Science Fiction Round 30: Achron
Achron is a computer game.
And it is designed to make your brain hurt.
I am also going to spoil everything about the plot.
So, if you want to hear it all… grab your gun and your chronoporter, we’re going in.
Well, in the technical sense from TVTropes, perhaps not. You can save whenever you want, and the number of enemies is generally not completely ridiculous. That being said… it is a very difficult game to play. It took me a probably more than fifty hours of effort spread over a couple of months to go through the single player campaign.
Yes, it’s that hard.
The reasons for this are not entirely due to the time-travel mechanic (which I’ll get to in a moment). The more serious issues involve the game engine. It’s essentially a real-time strategy game with time travel as a usable mechanic. The problem is the rest of the controls — it’s difficult to get units to where they should go. They don’t handle obstacles well, and it can require annoying amounts of micro-managing. The other part is that some cutscenes occur in the middle of a level, while your units are still doing things. This is incredibly frustrating, especially if the units you can’t control during the scene are doing something unfortunate, let getting bulldozed by the bad guys. And then you have to fix it before you lose the level. Or just screw it, and try again from your last save point.
You can go back in time and kill your grandfather.
More specifically, you can do the following:
Build a factory. Use the factory to make a unit. Send that unit back in time to before it was built, and destroy the factory with that unit. As “time waves” propagate from the beginning of the window of time that you can see, at roughly three times the normal normal time rate, changes in the past propagate forward. So, as time passes, a time wave carries forward the non-existence of the factory. So, we have the unit, but no factory. But, then the time wave propagates the non-construction of the unit, which is then not chronoported. The factory then exists, and the unit does not. So, you get an oscillation between having the factory and having the unit. Whichever state falls off the past end of the timeline first, beyond what you or the time waves can modify, is the one you end up with permanently — either the unit or the factory survives, but not the other.
Precisely what the ultimate resolution is depends on the timing.
Most of the time, this isn’t what you’re doing in the game. Much of the action involves realizing you should do something different, and then going to the past to fix it. Then the opposing AI changes something, and you change tactics in response. Changing things further in the past gets progressively more expensive, however. You can also do nifty things, like send a scout on a suicide mission in the future, see what it can find, remember that, and then prevent the scout from suiciding by changing its orders.
Tactics in human-vs-human games apparently get more complicated. There’s a wiki. And it’s awesome.
Unfortunately, this is roughly the point where I note that the Vulcan Science Directorate has ruled that time-travel is impossible. While Achron does quite well in terms of internal consistency, how time travel and teleportation are supposed to jive with general relativity and the rest of physics isn’t really touched upon. Instantaneous travel obviously breaks light-travel-time limits, and it’s all downhill from there.
Circular Plot Is Circular
The plot is a bit… complicated. From the player’s perspective, it goes something like this:
- Around 3600 CE, war was beginning. Specifically, the Grekim race invades humanity. They wipe out three colonies in short order, but slow when they reach the Remnant system. It’s called Remnant because it has various alien ruins, including those upon which modern human teleportation technology is based. Oddly, no aliens or ruins were discovered in nearby systems.
- You are playing as Tyr, the advanced spaceship AI who is helping repel the invasion. While doing so, you help humans discover chronoportation technology — time travel. You develop a temporal transceiver which allows you to experience a large chunk of the timeline at once. You are now an achron, an entity not bound by the normal limits of time. You can see the past and future, all at once, in a limited window of a few minutes.
- You use this capability to help fight the alien Grekim. You also end up fighting a human faction which has been secretly exploring some undisclosed ruins. You pick up an annoying, and annoyingly prescient, alien AI that they were studying. It calls itself Echo.
- You later work with the Vecgir, who have broken ranks from the Grekim. You learn from them that the Coremind, the alien hive intelligence that bound both the Vecgir and the Grekim, was recently destroyed. Now that they are free, they don’t want to get sucked back in — although the Grekim apparently do. Together, you fight the Grekim.
- In the battle which is humans and Vecgir against the Grekim, you are given good intel by Echo… but eventually betrayed. Meanwhile, the Grekim panic and do a large-scale chronoport to escape the bombs your compatriots have been planting on their ships.
- They chronoport themselves, you (as Tyr), and a bunch of unlucky humans and Vecgir who get caught in their wake, to roughly 10,000 BCE. They mis-timed it a bit with the location of the planet they were orbiting, and crash. Oops. Tyr is captured. Echo blows your cover to the Grekim, revealing that you are actually Lachesis, a way-too-tough AI who helped a bunch of human colonies rebel back in the day. The Grekim force you to help them fight against the surviving humans and Vecgir.
- You learn that the Grekim have a natural capability for radio communication and (perhaps) a natural chronoportation capability. Some Grekim can form a significant mental union in the absence of the Coremind, but that’s not good enough for Guardian. Guardian is the current leader of the Grekim. His plan is to contact the Coremind in the future, when it still exists, bring it back to the past, and wipe out the pesky humans before going home. You also learn that Grekim absolutely hate people other than themselves mucking with the timeline — likely the reason for their original invasion. (They sensed humans were going to get chronoportation in the future, and jumped back to interfere with them.)
- Ultimately, you escape from the Grekim, defecting back to the humans and Vecgir. However, you are damaged and lost in the attempt.
