Tuesday, April 14, 2020

(M:tAS) Digital Web 2.0

It's finally happened - the snake has gotten ahold of its tail. I once commented that it often felt like the revised edition of Vampire: the Masquerade's greatest inspiration was Vampire: the Masquerade, but so far Mage has avoided that same feeling. Not anymore. This book here can only be understood in the context of previous Mage canon. No one coming in fresh with the mandate to make a magical internet for a group of hacker mages would ever deliver something like Digital Web 2.0.

There are werewolves in the internet! They just sort of wandered in from the spirit world. It's not entirely clear what they're doing in there, but if you run into one, the word "RAWRR!" will appear on your screen and your computer will crash.

Actually, that's not quite fair of me on two accounts. First, the internet werewolves were in the original Digital Web, and while they were just as weird, I didn't feel quite so compelled to make a thing out of it. And secondly, Digital Web 2.0 is not quite so explicit about virtual reality werewolf encounters. It says they're there, and that they are aggressive and dangerous, but unless you yourself have somehow uploaded your body (so as to be in  good position for them to dismember you), there's not much indication that they have any effect at all on an end user.

But it is a good indication of the book's circularity. It assumed that people were going to want to know about the internet werewolves and would have noticed (and presumably complained) if they hadn't been included. The greater World of Darkness cosmology, and the mage-specific nuances thereof, are becoming set in stone.

Or, at least, that's my working theory for why this book is attempting to smuggle in rules and setting changes under the cover of "The Great Whiteout," an in-setting metaplot cataclysm that reset the internet, killed several of the old guard of net explorers (both Traditions and Technocracy) and conveniently explained any minor inconsistencies in the established setting locations.

I think the idea behind the Whiteout is that in the five years since the first Digital Web book, the nature of the internet had changed, and thus people coming in fresh with contemporary internet experience would find the old Digital Web to be unfamiliar, alienating, and worst of all kind of cheesy. The back of the book quite boldly exclaims "Cyberpunk is Dead," with the recommended reading, quite diffidently suggests William Gibson with the abashed declaration that his work is "dated" and "the corpse of cyberpunk has been cooling for years."

Poor White Wolf, so trapped by your own tragically hip gen-X sensibility (dangerous neural feedback is called "egg frying" after the famous Regan-era commercial!) that you couldn't just unironically like things. The result is a magical internet unmoored from any pop-culture paradigm more recent than 1940s noir (people in the Digital Web love dressing up like old-timey spies and detectives and hanging around in smokey nightclubs listening to jazz and ngl, it's cool as shit, but maybe not entirely in keeping with the strongest draws of the fictional milieu).

But aside from that, how was the book?

I went back and forth on this. Much like the earlier Digital Web, I was struck with the question, "but what is this all for?" However, unlike the old book, I think the answer I got - "hanging out, bullshitting with friends, and looking at porn," might actually be close to workable. It is the transformation of the Digital Web that is to thank for this, though I'm not sure the Great Whiteout was necessary. It was probably sufficient to use the same explanation as the transformation of the real-world internet - a lot more people started using it, and they had different needs than those ARPAnet geeks.

Because the biggest structural difference between Digital Web versions is that Sleepers can get involved in the deep layers now, even if it is just by accident. There's even a noir-style sexy lounge singer lady called Candy who is in reality controlled by four dudes who have completely failed to address the weird homoerotic implications of constantly banging Virtual Adepts, Technocrats, and miscellaneous spy-themed net wanderers. Candy has been exposed to so much careless digital pillow-talk that the bros who created her are now players in the Ascension war, whether they like it or not. That's not something that could have happened in the old edition, and as potentially problematic as the plotline is, it's still a welcome step in the right direction.

Regardless of the metaplot excuse necessary to get them there, the addition of sleepers to the Virtual Adepts' playground has had the salutary effect of making it feel like there are actual stakes to the conflict over the Digital Web. Unlike the first book, this one feels like it could be used for a historical game. The Traditions (well, mostly the Virtual Adepts and Sons of Ether) and the Technocracy are battling for the soul of internet, and the winner will determine how the rest of us are going to live, work, and socialize for the next couple of decades.

Funnily enough, I think Digital Web 2.0 might even work better as a historical supplement than it did in its original context. The storytelling chapter goes out of its way to point out that not everyone was familiar with the ins-and-outs of being online. It even warned you to watch out players that were net-savvier than you, who might point out inconsistencies in how you presented the internet (solution: point out the Digital Web was not the internet, so it didn't have to be consistent). I remember those days, so I know exactly what they were talking about (I got extra credit in my comp-sci class the same year this was written for installing Netscape Navigator on the lab computers using zipped files on 3.5" floppy discs), but, honestly, 20+ years later it feels weird, even to someone who was there.

