Neurocracy 2.049 review – a brilliant futurist mystery of truth and technology

2021’s groundbreaking Wikipedia ARG returns with new art and fungal sidestories – and a superb execution of its multi-layered, misinformation murder mystery.

“Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source” is one of those things that was drummed into me repeatedly at school. “Anyone can write anything there.” Of course, when I first poked at this idea it felt a little heavy handed: nearly everything is cited, sources are monitored for reliability, and it’s rare for outright sabotage to last longer than a few minutes. There’s another layer underneath that though, and sometimes it takes diving into a page’s edit history to find the trails of bias and misinformation that are hidden by Wikipedia’s neutral voice. This is, in part, what underpins Neurocracy, the murder mystery you solve by trawling through Omnipedia, the corporate-sponsored Wikipedia of the future.

In the year 2049, Xu Shaoyong, tech trillionaire and owner of a global information network, is assassinated. His death is the springboard to delve deeper into Neurocracy’s world – the web of surveillance including montages of information collected directly from neural implants, the decade aftermath of a foodborne pandemic, and the shift of geopolitical strength between politicians and corporations.

The game is primarily browser-based, as you sleuth your way through a fake wikipedia. Each episode revolves around one new day in Neurocracy’s world, and its evolving mystery reflected in new Omnipedia pages, and the changelogs of old ones. There’s no moment or interface to tick off that it was Mrs Brown in the library with the pipe – just your own theories and conclusions. New to 2.049 – which is the second live ten-episode drop – is an optional app, which lets you pin sections of Omnipedia to a conspiracy board. Neither playing live or using the board are necessary to experience Neurocracy though, as you can work your way through the now-released episodes at your own pace.

Screenshot of Neurocracy 2.049, showing the page for the Cupid’s Arrow Murder Trial, where a block of text is highlighted in blue
Image credit: Playthroughline/Eurogamer.

It’s a densely layered story, in several ways. Most literally, the mystery plot builds up with each day arriving on top of the one before: news reveals itself in the way topic headers change from “Death” to “Assassination”, or a disputed four bodies on the scene turns into a confirmation of three. More than that, though, as conspiracy and intrigue interweaves with a technological battleground, it’s difficult to know what to trust. Is any new edit, by itself, true, or misleadingly presented by someone with an agenda? Are contradictory behaviours evidence of surface manipulation in the information presented here and now, or of deeper manipulation happening behind the scenes?

This is, at times, incredibly subtle. In the beginning, I settled into a comfortable routine of recognising company pages cleaning up their own reputation and stripping out their controversies. This left me poorly prepared the first time I saw a correction that I couldn’t tell who it benefited. These versions couldn’t both be true – but neither were telling on themselves. This becomes subtler as episodes go on, when the game trusts that you’re looking for context clues in the wider world. At one point, something extremely significant hinges on the nuance of the verb ‘create’, and spotting that evoked the most bizarre ‘aha’ moment of vindication and puzzle-solving I could ever attribute to a game.

Screenshot of Neurocracy 2.049, showing Zhupao’s page the day of Xu’s death. The change log is visible and the controversy section has been deleted.

Screenshot of Neurocracy 2.049, showing an obvious edit war happening about mushroom sentience

Image credit: Playthroughline/Eurogamer.

This all builds an ambiguity that would be frustrating, rather than compelling, if it wasn’t clear that the writers are absolutely confident in the world they’re constructing. Even if I’m second guessing my theories – that all make sense unless (three more pages of notepad, flowcharts, etc.) – it isn’t because the world is vague. It is richly detailed and subtle, making the ambiguity something to pursue. Which I did, both in-game and out, chewing over what I’d read in the back of my head in quiet moments the way I would with a deep dive into real world research.

Having described the depth of reading it, it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge another layer, which is that Neurocracy knows exactly how it reads, and is often playful with it. I was delighted when I spotted one of those humanising Wikipedia-style funfacts of ‘this trillionaire has a favourite band, just like you’ after paragraphs upon paragraphs about his business history – and for that favourite band to then become plot relevant, and show up in a later episode with their own page. Equally, seeing the flat numbers of a statistic change into a much larger number ‘overnight’ played out to me like a horror movie jumpscare, even without the usual musical sting.

Screenshot of Neurocracy 2.049, showing the ‘Pipeline’ conspiracy board tool, demo’d with a scientist and his cat

Screenshot of Neurocracy 2.049, showing the community conspiracy board, zoomed so far out that only the massive web of it is visible

Image credit: Playthroughline/Eurogamer.

If there was a layer missing, it was the sense of community, as my experience with Neurocracy’s second live run felt oddly lonely. The shift to have chatter in-universe, and hosted on Omnipedia’s own forums, created – for me, certainly – a kind of self-consciousness. Compared to the sheer breadth of new information each new episode brought – from tiny edits that implied huge potential perspective shifts, to major plot reveals and horrifying worldbuilding details – there were relatively few posts. However excited I felt, or brimming with ideas to discuss, I wasn’t going to be the lone cheerleader for my pet theories in a relatively quiet space.

This isn’t to say the forums are a negative experience – seeing people roleplay as 2049-era Omnipedia editors, discussing the ethics of AI-led reality TV and adopting in-universe memes is absolutely delightful. There are also, to put it intentionally vaguely, posts on the forum that Neurocracy would not be whole without. In the end, though, it took an offline notepad full of queries and contradictions, and enlisting my equally offline wife as a partner-in-solving-crime, to actually pin down my theories.

Screenshot of Neurocracy 2.049, showing a single line edit, that the editor-in-chief of Omnipedia is potentially missing

Screenshot of Neurocracy 2.049, showing Tony Hsuing’s forum profile

Image credit: Playthroughline/Eurogamer.

It doesn’t especially matter that I didn’t take to its new tools though, as the strength of Neurocracy is far and away its writing. Good futurist writing is a mirror, and Neurocracy reflects conversations that are already relevant today. It’s not about the evils of innately corrupt technology, but about surveillance capitalism, corporate and state power, and the use of data and disinformation to marginalise and disempower. It’s also as much about those things as it is about resistance, innovation, and creativity. While its dedication to accuracy (or the appearance of accuracy) carries it, the people, and not the technology, make it worthwhile.

I missed Neurocracy’s first run in 2021, and I’m glad I didn’t miss its second run this time round. I’m left with burning questions, however, as I have to imagine its world keeps turning. If there were ever a sequel, I’d pick up the notepad again in an instant – but I’d also turn up for a third run of the same mystery again. Knowing exactly what can hinge on a single word, a future game – and a future me – could only add another layer of context, and point me towards entirely new details. Neurocracy isn’t the perfect game, but in its exploration of truth in technology, it is the perfect version of what it’s meant to be.

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