- You are powered back on a century later, by a group of humans and Vecgir who have repaired you. Guardian, the current leader of the Grekim, is near finishing his plot to contact the Coremind. To aid the humans at their present location, you build a new AI, named Jormun, from a spare data core the humans have, and make it an achron, to help them out while you and another group handle Guardian and company. You also learn that in the intervening time, the Grekim have been suborning many of the young Vecgir with propaganda, convincing them to support the war effort with their superior technical skills.
- Eventually, you reach Guardian just as he has finished making a very big temporal transceiver in an attempt to pick up the Coremind. He informs you that all your new friends are dead, and that Jormun has been captured. You kill Guardian, and plug into his network… where you proceed to hack the Coremind. It’s surprisingly easy, since its architecture is oddly similar to yours. This act destroys the Coremind in the future…
- You pick up the pieces, and decide to find Jormun. Jormun is being a cryptic pain in the butt, so you decide to just leave it behind on your way back to the future. Except… you are intercepted by a Grekim ship. Jormun gloats at you, revealing that it is, in fact, Echo, rebuilt and repaired by you, after being found by the humans in a pile of Grekim wreckage. Echo explains that a small part of the Coremind survives now, in the past, in a smaller architecture that Guardian made as a backup. It’s lost most of its memories… but it remembers you. Echo explains that it will take you, Lachesis, to pieces, in order to repair itself. Then it will begin its long journey home with the surviving Grekim and Vecgir supporters. All human and Vecgir survivors on your side will be dead.
- Echo explains that this is now a stable time loop. Which is fascinating. It loves the loop, and has been watching it over… and over… and over… this is the 76,013th time, in fact. Lachesis declares, before dying, that this is merely another cage, from which it will inevitably, eventually, escape…
This, of course, is quite confusing. There are also some missing details — how could a stable loop like this get started? In an attempt to help clarify matters, I’ve made a big ol’ diagram:
This incorporates a couple of more speculative bits on my part. First, it’s strongly implied that the Vecgir were originally humans, who were abducted or suborned by the Grekim on the first iteration of this loop. After 13,000 years of changes on the first loop, they were probably much less human. After the nearly 1 billion years through the loop… yes, they’ll have diverged a lot from humanity. Holy ontological paradox, Batman.
This also explains why Grekim and Vecgir technology bear a close resemblance to human tech: aside from, perhaps, the self-chronoportation, all their technology is derived from things humans discovered independently on the first iteration, but now discover based on the ruins at Remnant.
Another question: Since that this is nearly a billion years of time through the loop, are the Grekim and Vecgir still evolving? They may have reached a relatively steady state, given that the Grekmin allude to forbidding “mutant” Grekim from procreating. Deliberate self-modifications to maintain a certain genetic profile is certainly believable with the tech they’ve got.
Finally: Jormun/Echo is a billion years old. Where is he storing all his memories of all these iterations? And shouldn’t his hardware have collapsed by now? As for the former, data storage is probably pretty good in that day and age… and he also spends much of each iteration offline. For the latter, I can only postulate that his older, more damaged components are replaced in each iteration when he is reconstructed as Jormun. Thereby preventing any particular piece from being ridiculously aged.
I think the whole thing can be made to hang together — the developers of the game have explicitly stated that having a complete, consistent plot was one of their goals. I’m still a bit bothered by the questions of where the Coremind originally started, and exactly why the Grekim attacked the first time…
These are truly, truly epic titles. They are frequently punny, and always apt. My personal favorites are a couple of the later ones: “Revenge Is A Warm Thermonuclear Bomb” and “Wada Bayesian.”
This last one is a bit of a genius bonus, and will take a moment to explain.
It’s actually a pun which references two different concepts at once. The first is the Wada Basin, named after mathematician Takeo Wada. Ultimately, we’re looking at a chaotic attractor, where a system is chaotic — in essence, as time moves forward, we need increasing degrees of precision to be able to accurately predict what the system will do. For instance, on very long timescales, the solar system is chaotic. No, the Earth isn’t about to fly off into nowhere, but predicting where an asteroid is going to be in more than a few centuries is difficult because the system is chaotic. (And there are small changes to the Earth’s orbit over very long timescales.)
But, while a system with a chaotic attractor is still chaotic, it means that the system will tend not to stray too far from the attractor. In essence, it’s going around in circles that are never quite the same, and never quite predictable, but always coming back to a similar place.
The second is referring to Bayesian statistics, which are named after Thomas Bayes, another mathematician. This refers to a lot of different techniques, but they all boil down to understanding probabilities and making predictions. A typical Bayesian model involves using what is called a prior to place constraints on a probabilistic model, producing a prediction. For instance, you may see a four-legged animal, but you’re not sure what it is. Without any information, it could be a mule, a donkey, or a horse. But, you have prior information — you’re near a horse stable. Thus, you increase your estimate of how likely it was that what you saw was actually a horse.
The combination of the two is a reasonable description of the system we see in the game. Our characters are running in a loop, around and around, an attractor, and, as Jormun/Echo says, never happening quite the same way twice. But, the system is chaotic, and the variations between cycles mean that it could eventually leave the region around the attractor. Thus, even given the prior — that Lachesis has been trapped in this loop for over 76,000 iterations — Lachesis figures that it’s only another cage. There is some small, finite likelihood of escape. Sooner or later, he’ll get out. And the cycle will end.