Mike's proxy sat on a cushion which hovered about his virtual studio. In physical reality, he sat on his couch. Even without a Plant, he was able to maintain an effective presence in purely virtual spaces by means of his augmented reality gear. Use of a keysphere and haptic clothing enabled interaction with the sets and precision control over the movie. He also wore a stylish cap which monitored his brain activity and helped him move around the sets intuitively.
His role as Crenshaw consisted mainly of spoken lines and upper body movement. It would have been easier and more immediate with a plant, but he made do and it turned out well enough since Crenshaw was not active on the front lines.
Mike had been watching the scenes unfold in two ways- through a tentative framing of the scenes being recorded, and to the side, as if he was on a physical movie set. Between the two methods, it was easy for him to do things like freeze the action, give direction, and manipulate various aspects of the scenes.
MikeThat was great, guys! Take a break.
The actors returned to their primary proxies in the common area of Mike's set. The common area was designed to enable the crew to discuss and plan the filming. There were multiple screens of different sizes littered about, displaying footage from various angles as scenes were recorded, along with miniaturized versions of the sets floating here and there, providing easy ways to watch the action unfolding from any angle desired.
Since most scenes were complete 3D recordings in virtual space, actors were typically fully immersed in their roles. Sometimes there was a visual mark to indicate a possible framing perspective where the "camera view" might be placed later, and occasionally Mike's hovering proxy would appear in a scene to give direction, but often actors just performed the scene naturally, with no no impediments to their movement.
Filming inside a virtual space, known as "machinimation," cost nothing by itself, and was far easier than filming with real cameras and physical locations. Even real physical locations were easier to work with once virtualized. Realistic environments, bodies, clothing, makeup, lighting, visual continuity, and most special effects were easily created and simulated. Scenes could be shot and reshot any number of ways, and individual elements in a scene, such as an actor, an object, or an explosion, could be isolated and manipulated separately. A perfect performance by one actor could never be ruined by bad lighting or the actions of other actors.
Megan watched the filming, fascinated with Kyu and Mike's real time editing of the various shots of the film into engaging preliminary sequences. She approached Mike as he was artfully adding some gore into Zero's falling sequence.
MeganThanks for letting me watch.
MeganYou guys make it look so easy.
MikeThe technical aspects aren't hard at all, especially since we're working with Ataraxia's engine and the actual game recording as a base. Everything is already so awesome, from the environments to individual proxies, because of all the work players put into the game. Modding the original recording authentically couldn't be easier since it includes all the models and sensory information, right down to Riful's peculiar smell.
MeganI've tried making videos before and couldn't quite get the hang of it. The impressive part is how you pull it all together into a story with a fixed perspective.
MikeKyu's the talent there. Picking camera focus, framing, sound editing, and all that. The film's looking pretty sleek so far, but whether it'll be a movie worth watching is another matter. All the cool effects and battles in the world don't matter without a good story.
MeganWell, what I've seen is pretty engaging. How many people are working on this?
MikeKyu and I are doing most of the technical stuff. And we have 7 actors doing most of the dramatizing.
MeganAnd no one's getting paid, right?
MikeHa! We're unlikely to see much money for this, and what we get will be going into our next project anyway.
MeganDo you think you can get a wide release?
MikeIt's hard to say. Thomas is in it, so there are his fans. And Kyu's got some name recognition as a director. So, we'll see.
MeganI'm not clear on the virtual theater box office thing. How does that work with you guys getting paid?
MikeWe're making it available for free download and asking for donations. Anyone can set up a virtual theater and show it with whatever ticket price they want. That's usually not a lot, even for some of the more popular venues, since there will be so many theaters showing it for free and people can always just download it for themselves. The ones that charge typically split sales with us, except for the jerks. In any case, every showing of the film is supposed to have a link to our site where people can donate money for our next project.
MeganWhat about fan edits of films? It seems like most popular movies have so many fan mods these days it's hard to tell which ones to watch.