But even setting aside that aspect, the setting here is definitely improved with a healthy dose of dramatic irony. At one point, the narrator wraps up a plot hook about the internet gaining consciousness with the aside, "God, how much would it suck if the Web woke up and it was a Technocrat?"

And I was, like, "uuuummmmm. . ."

Making it a historical setting also offers us the chance to tweak the book's politics a little. It's not that I'd say they were terrible, but more . . . "well-meaning, but unwoke 90s liberal dude." The anonymity of the internet will insure that "your gender (or lack thereof) has a remarkably small impact, unless you want it to," but it's still all right to call the Verbena "witchy-poos" because that's just a joke.

It's going to be a huge temptation to make the oblivious hypocrisy of the Virtual Adepts into your primary campaign theme. There are frequent digressions where the narrator goes out of his way to point out that Anarchy doesn't mean that you can just do whatever you want, and that leads into a generational conflict where the old guard, having made significant progress towards its goal of getting humanity online, now wants to throttle back the rate of change so that it's easier to stay in control. The words, "[we were] forced into the role of shepherds by the stupidity of the flock" are uttered without any apparent self awareness. My personal theory here is Doylist - White Wolf has a website now and as a result, the author has a clearer idea about what a shitshow forum moderation can be.

Watsonian-wise, what's going on here is ideology without solidarity. They can say all they want that "we want the kids to *inherit* that house someday," but the very fact that they are viewing themselves as the parents in this scenario puts a lie to that ambition. You're never going to make progress towards anarchism if you start dividing the world into "Us vs Them."

Which isn't to say that the Virtual Adepts are acting unrealistically. I tried to brainstorm a properly anarchist response to the problems introduced by the influx of Sleepers to the Digital Web and all I could think of was - mentorship of mutual defense societies, modelling best practices, and letting people know that their forum flame wars were causing literal flames to appear in the magical realm that serves as the backstage of the internet. I.e. not a lot of stuff that seems particularly plausible while the Technocracy is actively trying to kill you. Though, at the very least, I think they could do a better job policing their ranks for those who refer to the unawakend as "bleaters."

This is another aspect of the book that I think benefits from a bit of historical perspective. These guys, with their elitist dick-waving, obnoxious nicknames for groups that lack social capital, and self-serving colorblindness carry within them the seeds of the alt-right. Can that future be averted? How? Your 1998  "webspinner" campaign will explore those questions.

Now, with all that out of the way, I will admit that the narrators' slightly off-kilter way of expressing themselves was (with the already noted exceptions) pretty delightful. One of them expressed sympathy with the Order of Hermes by describing both Order and Adept praxis as "bullshitting God with arcane equations and using 'em to open up the gates of heaven."

I also really liked that they called their technomagical hardware "iron." That's a neater bit of slang construction than we usually see in sci-fi works. When one of the narrators warned us that we'd need "some trinary iron spicy enough to handle the strain," I actually felt that. It's almost like something a human would say.

The biggest flaw of the book is that it seems to forget all about the gothic punk aesthetic (part of its general abandoning of any genre more coherent than "Mage: the Ascension supplement). It's the serious version of the werewolf joke I made earlier. When the book talks about "Corrupted Web," that has been turned into a spiritual trap that leads one towards madness, I'm really fucking curious as to what that looks like to the end-user. But it's only really relevant to mages who are somehow projecting themselves into the Digital Web, which strikes me as a shame. For a moment, I had a glimmer that what mages did in this virtual reality somehow translated into online urban legends among the sleepers. That would have been pretty cool.

Finally, there's one minor thing that I just can't let pass without comment. One of the sub-realms of the Digital Web is called "The Playground" that's kind of like a heightened reflection of real-world games, and the book depicts this place as a hollow, falling-apart mess, saying "surely you've noticed the amazing lack of originality in games lately."

And that just sent me sprinting towards the exact same Google search I made during the first book. It turns out 1998 was an even better year for video games than 1993. Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Spyro the Dragon, and Starcraft all came out the year this game was published. The year before saw the original Fallout and Final Fantasy VII. Two books, five years apart, totally different authors, but the same bad video game take. . . Is the Digital Web cursed?

Ukss Contribution: This book is fortunately light on the "if you die in the Web you die in real life" cliche, provided you don't bodily enter through the spirit world, but it can happen, especially when magic is involved. When it does, there are a number of possible consequences. You could create a Haunt Sector, where the lingering energies of your death threaten to draw explorers into the underworld. Or, if you were in the process of formatting a new sector, your soul might be drawn into the creative energies of the magic and you'll create a Stacked File, which is legendary location on the Web that has miraculous (or at least notably wonderful) properties.

It's absolutely criminal that these special sectors didn't get interpreted as sleeper urban legends, but I can at least do my part by ensuring similar effects when people die in Ukss' Astral Web.

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