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How to build The Matrix – TechCrunch

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Released this month 20 years ago, “The Matrix” went on to become a cultural phenomenon. This wasn’t just because of its ground-breaking special effects, but because it popularized an idea that has come to be known as the simulation hypothesis. This is the idea that the world we see around us may not be the “real world” at all, but a high-resolution simulation, much like a video game.

While the central question raised by “The Matrix” sounds like science fiction, it is now debated seriously by scientists, technologists and philosophers around the world. Elon Musk is among those; he thinks the odds that we are in a simulation are a billion to one (in favor of being inside a video-game world)!

As a founder and investor in many video game startups, I started to think about this question seriously after seeing how far virtual reality has come in creating immersive experiences. In this article we look at the development of video game technology past and future to ask the question: Could a simulation like that in “The Matrix” actually be built? And if so, what would it take?

What we’re really asking is how far away we are from The Simulation Point, the theoretical point at which a technological civilization would be capable of building a simulation that was indistinguishable from “physical reality.”

[Editor’s note: This article summarizes one section of the upcoming book, “The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are in a Video Game.“] 

From science fiction to science?

But first, let’s back up.

“The Matrix,” you’ll recall, starred Keanu Reeves as Neo, a hacker who encounters enigmatic references to something called the Matrix online. This leads him to the mysterious Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne, and aptly named after the Greek god of dreams) and his team. When Neo asks Morpheus about the Matrix, Morpheus responds with what has become one of the most famous movie lines of all time: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You’ll have to see it for yourself.”

Even if you haven’t seen “The Matrix,” you’ve probably heard what happens next — in perhaps its most iconic scene, Morpheus gives Neo a choice: Take the “red pill” to wake up and see what the Matrix really is, or take the “blue pill” and keep living his life. Neo takes the red pill and “wakes up” in the real world to find that what he thought was real was actually an intricately constructed computer simulation — basically an ultra-realistic video game! Neo and other humans are actually living in pods, jacked into the system via a cord into his cerebral cortex.

Who created the Matrix and why are humans plugged into it at birth? In the two sequels, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” we find out that Earth has been taken over by a race of super-intelligent machines that need the electricity from human brains. The humans are kept occupied, docile and none the wiser thanks to their all-encompassing link to the Matrix!  

But the Matrix wasn’t all philosophy and no action; there were plenty of eye-popping special effects during the fight scenes. Some of these now have their own name in the entertainment and video game industry, such as the famous “bullet time.” When a bullet is shot at Neo, the visuals slow down time and manipulate space; the camera moves in a circular motion while the bullet is frozen in the air. In the context of a 3D computer world, this make perfect sense, though now the camera technique is used in both live action and video games.  AI plays a big role too: in the sequels, we find out much more about the agents pursuing Neo, Morpheus and the team. Agent Smith (played brilliantly by Hugo Weaving), the main adversary in the first movie, is really a computer agent — an artificial intelligence meant to keep order in the simulation. Like any good AI villain, Agent Smith (who was voted the 84th most popular movie character of all time!) is able to reproduce itself and overlay himself onto any part of the simulation.

“The Matrix” storyboard from the original movie. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood)

The Wachowskis, creators of “The Matrix,” claim to have been inspired by, among others, science fiction master Philip K. Dick. Most of us are familiar with Dick’s work from the many film and TV adaptations, ranging from Blade Runner, Total Recall and the more recent Amazon show, The Man in the High Castle.  Dick often explored questions of what was “real” versus “fake” in his vast body of work. These are some of the same themes we will have to grapple with to build a real Matrix: AI that is indistinguishable from humans, implanting false memories and broadcasting directly into the mind.

As part of writing my upcoming book, I interviewed Dick’s wife, Tessa B. Dick, and she told me that Philip K. Dick actually believed we were living in a simulation. He believed that someone was changing the parameters of the simulation, and most of us were unaware that this was going on. This was of course, the theme of his short story, “The Adjustment Team” (which served as the basis for the blockbuster “The Adjustment Bureau,” starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt).