MikeThat'd be a great problem to have! We're making the production models and raw recordings available on our site, so fans could edit the film however they want. With all the free tools out there and the original materials, people can add or delete scenes, change lines or perspective, enhance special effects, add details in the background, change a character's style, or whatever. Mods can be tricky when it comes to who gets a fair cut, cause some of them will only use a portion of a movie production, or even mix different movies together.
MeganAnd sometimes filmmakers go back and forth modding a project, right?
MikeFrequently. That's actually how I met Kyu. You know his movie "Spitfire"? I added a scene to it that he liked, which he then edited, and then I took his edit and extended it, and then we figured that we should just work on a new project together. The low cost and ease of making films with today's technology, combined with a whole world of fans ready to put work into a project, produces feedback loops for making movies and shows that let projects continue to evolve over years or even decades.
MeganThat must make it complicated about who gets paid if there is a lot of money involved. Your entire project is actually a fan mod of real events, now that I think about it. So if you make a lot of money off of it, shouldn't you give some of that to the original players like Crenshaw?
MikeOh yeah, if we make any amount of money, which is unlikely, we will definitely give at least some portion of it to the original players. That's traditional for stuff like this. But there isn't as much money to be made in non-interactive movies as there used to be, back when Hollywood was dominant.
Thomas walked up to Mike and showed him various vids of Riful reacting to Blaze Snap as it powered up its weapons. Mike nodded in approval to one and Thomas started tweaking it. Megan watched Sam and Miguel as they reshot various sections of Gakk and Zero's escape. They repeatedly fought through the same floors, with some randomization to keep the fighting fresh. Kyu and Mike would later choose the best takes and edit them together so the action appeared natural and raw.
MeganWhat sort of computing is required for this?
MikeThis whole studio is just running off of my computer. Kyu's put together some of the footage for the larger scale battles on his computer, which takes more resources, but so far we haven't had to use the cloud or anything. Kyu is almost solely responsible for the major enhanced effects and such. He's very talented. You remember the third section of Spitfire?
MeganYeah, it's spectacular.
Overhearing this, Kyu smiled and waved politely while considering camera angles for Blaze Snap's initial barrage.
MikeDid you know that he made it entirely by himself, including the characters, just using Space Forge?
MeganHow could you do both sides of a conversation like that? And even fight yourself?
MikeYou do one role and then play another role against the recording. For it to feel right you have to give your prerecorded role some flexibility in how it responds to you so you can get correct eye contact and mannerisms that match the characters' positions and such. Space Forge has some nice auto-adjusting functions, but it's still difficult to get the interaction between people to look natural unless you have a brain behind each one. Kyu just has great talent when it comes to engaging with himself.
MeganWasn't there a sex scene in that segment?
MikeLike I said, great talent.
Sam and Miguel re-inhabited their proxies in the common area and looked through the footage they had just recorded for any particularly exciting or funny bits of action. Thomas, satisfied with what he was working on, came over and helped Mike, who was still working on Zero's escape.
MeganOK, I understand taking a game recording and giving it a perspective by editing together scenes and framing the action, but why reenact it? Wasn't it dramatic enough? People are damn serious about these battles.
ThomasOh, people are serious enough, but they typically lack cinematic drama while they're in the moment. Kyu and Mike give it better, more consistent graphics, add music, and it has better acting, my part excluded. They also organize the battles and cut out some of the boring stuff. They're basically making it more like a scripted movie.
MikeMost of the players back then didn't even bother with "in-game" role playing. It's a whole different dynamic than film or Ataraxia as people live there today. Even now, people are too concerned about the situation to play it smooth or throw out cool lines.
ThomasYou know what Riful originally said when the office 23 alarms went off? "I fucking hate this game!" And then when he got to the building, he ran through it repeatedly yelling "fuck" until he jumped after Zero. I had Villain count. 126 times in a matter of minutes.
