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LONG BLOG

Prototype and the definition of self

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As originally posted on The Scholarly Gamer.

As a game that is about killing as many things in as little time as possible, Prototype doesn’t immediately appear to be particularly good fodder for philosophical debate or in-depth analysis. However, underneath the visceral gameplay lies a mostly forgettable story about an amnesiac trying to figure out what happened to him, but within this story lies a major twist that deserves attention. Though, the attention should not be paid for its brilliance or originality, but for bringing up an interesting question: what gives a person his or her identity?

Suffice it to say that some major plot spoilers follow.

Alex Mercer wakes up in a morgue, with supernatural powers for which he has no explanation or recollection. He goes on a murderous journey for answers, and he eventually find them, to his dismay. He learns that as a researcher for a biomedical engineering firm, he stole a virus (the one currently ravaging Manhattan), was chased to Penn Station, and killed. The consciousness inhabiting Mercer’s body is explained to be the virus itself, as the man named Alex Mercer is dead.

Though the game’s script would have the player believe it is cut and dry, I think it is more complicated than that. I would argue that Alex Mercer lives.

A common discussion of self identity asks the question, “If Person A loses a leg and requires a prosthetic, is he still Person A?” Most agree that he is the same person he was before. The question can be further extended to replacement of all nonvital body parts, and through to the hypothetical implantation of a man’s brain into another person, an animal, a robot, or even an inanimate computer. Does this being retain the identity it once had? Does the self reside in the body, brain, mind, or elsewhere?

An example for discussion is the classic Romero zombie. It has become almost a cliché at this point, but as voiced in Shaun of the Dead, once she is zombified, the body Shaun is forced to destroy is “not [his] mother any more.” Zombies are creatures with the bodies of the former living, but most would agree that even the full body of a person without his mind can no longer be considered to be the same person.

Notice, I said “mind,” as a zombie still presumably contains the brain of the individual who used to reside in the body. Until it meets up with the business end of a shotgun, of course.

This brings us to the assumption that the mind exists within the brain, and perhaps as a function of the brain. With all of the proper neurons firing and synapses exchanges neurotransmitters, the human brain can produce unique thought, character, and personality. Is this what makes a person who he is?

And that brings us back to poor Alex Mercer (or to the virus inhabiting Mercer’s body). For the better part of Prototype, he believes he is Alex Mercer, although he has physiological abilities he didn’t have before. He identifies himself as Alex Mercer, he holds on to some memories of his past life (his sister Dana, for instance), and this consciousness lives in the body of Alex Mercer. It is difficult to believe that this person is anything but Alex Mercer.

If we consider the biology of it (realizing that it is science fiction, of course), the virus had to do a number of things to Mercer’s body after he was shot to death. It had to use the existing framework (bones, muscles, skin), and find a way to not only reanimate, but control the body’s muscles. It is possible that it built entirely new signaling pathways in order to tell the body what to do, or it is possible that the virus replicated enough and spread through his entire body, yet each individual virus shares a consciousness with the collective, but the most plausible action of the virus is that it inhabits the brain, and uses the existing neuronal connections to control the body.

If this is the case, then it is also likely responsible for the neurons firing that contain Mercer’s memories and his identity. Unlike in the case of the Romero zombie, his brain is present, but it is also still functioning. So either the virus has a collective conscious and each individual virus controls some aspect of Mercer’s body, or it essentially just gave Mercer a second chance at life, with his same brain, and more importantly his same mind, though in a biologically altered body. Considering the implausibility of the former case (simple chemical signaling between viruses in his eyes to his legs would just be too slow, especially considering the physical feats he pulls off), I would argue the latter. Prototype's writers would have you believe that Alex Mercer is not Alex Mercer, but I would posit that if somewhere in that freakish body exists the functioning mind of Alex Mercer, then he is in fact Alex Mercer.

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About Darren Nakamuraone of us since 2:29 AM on 11.06.2006

Darren is a scientist during the day. He has been a Destructoid community member since 2006, joining the front page as a contributor in 2011.

While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. He produced the Zero Cool Podcast for about four years, and he plays board games quite a bit when he can find willing companions.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Darren Nakamura knows several people in the video game industry, most of whom are Destructoid alumni. These include:

Anthony Burch, former writer for Gearbox Software
Ashly Burch, notable voice actor
Nick Chester, publicist for Harmonix Music Systems
Chad Concelmo, writer for Golin Harris
Aaron Linde, writer for Gearbox Software
Jayson Napolitano, publicist for Scarlet Moon Productions
Brad Nicholson, former publicist for Uber Entertainment
Alex Ryan, publicist for Kalypso Media
Jim Sterling, notable voice actor

Darren backs a lot of Kickstarter campaigns! If you want to see what he has backed, you can go here. If he ever reviews a game that he backed, that will be explicitly disclosed in the review.

Darren invested in Psychonauts 2 on Fig.
Xbox LIVE:Dexter345
PSN ID:Dexter345
Steam ID:http://steamcommunity.com/profil
Mii code:1257 7687 3747 6405


 

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