A quick summary of the basic (non-video game) simulation argument

Today, the simulation hypothesis has moved from science fiction to a subject of serious debate because of several key developments.

The first was when Oxford professor Nick Bostrom published his 2003 paper, “Are You Living in a Simulation?” Bostrom doesn’t say much about video games nor how we might build such a simulation; rather, he makes a clever statistical argument. Bostrom theorized that if a civilization ever got the Simulation Point, it would create many ancestor simulations, each with large numbers (billions or trillions?) of simulated beings. Since the number of simulated beings would vastly outnumber the number of real beings, any beings (including us!) were more likely to be living inside a simulation than outside of it!

Other scientists, like physicists and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking weighed in, saying they found it hard to argue against this logic.

Bostrom’s argument implied two things that are the subject of intense debate. The first is that if any civilization every reached the Simulation Point, then we are more likely in a simulation now. The second is that we are more likely all AI or simulated consciousness rather than biological ones. On this second point, I prefer to use the “video game” version of the simulation argument, which is a little different than Bostrom’s version.

Video games hold the key

Let’s look more at the video game version of the argument, which rests on the rapid pace of development of video game and computer graphics technology over the past decades. In video games, we have both “players” who exist outside of the video game, and “characters” who exist inside the game. In the game, we have PCs (player characters) that are controlled (you might say mentally attached to the players), and NPCs (non-player characters) that are the simulation artificial characters.

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Valve’s “Deck Verified” program evaluates which Steam games are Steam Deck-ready

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Enlarge / Games that earn the “Deck Verified” checkmark will appear in the “Great on Deck” tab of the Steam Store.

Valve says it has started the process of reviewing all of the tens of thousands of games in the Steam catalog for compatibility with the upcoming Steam Deck portable. The company is doing the review as part of a new informational program called “Deck Verified.”

Games that provide “a great smooth experience” and “work great on Steam Deck right out of the box” will receive a green “Deck Verified” check mark on the Steam store and library interfaces. They will also appear on the default “Great on Deck” tab when the Store is viewed on the Steam Deck itself. Games will receive that check mark if they meet the following criteria:

  • Input: Games must have “full controller support” and the ability to access all content using the Steam Deck controls, with no adjustments necessary. This includes the use of on-screen “glyphs” that match those of the Steam Deck buttons or those on the Xbox 360/One (many Steam games already do this for compatibility with console versions or console controllers). Any in-game text entry must be done using only the controller or an on-screen keyboard.
  • Display: Games must include native support for 1280 x 800 or 1280 x 720 resolution and include a default configuration that runs at a “playable framerate” on the hardware at that resolution (Valve has previously promised that “really the entire Steam library” can meet this threshold on the Steam Deck hardware). On-screen text should also be legible when the screen is held 12 inches from the face; Valve says this means no letter should be less than 9 px in height, though a 12 px height is recommended.
  • Seamlessness: Games shouldn’t throw up any compatibility warnings when running on Steam Deck, and players must be able to navigate any third-party launchers with the controller.
  • System support: The game must be compatible with the SteamOS natively or with the Proton compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run on the Linux-based system. This includes any middleware and/or anticheat software used in the game.
An example of a game that meets all the Deck Verified criteria.
Enlarge / An example of a game that meets all the Deck Verified criteria.
Older games might need some updates to fully reach Deck Verified status.
Enlarge / Older games might need some updates to fully reach Deck Verified status.
VR games like <a href=
Enlarge / VR games like Half-Life: Alyx will officially show up as “Unsupported” on the Steam Deck.

Games that don’t quite reach the Verified ideal can still earn a yellow “Playable” badge if they run but “require some extra effort to interact with or configure.” That includes game that require manual controller or graphics configuration on first launch, games with “missing or inaccurate controller glyphs,” and games where players need to use the touchscreen for whatever reason.

Other games will simply be listed as “Unsupported” on Steam Deck. Those include all virtual reality games and games that are incompatible with Proton for whatever reason (the latter group will have any compatibility issues logged by Valve to fix going forward). Games that haven’t yet been reviewed for Steam Deck compatibility will simply have their compatibility shown as “Unknown” in the Steam interface.