MeganAh, I see. And anyone can just watch the original footage if they want to see what originally happened.
MikeYeah, the original recording is included along with the film for comparison. Also, this is kind of a training project. We're working up to an original project, one with more interaction. Interactive media is where the really interesting stuff is getting done, and requires a great deal more technical skill. Even little kids can put together awesome, special effects heavy action sequences, but drawing viewers in, and making them an integral part of the story is where art is evolving.
Thomas changed his proxy to the film's Riful/Thomas mixed proxy.
ThomasThe project is much needed practice for us actors too.
MeganHey, why does Miguel look like Zero while your look is mixed with Riful?
ThomasWe thought it would be fun if it looked like I was an actor in makeup playing Riful, like in some old movie. We mixed it with my current standard proxy, which is way more famous than Xea Fluon, my character at that time.
MikeZero's kind of iconic, so we didn't want to mess with that. We have Miguel playing him mostly to make his interaction with Riful more natural, and to get Miguel working with our team.
MeganWhat is the deal with Zero, anyway? Did anyone ever figure out who his player was?
MikeHe's still anonymous. I'm sure you've heard some of the speculation surrounding him. He was quite the distinctive player. Always in character.
ThomasThere's a theory that Zero was a group effort, but we know from the proxy scheme he released after the game that Blaze's controls all went through a single humanoid player proxy, which is unprecedented. For efficiency, you want as few people as possible controlling a mech, but for a mech of that size and complexity you'd need at least 3 or 4 players. Hell, Blue Dusk, which was somewhat less complicated, required a minimum of 5 people to operate. Blaze Snap's control scheme is a marvel of automation, but still requires insane skill to juggle all of those systems like Zero did. Go try piloting that thing by yourself some time, see how well you can do basic maneuvers in it, much less respond to a massive bombardment.
Thomas brought up a detailed hologram of Blaze Snap's schematics.
ThomasAnd in terms of engineering the mech itself, no one has a good idea as to how he developed it with so little recorded activity over his missing months. I suspect a group was involved with acquiring power sources for it and integrating its various routines and devices. But no one has come forward to lay claim to that, so who knows?
MikeThere's also the question of what motivated Gakk to rescue him, and whether she was secretly working with him from before.
ThomasDidn't it turn out that Gakk's player had run into an incarnation of Sure Fire in a previous iteration of Ataraxia or something?
MikeThat was pretty circumstantial, I think. And then there was Zero's strange, tragic death several months later. It's all very intriguing.
ThomasAs much as I hate Sure Fire, he seriously had a vendetta going.
MeganUh, you had quite a vendetta going too. Still do, apparently.
ThomasYeah, but I wasn't a Pan. Pans have to stay neutral so they can intervene in critical situations to help avoid hell scenarios.
ThomasUncontrollable, and unproductive, cycles of carnage. I'll show you an example sometime.
Miguel walked over to the discussion after finishing with his part of the project.
MiguelI'm fond of the theory that Zero was an untreated autistic. It would fit his personality and his amazing dedication to developing Blaze. And it would explain some of his neurotic behaviors, like the Tetris thing.
MeganHe didn't play it very well. It looks like he's not as concerned about the score as much as forming patterns.
MiguelYep. He liked to make stairs, always ascending to the left. People went nuts trying to figure out if there was some secret code in his Tetris game, but he was probably just being enigmatic.
ThomasClassic Pandemonium obfuscation. Mystique is one of the attributes the Gears look for when selecting players to become Pans.
MiguelAlong with character, skill, vision, and a hatred for griefers and stagnation. Although Pans don't usually become emotionally involved like he did, and they almost never lose their shit like that. Zero was dangerously unstable, perhaps unable to properly differentiate the game narrative from out-of-game reality.
ThomasUnstable is one way to put it.
Thomas brought up a miniature Neo-Kyoto model and replayed the devastation that Blaze unleashed upon Sure Fire's defenses.
