Altered Carbon. Altered Carbon. Richard Morgan’s wonderfully miserable science-fiction universe is a cloning ground for a supremely super-awesome video game – a game so supremely super-awesome that it’ll absolutely blow your stack.
First, the setup: Altered Carbon tells of a world where the human mind is stored on a ‘stack’, a device stored at the top of the spine. The body dies, the mind lives.
The result: nobody – rich or poor – ever truly kicks it.
Unless, of course, they happen to suffer a bolt gun to the spine.
So, if your stack is whacked, you can’t come back – a premise within which lies video game brilliance.
And who’s our handsome protagonist with a tragic past and a gruff blower?
Keanu. Keanu Sleeve.
It doesn’t make sense now, but it will.
Altered Carbon is replete with ideas that would make even the most hardened futurist weep, a world in which a person’s consciousness can be transmitted like an 8-bit poop emoji or a particularly dank meme.
And while no newborn goes without said stack, the rich have a particular advantage: they can periodically backup their consciousness to a remote storage facility. To the ultra wealthy – or ‘meths’ – death is largely a minor inconvenience.
Meths, then, die only to wake anew. This is a world in which bodies can be changed with such easy and frequency, they’re often referred to as ‘sleeves’. And with that comes the implied commercialization and commoditization.
Sleeve you later
Keanu Sleeve, your current body, is a burly fella. Ex-soldier turned cage fighter, Keanu could crush an ox’s bollocks with the pimple on his pinky. Unfortunately, though, he can’t shoot shit for shit. He’s is in a rooftop gun battle with the city’s greatest sniper and, with nary an ox’s bollock in sight to be crushed, he’s useless.
But Keanu survives to transmit your consciousness to your body of choice, budget permitted. Do you bag a sleeve with a better aim? Perhaps a more agile sleeve, more able to avoid oncoming fire, or a sleeve with built-in optical camo.
This core decision making process is the crux of Altered Carbon in its video game sleeve.
And like you, a number of big bads are equipped with a remote-storage stack. Failure to bolt their stack – or in video game parlance, execute a finisher – results in their returning in a more capable body. Altered Carbon would be, to quote video-game marketing 101, a living, breathing world, with scores to settle and debts to pay.
Altered Carbon’s Earth is a world without limits. Nobody dies. Nothing really matters, not like it used to. This is a world where incarceration means your body is sold the highest bidder, as your mind is stored in the equivalent of a virtual time-out box.
A crime resulting in five years in the naughty corner might result in your waking up to a barista serving you coffee in your previous sleeve – not that they could necessarily afford it.
Morgan has crafted a universe with limitless stories to tell: a destitute man looking for a way to raise funds to buy his incarcerated wife’s body, a body lost committing a crime to keep the lights on.
Do you help him? Or do you buy the body yourself and re-sell it to him?
Sleeve-based game play, too, teases myriad opportunities. If you’re spotted trying to take out a target in one body, then jumping into a new sleeve would bypass that problem.
Sleeve you on the other side
Our protagonist, Keanu, is an ex-member of the Envoy corps – a legion of soldiers who are transmitted to Earth’s colonies to keep the peace and quell decent. Should a friend in a neighbouring instance of your given city require help, your consciousness could be transmitted to that city in a sleeve of their choosing.
Or, more precisely, a sleeve they can just about afford.
In effect, your ability to help your friend isn’t determined by your unlocked abilities, but by their ability to afford a half-decent sleeve. They might be able to afford the best, too – the sleeve equivalent of a Jaguar. But depending on the task at hand, they may wish to ration their cash more wisely, renting you a body that can just about get the job done.
Sleeves offer a level of subterfuge that Ubisoft’s stabby-stabby hoodlums could only dream of. Indeed, targets who would otherwise detect your presence wouldn’t necessarily expect to be taken out by the body of a 45-year old high school English teacher.
There’s more, too. In Richard Morgan’s science-fiction universe, people can ‘dip’ -whereby they extract memories from the minds of those jumping between bodies mid transmission. What if Keanu were to snip the password for a vault containing untold treasures and tech?
Or dip skills and abilities at the risk of getting caught and losing that newly bought bod.
Sleeveous bodily harm
In world filled with guns, a third-person, cover-based shooter seems most obvious. But it could be argued that in a world where the death of your enemy is only accomplished with the truest aim – or, you know, a bullet to the stack – shooting perhaps isn’t the best method of dispatching your foes.
Melee combat would ultimately focus on extracting or destroying a person’s stack, an act that would take skill and precision as not to destroy said stack. In the case of gang members or corporate goons, this might mean disabling the sleeve so it can’t destroy the stack, should it contain hyper-sensitive information.
So, you’ve pimped your sleeve. Keanu Sleeve has become the chosen one – he’s doing his Superman thing. You’ve licked hundreds of thugs, saved dozens of lives and taken down the gangiest of gangs – all while reaping some sweet, sweet dough.
But then, your body is jacked. Gone. Taken and sold on the black market, where players can sell and buy sleeves to the highest bidder. In theory, your game could be invaded by a former sleeve purchased after a job gone wrong.
In fact, such a premise could be starting the point for Altered Carbon – a highly-augmented meth is jacked and is forced into a lesser sleeve. His sleeve has access to his life, and he has to find a way to get it back.
Morgan’s world is almost Dark Souls-esque in its design; a world in which the ‘respawn’ is mundane as the butter on your toast or the milk in your coffee.’Real death’, then, is brutally replicated by the deletion of your save, should you enter a zone where transmissions are blocked.
Sleevesy does it
It’s difficult to predict what Richard Morgan might make of the ‘gameitisation’ of his universe. Regardless, it speaks only to the sheer genius of his dark, malignant universe – a place that simultaneously condenses and amplifies the worst of human nature via the smallest of devices.
And the above barely scratches the interactive potential of Morgan’s concept.
And with Morgan’s creation bound for Netflix next year, it’s clear that the world isn’t done with the world of Altered Carbon. In fact, for the populous at large, it’s barely even begun.