‘Neurocracy’ Is a Murder Mystery That Plays Like a Wikipedia Binge

The so-called alternate reality game is a compelling exercise in collaborative, online sleuthing.

Jul 30 2021, 4:02pm

September 30th 2049. At 16:51 Chinese Standard Time, two corporate heads are assassinated in a helicopter crash: Xu Shaoyong, leader of technology conglomerate Zhupao, and Yuri Olegovich Golitsyn, head of Russia’s largest oil and natural gas company. It’s your job to figure out what the hell happened by scouring a fake successor to Wikipedia for clues. 

These murders are the central mysteries of Neurocracy, billed as both a “single-player alternate reality game” and an “epistolary hypertext novel.” It takes place entirely on Omnipedia, a fictional online encyclopedia, which you access via your own web browser. You’ll read through meticulously crafted entries structured like those of its real-world counterpart. The page of businessman Shaoyong, for example, includes sections on his “early life and education” as well as “personal life,” and both may contain clues as to the reasons behind his demise. But there are also entries on extreme weather events and even a deadly zoonotic disease which millions suffer from, all stitched together seamlessly via hyperlinks. The game’s website asks if you’ve ever lost yourself in a “Wikipedia rabbit hole,” and, well, Neurocracy nails this feeling perfectly. 

It’s an intriguing way of presenting interactive fiction that a few others have also experimented with. There’s Excalibur, a fictional Wiki for a real-life UK television show from the 1970s, and SCP Foundation, a collaborative online writing project that chronicles the “special containment procedures” for supernatural phenomena (one of the big influences behind Remedy’s Control). The power behind these projects stems from the way they lean into the idiosyncrasies of their formal inspirations. SCP Foundation relays its horror through detailed protocols and bureaucratic rules; Neuroracy mimics the detached voice of Wikipedia to describe its scary near-future sci-fi. This serves to make these works feel eerily authentic, as if these stories occupy precisely the same space as our own reality.

It’s worth mentioning that if you go into the game expecting to make progress in typical game-like fashion you’ll come away disappointed, and likely a little confused. There’s no interface to speak of, beyond the unbroken fiction of Omnipedia itself, and the game doesn’t log your progress in cracking open the assassination plot. What Neurocracy does have is an active Discord server where would-be sleuthers are sharing and developing their takes together. Honestly, this is where the fun’s really really at. I’ve spent as long trawling Discord as I have reading Neurocracy itself, incorporating the theories of others into my own bulging Google Doc of ideas and clues. 

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Co-creator Joannes Truyens plans to adapt the episodic game according to these theories. Not to the extent that the central narrative changes—Truyens already knows the ending—but perhaps what aspects of the story get emphasized. In an excellent feature for The Verge, Alexis Ong describes him as more of an “experimental dungeon master than a conventional author.” This doesn’t just sound cool; it’s a useful way of understanding Neurocracy’s dynamic narrative, and the fuzzy space it occupies between game and novel. 

Really, Neurocracy is able to withstand such audience theorizing because of how well-realized its fiction is. My favorite bit of worldbuilding centers on a US reality TV show called Are You For Real? Like a prime time Turing test, its contestants must try to outsmart the show's AI host, a premise that’s no doubt already been considered by TV executives across the world. So too is this future one of brain-computer interfaces (which can trigger short-term memory loss in their users), intrusive biosurveillance systems, and activist hacker groups. Honestly, I’d like to hear a  little more of the social dynamics at play, but we’re only two episodes into a planned ten, each of which appears at weekly intervals. There’s plenty of time for the world to be fleshed out further.

The ultimate success of Neurocracy will depend, in large, on the extent that it can sustain the impressive audience engagement of its first few episodes. This participation is what gives the game its energy. If it can, then we’re in for a collaborative, paranoid treat—future fiction that feels like a perfect projection of our own bizarre present. 

Episode 1 of Neurocracy is free to access. You can purchase a season pass here

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Neurocracy

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