ThomasHe burned through his power reserves in a matter of minutes, but he left quite an impression. Blue Dusk, a major project, never recovered. Pooling their resources, SuFi forced Zero to retreat, but the gaps he opened in their defenses led to their loss of the city after several more weeks of fighting. The two weeks I spent in the SuFi sewers during that madness were some of the most intense of my life. But it was worth it, because in the end there was even enough of the city left to make it worth holding onto, and the whole debacle shifted power in the region. Sure Fire's mistake was in engaging Zero. This is a classic example of what happens when regular players try to control Pans or bring them down into their conflicts. Your best shot is to avoid them and hope they go away. If he hadn't been mishandled, Zero might have even joined Sure Fire, or at least stayed out of the conflict.
MikeI seem to remember you saying that they made a mistake not killing Zero immediately.
ThomasWell sure, once they had him in containment. In retrospect, it wouldn't have worked. It was discovered much later that it was a secondary proxy in that cell, built for role play. His primary proxy had already integrated fully into Blaze. But killing him cleanly would have shown more respect and maybe wouldn't have even set him off. As it happened, his intervention not only cost Sure Fire the city, but possibly the rest of the war. If things hadn't gone down like that, Neo-Kyoto would have become a SuFi fortress, and they might have steamrolled the Kirin and doomed Ataraxia.
MeganCome on, doomed?
ThomasThe norm for each new cycle of Ataraxia is determined by the norm from the preceding cycle. Sure Fire's methods wouldn't have left a workable norm at the end of the conflict if they had won. The next game would have started in the equivalent of a burned out crater and players would have had to rebuild the game environment from scratch.
MiguelThat's not true! And at least Sure Fire was a reputable faction. The Kirin were basically operating as yakuza before they started messing with Sure Fire. They regularly used extortion, bribery, and outright piracy.
ThomasSome of us did, yes. Mostly for fun. But we didn't become a major faction before Sure Fire's momentum became dangerous to the very fabric of Ataraxia, and we were forced to step up to block their evil plans.
MiguelSure Fire's goal was to provide a universal basis that would allow the various factions and norms to work together. They were trying to hold Ataraxia together, and it would have gone smoothly except for the Kirin's entrenched sense of entitlement.
ThomasAnother victim of S.F.'s propaganda machine.
Miguel used this comment as an excuse to join Kyu in editing the film.
MikeIronically, Sure Fire did unite all of the various factions against them, and that camaraderie has shaped Ataraxia since then.
ThomasThe Nazis accomplished the same thing.
As per Mike's studio rules enforcing Godwin's Law, Thomas' mouth became a zipper and was instantly zipped shut. His enforced silence would last for 2 minutes.
MikeAnd that's the end of that discussion. Good job, Clarissa.
Thomas glared at Mike for a moment, but had no one but himself to blame. Seeing that most people seemed to be done with their work, Mike brought up Kyu's diagrams, which visualized the various forces and strategic decisions of both sides during the battle.
MikeThe logistics of the Neo-Kyoto situation were nightmarish at the time, but they're pretty fascinating now. Supply line issues don't matter in Ataraxia like they do in physical reality, since units are largely self powered, but forces can still be cut off or flanked. Considering that no one had planned for Neo-Kyoto to become a quagmire like that, the skill shown at every level of play in the conflict is just amazing. Leaders, strategists, spies, infantry, and even people just trying to survive kept finding ways to be surprising. Incidentally, we have time to work on the side project if people are interested.
MeganWhat's the side project?
MikeIt's an exploration of alternate military history. There's a long standing belief that if the Kirin had been more aggressive early on, Neo-Kyoto would have become a significant Kirin stronghold which could have shortened the war. We're running a simulation of it that we'll include with the film, and spicing it up with some alternate history battles.
MeganRunning a simulation of it? Like the whole city?
