Decades after its release, Robot City still poses valid questions about technology and ethics

Skills: Writing

Written for VUE Weekly
July 6, 2016

Humanity’s relationship with the technology it creates has always walked a tenuous path. People ostensibly create machinery in service of the species, but as the automation becomes increasingly sophisticated, the line between servant and companion begins to blur.

Robots—the word itself coined by Czech artist Josef Čapek and derived from his mother tongue’s terminology for medieval serf labour—have been forever iconic of this tension. They’re a favorite tool in the philosophical sandbox of science-fiction authors since long before we gave birth to anything resembling artificial intelligence. Robots, in essence, act as a mirror of ourselves, servants who are similar but different from our human souls.

Science fiction godfather Isaac Asimov is perhaps the most decorated author to explore human-robot interactions. On the eve of the Atomic Era, he first penned his Three Laws of Robotics, a trio of strictures that would codify the way humans envisioned their relationship with these mechanical companions, and their inherent servitude to us. The first and most important law states that “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The second and third laws, ancillary to this Golden Rule, dictate that a robot must obey human orders, and must protect its own existence, provided doing so would not conflict with the First Law.

The Three Laws were popularized in Asimov’s 1950 anthology, I, Robot, but eventually gave rise to an entire subgenre of literature exploring their legal and logical theories. In 1995, during the height of Generation X’s postmodern technophilia, Byron Preiss Multimedia released Robot City, a point-and-click adventure mystery inspired by the literary series of the same name. While Byron Preiss—a tiny venture named after its own struggling sci-fi author—seems to have exited the games industry a mere two years after Robot City‘s release, its modest library lives on through various abandonware sites and YouTube Let’s Play videos. Through this 21st-century subculture, a title like Robot City has gained an even wider audience today than its release on CD-ROM 20 years ago, in a future vastly different from the sterile technocracy predicted by genre authors.

Robot City follows the saga of Derec, a man who crash-lands in a survival pod and wakes up in the eponymous metropolis. Upon arrival, he discovers he has amnesia, and isn’t even certain of his real name—Derec is just the brand name on his jumpsuit, which the robots use to identify him. Moreover, Derec learns that a murder has just taken place in the city. Unfortunately, the victim was the city’s only known human occupant. Because the First Law would make it impossible for a robot to commit the crime, Derec becomes one of the only suspects, alongside a woman named Katherine, who mysteriously arrived at the same time.

Setting out into Robot City, the player must collect evidence and interview its inhabitants to solve the murder mystery and clear Derec’s name. Accomplishing this task requires wandering the constantly morphing streets, conversing with robots to gather clues and gain access to restricted areas, avoiding the Hunter robots programmed to return Derec to the “safety” of house arrest. Successfully navigating conversations requires the player to exploit loopholes in the Three Laws and force Robot City’s citizens to consider the paradoxes surrounding the murder. If a robot, by its programmed nature, could not have committed the crime, it must be a human. But if neither Derec nor Katherine are presumably responsible, then how did the victim die?

From its first scene with Derec’s crash-landing, Robot City assumes a degree of familiarity with the base material—a series of novels written in the ’80s. That’s actually less of an ask than it seems, considering it was only six years removed at the time of its release. In 1995 however, there was a marked a transitional era in science fiction, and a shift in pop culture as a whole. While grunge music slowly expired on the altar of the R&B stylings of “Waterfalls” and “Kiss From A Rose,” sci-fi’s Asimovian flavour of pre-internet, Atomic Age anxiety had given way to a more cynical, dystopian brand of Gen-X cyberpunk flair—best exhibited by that year’s camp-fest film, Johnny Mnemonic.

Robot City exists at these crossroads, with the strands of the former’s DNA woven into its narrative, while looking like a then-groundbreaking, now-dated relic of its particular era. It’s a story that tries to analyze the ramifications of a future reliant on robotic logic, painting its setting in a distinctly retro light. It’s easy to scoff at the effort now, but there’s value in considering what society 20 years ago thought the world would look like 200 years in the future, and wondering how we’ve already gone so far off course.

In that regard, Robot City also assumes a familiarity with its genre, and is undeniably inspired by Myst. The 1993 hit spawned countless imitators, andRobot City walks the fine line between homage and copycat. The low-poly chrome cityscapes look like they’ve been plucked straight out of YTV’s Short Circuitz CGI shorts, and the synthesized score drips with moody ’90s ambience. At times, Robot City falls victim to its own source material, with puzzles that feel like they’re more concerned with referencing the books than on following the tenets of good game design.

But even these flaws can be seen as a product of their era. The video game industry of 1995 was an entirely different beast than today’s mainstream behemoth. Like today, studios could spring up and disappear overnight, but these ventures took place in a time before the ubiquity of instant online feedback, criticism and support. There’s a certain quaintness in these well-intentioned old puzzle games that came up in a period before the “laws” of game design had been fully ordained, like the fictional laws on which their story is based.

In the most appropriate sign of Robot City‘s time, the game’s credit roll closes with a congratulatory message from the developers, promising an extra reward to players who contact their office—via physical mail or an email address, both long defunct. But even now, as a forgotten relic that’s nearly impossible to acquire, Robot City is reflective of the books and author who inspired it: a philosophical exploration of a retrofuturist landscape, posing questions of technology and ethics that may no longer be relevant, but which nonetheless challenge us to question our relationship with the artificial beings we yearn to create.