Wire in the Blood | Nex Machina

They decided our fate in microsecond: extermination.”
— Kyle Reese, The Terminator

“Nex Machina” is Latin for “death machine”, a title that seems fitting of the game’s lone hero: setting to work with gun and sword, scything metal and scalding earth. Taken as two words however, “death” and “machine”, another meaning is decoded. Written into Nex Machina’s architecture is a vine of transhumanism, a wrist-thick cable of convergence and transformation. It’s redolent of a line in Graham Greene’s short story, The Destructors: “Destruction after all is a form of creation.”

Technology that meshes with humanity in tangible ways

If cyberpunk can be defined as ‘high-tech, low-life’, then Nex Machina’s “cablepunk” is the reverse: ‘high-life, low-tech’. The game’s director Harry Krueger describes the style as springing from a desire for warmth: “In a lot of science fiction movies or games you see clean curves, clean energy… although that works it feels a bit sterile to me […] Cablepunk is basically retro-Cyberpunk. It shares a lot of similarities, but it’s very retro in its aesthetic […] it relies on more primitive parts: you see a lot of cables, a lot of panels with blinking lights…” But it’s a style as inviting as it is insidious. Wires grow like weeds.

Maciek Strychalski of SMAC Games, director of Tokyo 42, previously spoke to me on the inherent attraction of this kind of style: “I don’t really know why all the cables, LED lights, and bionics are so beautiful, but I’ve always been drawn to them. Maybe it makes me feel like a part of a future which isn’t totally Apple-ified, clinical and devoid of expression, that there’s going to still be mess and mistakes.” The mess and mistakes signal a liminal humanity in the traditionally hard aesthetic: phenolic circuit boards running hot, smells like burnt dust and faint ozone licking at the sterile edges. It suggests technology that meshes with humanity in tangible ways, recalling the look of Alien: beige consoles impressed with surface scratches, greasy green-on-black DOS interfaces, 8-track dials and switches smudged with fingerprints.

Wires grow like weeds

The visibility and tangibility of the scaffolding around this technology—the wires, the lights, the exposed inner-workings—make it seem a natural extension of us, of our bodies. It’s redolent of developer Housemarque’s beating heart, the arcade cabinet. What a fusion of man and machine: our hands clasped around metal levers, gripping sweaty orbs, our fingers resting on concave buttons as if plugged into sockets.

In David Thomson’s book, The Alien Quartet, H.R. Giger describes his approach to creating what he called ‘biomechanics’: “I tried to build it up with organic-looking parts—tubes, pipes, bones: a kind of Art Nouveau. Everything I designed in the film used the idea of bones. I made the model of the alien landscape with real bones and put it together with Plasticene, pipes and little pieces of motors. I mixed up technical and organic things.” In Alien, the yonic corridors of Giger’s derelict ship are offset by the claustrophobic, metal walkways of the Nostromo. Nests of organic webbing transform mechanical structures into viscous hives. Hulking starships are metamorphosed into oily-black cathedrals of ingress and subsuming sexual fear. The creature itself is a bio-mechanical mesh of the two styles, blending into pipework and slithering through vent shafts and nest warrens.

Destruction causes a ripple, like the disturbed surface of a fishpond

Nex Machina’s machine bodies exploit its cablepunk aesthetic to manufacture a transhuman visual style. The ‘giant’—the concept image of which adorns the game’s cover—is the prime result of this transfiguration. Krueger describes it as, “something that’s clearly manmade, and comes imbued with a lot of the imperfections of its creators as well.” Transparent tubing carries a watery blood-like liquid from the arms to the head; cabling takes on the appearance of exposed veins. The silvery metallic skull and LED red eyes carry the classic look of the machines in The Terminator, carrying the imperfections Krueger describes. We can imagine bird’s nest wiring firing electrical signals like axons and dendrites, cells replaced with processor nodes. Here is the culmination of the transformation, the creation raised from the destruction.

The games’ environments marry organic elements like trees and soil with steel and power conduits. Coiled wires, half-buried, glisten like worms at your feet. The machines are seeping downwards into the earth, but it looks the opposite, like they are growing from it. They have achieved a perverse synthesis with the environment, a harmony we were unable to. It’s a blending that speaks to a deeper idea: the creation of virtual environments, and their relationship to us.

There is a deeper layer of the cablepunk ethos running through Nex Machina, one exfoliated with laser fire. The first thing you see is the lone hero zooming along a highway. A blue jet stream of planar streaks behind the motorbike, instantly recalling the iconography of Tron. If this is a world run through with metal, cantilevered over green and brown, then this lone figure is entirely of another world—a simulated one.

The use of Signed Distance Field rendering blends traditional polygonal meshes with cubic structures. These soft strata crumble into voxels, spilling out and revealing squared hollow innards. It’s a way of peeling back the veneer of game design, of revealing the mathematics of mineral structures, the geometric components of this natural imagined world. Destruction causes a ripple, like the disturbed surface of a fishpond. Shooting walls and objects causes reality to distort before retaining its shape, held in place as if by an elastic lattice. Indeed, a lattice is revealed: bisecting lines slice floors and walls into cubes, revealing the undergirding of what looks like graph paper before shifting back. It is the same visual motif of the iconic yellow grid of the holodeck—cultural shorthand for designed and simulated worlds since Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sometimes these cubes are visible from great distance, snapping into more organic forms as if responding to being seen.

Your jet flight between levels plays hob with your sense of up and down, the ground unveiled as merely one side of a cube as you re-orient and snap to a new floor. The brief time spent in the air feels outside of the game itself, away from the fixed flatness of levels and enemies, as if between lines of code. It’s in these ephemeral glimpses—cubes, underlay, blueprint paper lines—the game entreats us to enjoin with this new image of reality.

the iconic yellow grid of the holodeck—cultural shorthand for designed and simulated worlds

Alien was cast in the perspiration of political paranoia; transformation was a trespass of penetration and violent bleeding birth. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the fear of HIV, homosexuality, and corruption in the highest of offices burned through the rigid layers of society—as the creature’s blood did the metal decks of the Nostromo. So what of Nex Machina? It might be tempting to go with simple cautionary tale—a lesson about dependency akin to Black Mirror. The game’s blurb reads, “Humans have become so dependent on technology that they cannot avert their eyes from portable devices anymore.”

But perhaps a deeper question is being posed. We are asked to look outside Nex Machina, to consider not just its cablepunk architecture, but the wiring and blinking lights of its simulated realities. We are asked to submit to the blurring of our world with the digital, fusing our bodies to the equipment in our hands and on our desks. What transformation might then take place?

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Josh Wise is a columnist and editor at Thumbsticks, forever in pursuit of ice cream, and an idle life.