MikeBasically. Using battle statistics and such. We use contemporary player ghosts where we can for authenticity, but it's the large average forces that we're mostly working with. Kyu has run the simulation dozens of times, and so far it looks like Neo-Kyoto gets trashed no matter what happens, although there have been a few surprising outcomes. One strategy that the Kirin almost used has shown them taking total control of the city just before the wasteland got carved out. So we're having fun with that simulation. We've been putting human players into the scenario to make it look more lively and give our actors experience in producing cinematic fight scenes.
MeganCan I help?
MikeYou could be one of Pawn's units. Can you pilot a Strider class mech?
MeganSure, no problem.
Mike linked Megan to a mech and she inhabited the proxy inside it. While recording was paused, she settled into her seat, calibrated the mech for her usual settings, and practiced with its weapons on nearby buildings.
Proxies in Ataraxia didn't come with their own preset actions, requiring their users to control their every motion, or to automate them with ghosts. Reloading a weapon, aiming, firing, or even taking a step required more than just pushing a button. Each part of each action had to be done by a player or a ghost. This meant that players could do anything they could in the physical world, with just as much, or more, precision. But it required a good deal more experience than less fully articulated games.
Operating a mech in Ataraxia could be done indirectly using its physical control scheme, or it could be made an extension of a player's proxy senses. As an extension of the player's body, it could be controlled like any proxy body. A combination of control methods was common. Megan had mech experience, and so quickly adopted its sensations and limited the sensations from the mech pilot proxy, to engender the experience of being the mech.
The sensations of a mech were similar to those of a body. Megan could smell the exhaust from her engine and hear distant fighting. She could feel the wind, the gravel under her feet, and the pull of gravity as she balanced the mech on its bulky legs. She also had a complete wraparound view of her environment, unencumbered except by a crisp, mostly transparent heads up display feeding her vital information. She could also feel the heat from the mech's engines, which helped her to prevent overheating. If damaged, she would experience small unpleasant sensations in a corresponding part of her body, just enough to get her attention, assess damage, and help her work around disabled parts.
Inside the mech was the male proxy she was inhabiting, but she only shared sensations with his face and vocal cords, for the purpose of communicating with other players. To Megan, the mech wasn't just a machine she was controlling, or even an extension of her body. For all intents and purposes, to her brain at least, the mech was most of her body. This immediacy provided intuitive control, but more was needed for mastery of the complex combat required by games like Ataraxia. For that, your mech needed to have some life of its own.
Megan loaded her personal ghost into the Strider class mech and it came online gradually. It contained the personalized reflexes and automation she had trained into similar mechs over countless hours of practice and combat. Trained ghost reflexes were much like reflexes of a physical body, which are often faster than conscious decision making. Some reflexes of the biological body are relayed from the spinal cord, external to the human brain. In both biological and ghost reflexes, the brain becomes aware of the reflexive action only after it has occurred, but through immediacy and familiarity, the brain is often under the illusion that it consciously performed the reflexes itself.
Megan's ghost managed predictable mech systems and anticipated Megan's desires based on her motions and commands. It first took over managing the mech's balance as it walked. It did this so smoothly, and so closely mimicking her own manner, that Megan still felt as if she was controlling every aspect of the movement, even as she paid less and less direct attention to it. The first few times she reloaded her hi-explosive launcher, she manually reached for new ammo from the dispenser on her back, and loaded it into the launcher. But then the ghost started taking over so that she only had to start reaching for the ammo and the ghost did the rest. This freed her mind to focus on less mundane details. Only rarely did her ghost misread her intent, and then it was easy to override by simply resisting the action or performing a new one.
The reflexes and automation Megan had built into her mech also helped her participate in high speed combat she could never have consciously kept up with, and helped bridge the gap regarding lag issues for when she was participating in a virtual space hosted on a server geographically far enough away from her to matter.