Let the reviews begin

Deck Compatibility marks will appear alongside the price on the Steam Store.
Enlarge / Deck Compatibility marks will appear alongside the price on the Steam Store.

Steam developers can request a Steam Deck compatibility review for their games manually, but some back catalog games which “Valve identifies… as important to Steam Deck customers” will be added to the review queue “based on automated heuristics.”

The review process should take about a week, according to Valve’s estimates (subject to demand), after which developers will receive “detailed point-by-point results” of the review. After that, developers will have an opportunity to fix any outstanding issues and request a re-review before the results are published. Otherwise, any results will be automatically published after a week. Titles will be re-reviewed “as the developer releases updates or the Deck’s software improves,” Valve says.

While players can hook the Steam Deck up to a monitor and use a mouse and keyboard with the hardware, Valve writes that “we believe most customers will be treating the Deck like a handheld appliance, most of the time.” The Deck Verified program will thus be focused on how games work when the Steam Deck is being used without any external peripherals.

Despite that, Valve’s developer guidelines make clear that “customers browsing the Steam store on Deck aren’t prevented from viewing or purchasing content that may not work well on their device… You’ll always have the option to run whatever you want on Steam Deck. After all, it’s your Deck.”

Browsing your Steam Library will make it clear at a glance which of your games are fully Steam Deck compatible.
Enlarge / Browsing your Steam Library will make it clear at a glance which of your games are fully Steam Deck compatible.

Back in 2013, when Valve first tried to target console gamers with its Steam Machine hardware initiative, we suggested that the company roll out a certification program to set minimum standards for which games would run well on the wide variety of SteamOS-based hardware. The Deck Verified program fulfills some of that promise and should make it easy for Steam users to figure out how much of their library will work with this new Steam hardware at a glance.

Listing image by Blondinrikard Fröberg / Flickr

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The Good Life review: A messy RPG as unique as it is ridiculous

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The Good Life throws you into its offbeat little tale without much preamble.

After a cute storybook introduction, New Yorker photojournalist Naomi Hayward is dropped off in an Untitled Goose Game-caliber sleepy British hamlet called Rainy Woods, the self-proclaimed “happiest town in the world.” Why is it the happiest town in the world? Nobody knows, but that’s what Naomi is there to find out. The place supposedly has an earth-shattering secret that her employers at the Morning Bell want her to uncover—though because she’s drowning in debt it’s less of a request than a mandate.

Regardless, in the game’s first five minutes, an enigmatic woman in an electric wheelchair gives Naomi a house. Not long after, the Bell has her uploading pictures of the town to an Instagram-esque site, Flamingo, to earn “emokes” (likes). Each is worth mere pence on the British pound, a mechanism used to slooowly pay down Naomi’s debt. In the next hour, she learns everyone in the town (except the woman) turns into dogs or cats at night—and that’s it’s not the million GBP scoop she thinks it is.

Finally, she gets her own feline-canine transformation powers, allowing her to sniff out scents as a pup or climb up walls as a kitty. Each of these by-turns-loopier developments are dumped rapidly and unceremoniously into Naomi’s lap, a less-than-ideal method for getting you used to The Good Life‘s goofy concepts. Coupled with some dated design choices, it’s an awkward way to start a game.

Uh, what did I just read?

For players who have never heard of director Swery65 (actually Hidetaka Suehiro, or just Swery to his fans) this combo of narrative lunacy and often endearingly rough-around-the-edges technical presentation is nothing new. A David Lynch megafan, Swery released Deadly Premonition in 2010, an open-ish world survival horror adventure that starts out as an unapologetic homage to Twin Peaks before veering off in its own wonderful and strange directions. Since its release on Xbox 360 and subsequent ports, the game has become a meme-worthy cult classic as much for its unrefined gameplay as its absurd humor and delightfully eccentric Dale Cooper stand-in, Francis York Morgan. (Also like Twin Peaks and Lynch, Deadly Premonition is really good at being deeply unsettling when it wants to be.)

