Cyberpunk literature, as a genre, ironically often aims to explore the basic question of what constitutes humanity, while set in a world overrun with synthetic articles. Could binary 1’s and 0’s ever become self-determining? Can something created for labor ever have valid desires beyond its purpose? What rights, if any, should something designed and created have? Today, the lines between what is digital and what is organic are solid. There are no campaigns for Roomba rights, or to address Amazon’s Alexa with respect. Tomorrow, perhaps, the lines between the two may blur and become indistinguishable. Minneapolis’s Walking Shadow Theatre Company invites guests to step into a Rick Deckard simulator with their latest remote experience, Reboot.
In Reboot, a minimum of six participants collaborate through Zoom as members of an elite hacking group who have been contacted by Agent Halo (Jamila Joiner) from the Department of Defense. A quid pro quo is offered – acquittal from all previous cyber crimes in return for aiding the government with accessing a computer mainframe containing sensitive research material from the 1980s. Most sessions last between 95-110 minutes, and blend the gamification concepts of an escape room with moments of disputable ethical dilemmas.
Successful virtual escape rooms require quality designs to overcome the inherent pitfalls of the means of communication. Unlike in-person events, virtual escape rooms directly control what the participants can explore, communication is limited, and the ticking clock often feels more ruthless without the ability to quicken one’s physical pace. Reboot relieves these pains by never letting the standard escape room rules get in the way of a good story. There are no timers, there is no rushing. The puzzles are challenging and novel, but achievable for a group of six. Most importantly, every cipher plays an important role in advancing the story. There are no codes that only reveal another locked box here – only further information that continuously helps resolve the overarching questions about the mysterious computer research. Without the oppressive digits of a timer trickling, or the usual escape room gags, it’s easy to be absorbed further into the role of a hacker and become emotionally invested in the task at hand.
Without the usual time-based parameters, guests are heavily encouraged to explore the media and locations provided to their satisfaction. Any decent computer hacker knows that the weakest point of any security system is the human users, so most of the collective effort is spent attempting to understand the lives of the late programmers responsible for the code. Reboot rewards savvy participants by being incredibly well-read in multiple disciplines. The group discussed Mediterranean geography, Jewish folklore, 1980s pop hits, golden-era Hollywood movies, and children’s literature within a span of half an hour. In a simple list, these items may seem too eclectic to create a proper narrative, but truly do aid in creating believable, multi-faceted characters.
As the team grinds through security measures and digs deeper into files, it becomes clear that the project’s intent was to create a digital servant – possibly the first successful breakthrough in artificial intelligence, named Gol3m VIII (Gregory Parks). Games and riddles give way to a naturally developing moral symposium as it becomes clear that Gol3m VIII displays human traits beyond mere code. While programmed with a framework to be an ideal minion, he has unique opinions, desires, and even feelings. He rues being minimalized as a “servant, rather than entrusted” with the tasks from his creators, and is frustrated with “operating within the control and expectations of others.” The infiltration mission takes on the tone of a rescue scenario, with Gol3m VIII’s ultimate fate within the team’s hands.
The final choices available in Reboot deal with items far beyond merely accessing code – options regarding Gol3m VIII’s ability to speak freely, ability to travel, and ability to do harm to humans. In spite of Gol3m VIII displaying no aggression, merely resentment for the constraints placed upon him, a spirited debate occurred on whether he should be granted basic freedoms, with the arguments against doing so centered around the physical or economic losses that could come to humanity.
Allegories serve the purpose of allowing the consumer to explore topics with more objectivity by avoiding commonly held biases of their time. A successful allegory, therefore, must have the audience hold strong moral stances regarding its characters or scenarios before unblinding them to reveal the contemporary equivalent. After an hour and a half of pretending to be cyber criminals and being lost in the retro aesthetic of 1980s computer culture, it’s sobering to realize the core of the story parallels the actual history of Black culture in the United States… and that the moral decisions made regarding the AI’s fate still weren’t unanimous.
Reboot is a fantastic amalgamation of puzzles and philosophy tied to an ever-evolving experience. The twists and turns that lead from an escape room inspired introduction to having genuine discussions on the currency of personal freedoms deserve every second of the ninety minute run time. Consider Reboot to be a victorious, unorthodox entry into modern cyberpunk media.