[This post contains spoilers for Electric Tortoise. It’s a short, accessible game you can probably play in your browser, so I’d recommend you try it out before reading any further.]
Electric Tortoise uses two characters to tell you about a third. In a very short space of time, you learn about the social status of robots in relation to humans; you can tangibly see how they exist on the losing side of a power dynamic. The robot you’re interrogating, Donovan, uses polite language to invite you to consider his experiences and opinions, even when challenging you or deferring from a slight you offered towards his character. You can choose to dismiss his point of view entirely, to speak down to him as if an inferior, to reject his life and his pain as irrelevant to the dictums of the hard line of the law. Or you can be kind and empathise and show mercy. You can treat him however you wish because that is the privilege your position allows you.
All this is told to you through the context of the interview. Upon the desk, two monitors face their screens towards you, away from Donovan’s field of view. A gun lies right in front of you, pointing just off the robot. If Donovan wanted to grab it, he’d have to stand up, lean across the table and twist his arm, whereas for you it’s comparatively easily at hand. The monitors, with their blank screens and half-set lights, begin inertly. Just knowing they’re available to you is a small comfort, a glint of possibility that they may kick into action and provide some help during the questioning. They’re something you have that Donovan does not.
Even the fact that you were given the chance to walk into this interview sets your mind to a certain place. You weren’t dragged, you weren’t taken. For a tiny period of time, under an enormity of limitations, you had control over yourself. You’re hindered in your movement by walls, by the buttons you must press to move, and by the abrupt scene change to the interrogation, but little as it is, it still supports the implication that you brought yourself into this room, sat yourself on the right side of this desk, and, when you were perfectly ready to, began the interrogation.
If instead the game opened straight to you sitting there as you inevitably do, it might take a few moments longer for you to gather yourself towards your task and to recognise your position in relation to Donovan. You might feel a little bit disadvantaged by the sudden set-up, or discouraged by the vibrant blue aesthetic, or bound to your chair by the figure sitting opposite to you. The screens might feel a little bit more daunting. Well, that’s all speculation—you might not have been put ill at ease at all. Nevertheless, your entrance to the interview characterises the opportunities and limitations placed upon you: though you may walk your way through the corridors briefly but freely, you are still bound in a certain direction towards a certain purpose. You may have had no say in either but still you comply.
When you begin the interview and your dialogue options show how you can be nasty and dismissive to Donovan, even if you choose not to take them, the knowledge is still imparted that you are in a position of power over him. Moreover, that the position this world has given you, as a detective and as a human, would let you be horrible towards this poor robot for as little a reason as your choice of preference. Donovan remarks how you could shoot him there and then with no adverse consequence to your status, such is the low regard the legal system holds him in. By the manner in which even the nasty dialogue options are presented equally on the monitor to the kind ones, as if each option is equally valid, it seems your social status would be similarly untarnished.
You can choose to convict Donovan or to clear him of all charges, and you can choose to shoot him dead or to spare him a quick end, but one choice you do not have is to deny his request for discontinuation. Through this you invest yourself into the narrative of assisted suicide he’s related to you, now with the roles reversed. In deciding the quality of life that Donovan now has and in choosing his fate, the robot becomes the master and the human becomes the facilitating servant, as if arguing with Donovan is not an option. As if to deny him his experiences, his anguish, is out of the question. As if despite how worthless Donovan is seen in the eyes of the law and of society, and how easy it was for you to spit on him, and if you did, how gladly you did so—as if despite how he is disregarded by his human masters, he is still considered a living being with a life that is of the utmost value to him, as a creature with this basic dignity that is worth respecting. As if this was known all along by humanity, that robots exist as more than just tools, and still they were spat upon. And that is terrifying.
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