Swery’s games have since all had equally weird ideas: a canceled-midseason episodic series about a time-traveling detective trying to piece together his wife’s unsolved murder (who also may or may not have a woman who thinks she’s a cat living in his apartment); a college student with the ability to horribly dismember her body to solve normally deadly puzzle-platformer challenges; a sequel to Deadly Premonition that’s full of (spoiler-y) new happenings in the bayous of Louisiana (with a newly skateboard-riding York). Almost all of them have also been unfortunately hampered by performance issues, bugs, and at times clunky implementation.

So it goes with The Good Life, a game that has its fair share of charm, if you can get past the old-school shortcomings of this so-called “debt repayment RPG.” With its bucolic setting and easygoing nature, The Good Life is modeled on life sims like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing. It looks modern-enough mostly, not that you play a game like this for its visuals. But its stiff controls, repetitive in-game dialogue samples (please patch this), and an inefficient cadence that can get gummed up in selection menus in places like shops feel like relics of a game dating from anywhere between 2001 and 2005.

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Before the new version, let’s revisit 1984’s Dune—the greatest movie ever made

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Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel Dune gets a new film adaptation—this one helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049)—later this month. But before Ars Technica reviews the movie, there’s the matter of its predecessor: 1984’s Dune, made by a then up-and-coming filmmaker named David Lynch.

Detractors call Lynch’s saga—a tale of two noble space families 8,000 years in the future, fighting over the most valuable resource in the universe amidst sandworms the size of aircraft carriers—incomprehensible, stilted, and ridiculous. It lost piles of money. Yet fans, especially in recent years, have reclaimed Lynch’s film as a magnificent folly, a work of holy, glorious madness.

So which group am I in? Both. Am I about to describe Dune as “so bad it’s good”? No, that’s a loser take for cowards.

I once half-heard a radio interview with someone speculating that the then-current artistic moment was not “so bad it’s good,” and it wasn’t “ironic” either—it was actually “awesome.” (I didn’t catch who he was, so if any of this sounds familiar, hit me up in the comments.) Art can speak to you while at the same time being absurd. The relatable can sometimes be reached only by going through the ridiculous. The two can be inseparable, like the gravitational pull between a gas giant and its moon—or Riggs and Murtaugh.

The example the radio interviewee gave was of Evel Knievel, the ’70s daredevil who wore a cape and jumped dirt bikes over rows of buses. Absurd? Heavens, yes. A feat of motorcycling and physicality? Absolutely. But beyond that, we can relate to Knievel’s need to achieve transcendence at such a, shall we say, niche skill. We might also marvel at our own ability to be impressed by something which should be objectively useless but is instead actually awesome.

A more contemporary example might be Tenet. It’s a relentless international thriller about fate and climate change and the need for good people to hold evil at bay. But it’s also a “dudes rock!” bromance between Two Cool Guys in Suits spouting sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. It can’t be one without the other.

Travel without moving

I love Dune because it feels just as alien as something set 80 centuries in the future should. (To put that span of time in context, remember that 8,000 years in the past would still be 3,500 years before the Great Pyramids were built.) To create this feeling, Lynch blurs the novel’s plot and characters into a Spaceballs “ludicrous speed” lightshow.

Dune is the dream you have after reading a book about the distant future while listening to a 90-minute prog-rock album. Also, you may have done a pile of blow before falling asleep, because Sting is strutting around in Batman’s speedo.

Characters drift in and out, and their identities and relationships are unclear. A bear-sized scrotal mutant can move spaceships with drug-induced mind-magic. Soldiers bring drums to a knife fight. Plot threads are left untied. Brad Dourif has breathtaking eyebrows. Cast members deliver their inner thoughts via whispered, close-to-the-mic voiceovers worthy of an ASMR YouTube channel. The pacing is leisurely, almost hypnotic. You’re here for the wild sights, the rococo spaceships, the high-collared uniforms, and conversations so formal they border on liturgical. Just sit back and let them wash over you.

In other words, this not exactly how Universal Studios intended to spend $40 million in 1980s money.

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