’t even know they’re being rescued.
There are a ton of variations on the 419 scam, as well as identity thieves and con artists. Why not out-con the cons? For 419 baiting in particular and perhaps some good plot ideas on fun ways to waste the time of cons (or actually stop them!) when you don’t know where they are, see http://www.419eater.com/ … the logic being that the more time they waste on your baiting, the less time they can spend on other more clueless targets. And the more obvious you make them to the whitehats that may be listening, the better…
The other thing is, though, that this means your player-as-meatspace-social-engineer is not as consistently useful. After all, if they were legit targets, it’d be a lot more obvious where to send him. But here? I guess he could scam his way into the bad guy’s ISP or something… scam his way into some data center which is (perhaps unknowingly, or perhaps doesn’t care) harboring Badness…?
Does this undercut your pirate theme at all? They’re more like vigilantes than “pirates”. OTOH, several on the team may have got their start in data piracy and collectively decided to turn their skills to more interesting targets.
… Nice new icon, BTW. :D

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

This is actually also because only one of the characters is distinctly pirate-themed. Another’s cyberpunk-goth, another’s bishie, another’s moe. They still have a pirate ship themed lair, but they aren’t software pirates, so I had to find another activity for them to do.

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

Of course, that boils down to “Free-spirited rebels vs. Jackbooted facist state” again, but it does suit Skies quite well. (I’ve played a bit of that game.)

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

I’ve got Uplink. Fun little game. I don’t think it really breaks any new narrative ground, though; as you note, burning other evildoers is considered wrong, and mostly it’s just evil all-powerful capitalists attacking each other and employing you as their merc. Not really the approach I need for Yarr, yeah.

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

OTOH, several on the team may have got their start in data piracy and collectively decided to turn their skills to more interesting targets.
This.
I have it laid out how our piratey character, the captain of the crew, got her start in software piracy until some event made her change her ways. But she kept her motif because darn it, she liked being a saucy pirate queen. :)
As for the social engineer, he may not always be needed, but he can be handy for bypassing hardened software defenses by smooth-talking a password out of someone, or going undercover to befriend a 419 scammer and get some information on where their data stores are.

22 08 2008
tozetre

Aaaah.
/me vibrates in anticipation.

22 08 2008
jeffreycwells

I think an interesting subversion of the genre standard plot here would be to have a potent, charismatic Robin Hood-type hacker, beloved to the rebel populace. Stealing from the evil corporations, distributing to the poor, and becoming a legend to the data-oppressed…
…only he’s totally barking mad and has to be stopped before he does X and destroys us all. Your protagonists have to, for all practical purposes, take down a folk hero. How do you kill off the Laughing Man? And what will people think of you if you do?

22 08 2008
omahdon

I’m trying to think of vaguely helpful suggestions that may lead to full-blown plot developmentinks down the line – but at this hour the only thing that pops into my head is: “In Soviet Russia, Enemy is YOU!”
I don’t know where the idea of cowboys popped into this, but just to regurgitate something I learned in film analysis – when a town is besieged up comes the cowboy/s/persons to save the day! And after they become the toast of the town and get a smooch from the gal least likely to be filled with communicable diseases – they must leave. They always leave – cowboys are an agent of change, and once that change has taken root then they have to leave, otherwise their very presence is a destabilising one.
So agents of change/anarchist versus the established order? Not just the order of government and business, but what constitutes an “everyday life”: social networks, unspoken assumptions, daily living that has become a safe, sterile routine – and the introduction of mad, wild, strange chaos that brutalises established order.
Of course, it’s hard to write protagonists that are LIKEABLE if all they’re out for is to agitate the melting pot just that WEE bit – much less have the player feel justified in the choices they make. But it’s something to think about. I mean, deep down, pirates aren’t “nice”. They break the rules and defy what passes for “the norm” – this tends to unsettle most people. They may have good intentions and may even be necessary to help others realise their sad, stale existence – but overall, they are not “nice”.
Hmmmm…. I seem to be playing devil’s advocate for the Evil Empire here. I mean. Someone has to speak up for the suits. Or something.

22 08 2008
ninjarat

White hats and black hats. What if you have a colonial breakdown where the fed loses power (or chooses not to exercise it). Individual states become more reliant upon themselves, much as they were during the American colonial period or the Old West. Private organizations like the Pinkertons could gain a foothold by filling in where the fed has withdrawn support.

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

I’ve got an episode planned where you take on an all-male piratey crew named Rum, Sodomy & The Lash, so this may work. Part of my point in posing white hats in opposition to black hats is that piracy and hacking actually does hurt people, even if you get YAY FREE STUFF out of the equation. So taking down a popular software pirate would reinforce one of my character’s beliefs and bring that issue to the forefront.

22 08 2008
Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne

No, I hear you. That’s the crux here; the suits are not really an evil empire, no matter how nefarious. That’s just not realistic. So pirates are not legendary folk heroes who fight tyranny all day long, either.
And you’re right about westerns. I took a whole class in college about western themes. Violence to destroy violent men is still violence, and ultimately has no place in the west, which inevitably moves towards peaceful civilization. So no matter how many bad guys the cowboy kills and how many towns he saves, he has to move on, because he’s a killer.

22 08 2008
lirazel

I approve this message.
Back in the dear dead days of paper, Lord Peter Whimsey employed a group of “useless” women who answered ads aimed at the hopeful ignorant and subsequently took the sleazeballs to court. I always wished I could do work like that…
Speaking as a social engineer!

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