Welcome to the truth about one of the system’s more popular action simulspace games. Yes, we do indeed mean Breakout, the hit sci-ﬁ game. It may be virtual reality, but it certainly seems real enough while you’re in there.
There’s a decent chance you’ve played Breakout. Most of the game is exactly what it looks like, a place for gamers in high-powered simulmorphs to blow up alien monstrosities. That part of the game isn’t ours, but it is wildly popular. Naturally, a game like this was too tempting for us to pass up. In fact, the nature of the content brought it immediately to our intention. Though it’s presented as ﬁction, there’s no arguing that Breakout’s plot and setting are based on the Fall and encounters with exsurgents and TITAN machines. The content strongly implies that someone involved in the game’s development had real life experience with the threats explored. Even more interesting, the game incorporates many aspects of our enemies that were rumored or even reported on during the Fall, but which were discredited or downplayed by memetic and disinformation campaigns, as part of the game’s ﬁction. It’s almost as if someone intentionally designed it to help reinforce the narrative cover stories that groups like Firewall and the Planetary Consortium maintain. We’ve taken some looks into the publisher, Extreme Voltage Software, to see who might have put the hooks in and pushed this project along. We have some leads, but nothing concrete—though my bet’s on Ozma.
Where Breakout gets even more interesting is that it has a very active fan modding community. These fans create their own levels and freely distribute them, and they are very popular. It just so happens that a few of Extreme Voltage’s former devs now work for Firewall. Along with a working group of vectors and game-designer crows, they’ve created a series of bonus levels. Originally intended for internal Firewall training simulations, these levels have since been distributed publicly under the Crisis coding-team banner. These levels are simultaneously loved and hated by different elements of the game community for being “brutal”—that’s because we turn off the heroism and the unreality. They are designed to represent the physical world as closely as possible. If you can’t do something in real life, you won’t be able to do it in Breakout: Crisis. These levels are arguably the best simulation of exsurgent and TITAN activity that anyone in the solar system has been able to create. Our designers are continuously reﬁning their models and adding new material based on actual after-mission reports and XP logs from sentinels. In short, it gets a bit creepier and nastier every few months. We’re also pleased that much of this detail has ended up imported into other fan-mod levels; a fair number of users seem to like creepy gaming.
The beneﬁts of using Breakout: Crisis as a training sim are obvious. Aside from actual experience in facing exsurgent incidents and the nightmares of the Fall, nothing else comes close to putting our people in similar scenarios to see how they’d handle it—with the added bonus that you won’t lose continuity when something hideous eats your stack or reformats your brain. Some sessions can be deeply horrible, but the realism is what makes it so valuable. Let’s be blunt—anyone without a great deal of experience is likely to be shaken by the situations in which our sentinels ﬁnd themselves. We send our operatives out to encounter exsurgents and exhumans that appear fundamentally wrong in a way that’s even more messed up than a sicko sleeved in a case wearing a ﬂayed-ﬂesh mask. Perhaps instead they have to survive the attentions of coldly malevolent machines that relentlessly seek to decapitate them or asyncs who invade the most private recesses of their mind. On a really bad day, they may encounter something capable of defying the laws of physics as we know them. In real life, people freeze up, panic, or make bad decisions in these situations. The more we can acclimate them to the harsh realities they may encounter, the more likely they are to keep their head on their shoulders, literally, when they are actually in the ﬁeld.
The other value in Breakout: Crisis is that it shows us who our operatives really are—the true faces they reveal in crisis situations. Can they deal with a threat, when doing so may run counter to their ideological principles? Do they have the strength of will to pull the trigger, knowing that they are sentencing innocents to die, in order to prevent even more people from being exposed to a risk? It also trains them to act quickly and decisively. “The only way to stop this outbreak is to blow up this entire hab and murder tens of thousands of innocent people, some of whom may not have backups elsewhere. You have 5 seconds to decide.”
Breakout is brutal and terrifying, and it contains various memetic triggers designed to enhance your emotional involvement, but of course you always know it’s a game. For the hardcore operatives, however, we offer a “full-reality mode” where we fork you, edit the fork so that it has no idea that it’s in a simulspace, and send it through Breakout, usually with a team of other Firewall operatives who have also been edited in this fashion. Then, we reintegrate this fork afterwards. Our expert psychosurgeons ensure there are no problems with the editing or merging, but playing Breakout: Crisis in this manner has been known to inﬂict serious trauma on some people. On the positive side, I’ve heard from players who later faced actual exsurgents that full-reality mode helped prepare them.
Pinpointing Recruits and Threats
One of the advantages of releasing Breakout: Crisis to the public is that we can monitor the leaderboards for our levels. We have actually used this method to recruit some of the top players, particularly those who are skilled exsurgent hunters while maintaining low mission proﬁles and not dying too often.
On the opposite end, our scanners have also made use of our levels to monitor for potential threats. One level in particular features an optional quest to become a super-powerful exhuman. We included a fair number of real details about exhumans and also made the quest exceedingly difficult. Most players ignore it, and the majority of those that don’t give up pretty quickly. However, a very small number of players play it all the way through and then seem to enjoy the heck out of playing an exhuman monster. We make a note of those players and monitor them. In real life, this has helped us to intercept one player who was seeking out contact with an actual exhuman cell.
There is no denying that Breakout: Crisis has also opened other opportunities for us. For example, some of the ideas that Firewall deals with are inherently dangerous. Having a popular VR game that deals with these memes helps us to make them more palatable to the public. It gives players an idea of how to react should they be caught in a real-life exsurgent breakout. It has even helped us with cover-ups. On at least one occasion, our ﬁlters have undermined the credibility of eyewitnesses by labeling them as obsessive Breakout players confusing VR with reality.
Some of our crows have also met with mixed success when using Breakout: Crisis to crowdsource help with puzzling data. These data sets have been incorporated into the game as mysteries to be solved for mission success or to earn bonuses on the side. While these efforts haven’t helped us decipher any fragments of alien language yet, players have provided novel approaches for working with real life xeno-artifacts that our crows have actually deployed in lab settings.