It turned out that the player Megan was inhabiting had heroically sacrificed himself in order to distract a group of Sure Fire units. Megan let the recorded ghost of her proxy's previous resident replicate its movements through the streets of the city, but she stopped it before it sacrificed itself. She looked for a better way to deal with the situation, or at least a more exciting way to die. While exploring, she found some grafitti of Sure Fire's informal symbol, a blue universal no symbol- a circle with a diagonal line through it from top left to bottom right.
Nearby, she rounded a corner and sighted several cloaked SuFi units. Before she could have consciously reacted, her mech's ghost had taken over in response to the unexpected threat and had jumped back behind the building for cover. But it did it so much like she would have that her brain was convinced it had responded itself, even if Megan knew she wasn't quite that fast.
As it was in an aggressive mode, it also autonomously sent a few scattered laser shots at the enemy units to draw their attention. Again, Megan's ghost acted so perfectly in line with her intent that she couldn't necessarily say whether it had been her ghost or an itchy trigger finger. As quickly as it responded, however, the enemy units sprayed plasma bolts through the building and critically damaged her mech, rattling Megan's teeth and giving her an unpleasant tingling along her right side corresponding to the damage.
Mike reset her scene to just before she rounded the corner.
MikeMegan, that's a good scenario you've discovered. Let's try some playthroughs of it and then pick the best outcome.
Megan always wore a smile the entire time she piloted a mech into combat. Fighting and fleeing in an urban jungle with a high speed mech was like a combination of racing cars, gun fighting, parkour, and occasionally sky diving. There was nothing quite like mech combat, even staged as this was, to get her adrenaline pumping.
Megan's mech came around the corner, again and again, feigning surprise each time as it jumped back to cover. Most of the time enemy fire hit her mech, but a few times she managed to jump back and climb the building to get high ground and then shoot back through the building. Occasionally she even took one of the SuFi mech out before being nailed herself. She also discovered, by looking at a local map of events, that she sometimes managed to bring attention to those enemy units, disrupting what turned out to be their covert plans.
She decided to stretch her ghost a bit. She launched her only thermal grenade at the enemy, rocket jumped high in the air while shooting at them, then shot a grappling hook into the top of a building, and reeled her mech in at maximum speed to abruptly change course midair. She landed on the building and shot one of the mech down as it rocket hopped above her in pursuit, before being blasted by another.
MikeThanks Meg, that was very impressive and should suit nicely. Thomas, Pawn, let's retake your section from second 22. Jazz it up a bit.
Megan returned to her proxy in the common area and watched the other section being filmed while chomping down one of T's donuts as her physical had a granola bar. T and Pawn worked well together, orchestrating their teams to expertly annoy Sure Fire.
That is, until T shot Pawn's head off.
PawnHey! That hurt!
ThomasThat's what traitors get!
MikeStop that or I'm locking down your mech privileges!
They played through their scenario several more times until they had achieved a sufficiently exciting outcome and returned to the common area. Pawn looked annoyed.
MeganPawn, I was wondering, do you always use that name for your characters?
PawnNo, I used others before I was Pawn in that particular game. I immigrated from Ataraxia to Sunshine City not long after those events and have been Pawn ever since.
ThomasYou turned traitor!
PawnI lost the taste for fighting. That hardly makes me a traitor.
ThomasWe still needed you in Ataraxia. You know how close Sure Fire came to wrecking everything!
Miguel pointed angrily at T.
MiguelSure Fire was a valid faction with rational goals!
ThomasHere we go. I suppose you're going to tell me that the near destruction of Ataraxia, that would have resulted from Sure Fire winning, was an unforeseeable consequence of their momentum?
MiguelIt was heated on all sides. It wasn't like they set out to destroy Ataraxia.
ThomasThere is evidence that Sure Fire intended to destroy Ataraxia.
MikeSure Fire was way too organized and large scale to be simple griefers like that. Surely they would have changed course if things were going to turn out apocalyptic. Anyway, enough of that. Who's going to Omni?