The moment where I knew this was an article that needed writing, was maybe about midway through the film, where Theodore tells his co-worker about his new relationship with Samantha. His friend doesn't flinch, or tell him to get a life, or tell him he's batshit. The reaction is more of "Well, can't say I didn't see this coming." And then, fast forward to a few weeks later, his friend, his girlfriend, Theodore and Samantha are on a double date, picnicing on a warm spring day. I wrote an article on CHUD not too long ago about the geeks having already inherited the Earth, and using that as an impetus to embrace the joy of it, embrace the unreal instead of constantly needing to validate it for everyone else. Spike Jonze's Her is envisioning a future where that exact thing has happened, which would be a fascinating bit of sidenote world-building, but the rabbit hole goes way deeper than that, in terms of what Spike's saying about the future, for technology, and, yes, by implication, gaming. Here be SPOILERS.
So, like most good sci-fi focusing on man's relationship to sentient technology, humanity found surrogates for itself. AI programmed by humans to represent all that is good in us: our curiosity, our empathy, powered by all our collective knowledge. And naturally, they surpass us in a fucking heartbeat. The difference with Her is that most stories of this type assume we build the sexbots/murderbots first, ask questions later. Here, what we've built first is intimacy, which is both less cynical and enormously sad. Sex doesn't have as much import in the future as the ability to speak and be understood by someone who's never going to reject us, and loves us unconditionally. Think about the difference in a world where Scott Pilgrim flopsweating over Ramona Flowers at a party never happens. Where Ramona closes her eyes, takes to the internet to download all the information she ever needs to know about his interests, and says EXACTLY what Scott wants to hear in response to his stupid go-to Pac-Man story. Of course he would fall in love with that person instantly, whether Ramona was standing there with a drink, or if she was just a gentle voice in his ear, coming out of a smartphone. He wouldn't NEED to earn the power of self-respect when someone loves the loser he already is.
I don't think we're quite at that place where this is exactly what game developers are going for--we have enough problems trying to get pixels to perform Shakespeare on demand, let alone anticipate wants and needs--but you can see game makers more than anyone else on the planet drawing the arrow that will point that way. Most folks who saw the film saw Samantha and immediately thought Siri.
I thought of Milo.
Tragedy #1, of course, is that Milo never came to be outside of that E3. There's still finger pointing and shrugging from everyone involved as to whether Milo was really supposed to be a new game or not, but like most things about the Kinect, it turned out to be mind-blowing technology in service of not a damn thing. Lionhead implemented a lot of the tech into a here-and-gone Fable title, and that was kinda it. Tragedy #2, however, is that chances are, we weren't ready for it anyway.
There was a naivete in Project Milo that was both refreshing and doomed from the word go. This was a very expensive tech demo simulating the very things most gamers had forsaken in the outside world to begin with, and here we were, being sold its digital equivalent. This wasn't something like The Sims, where you can play God with a life that required your constant attention, but a thinking program that had its own thoughts and feelings that ran parallel to the player's interaction with them, and in a real world framework, what ultimately would've been the goal if it wasn't something integrated into a larger servile framework? The Uncanny Valley would essentially find itself breached by the human soul itself. While the level of immersion gamers had with Milo would've had a glass bottom, it hasn't stopped anyone from trying to break on through to the other side. Making the player give a shit about the millions of pixels playing out their scripts in front of us has progressed into countless new games making the player responsible for their continued well-being, complicit in their morality, and empathetic to the obstacles we face in tandem with them, and much of the new technology built into the WiiU, the XBox One, and the PS4--I'd even throw the 3DS and the Vita in here to lesser degrees--are all very focused on making it easier for us to reach out and touch these digital people and their world. For better or worse, the next generation will not just be built on graphics, but on that connection.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that these kinds of people are in the right medium. The default mode for games is predominantly fantasy and powertrip anyway, and building something intelligent to mime emotion is inherently wish fulfillment just like anything else. What purpose does this level of interactivity with a virtual person serve if not to fill that void? It's what makes the Alien Child bits of Her even more hilarious. Basically, that's a future-mainstream game that knows its audience TOO well. The human element is devolving. Changing people is hard. Why bother when you can just create better, non-existent people? It speaks volumes that the best multiplayer experience of the century so far is Journey, where it's IMPOSSIBLE to let the human element ruin someone's experience.
In trying to engage the emotions, to engage our humanity, we're at kind of an important precipice where Her's future is nowhere close, but the tip of it is on the horizon. What we need from our technology is still fairly utilitarian, but gamers are now on something of a front line of being able to bring our humanity to the table when faced with it. Your Mass Effects, your Walking Deads, your Journeys all require something quite different from the player than just their reflexes, and ask ever so slightly more than the passivity of a film. What we ask and open ourselves up to from those games is something unprecedented, and I have zero doubts when the time comes, and some computer wakes up, tentatively asks us our name, and holds its own in a conversation, it'll be someone holding a controller on the other side of the conversation, marveling at what our new digital overlords can do. What can be taken from Her is an important warning sign that continuing to find what humanity can't do just as fascinating is what's going to keep our shit together as a species.
At the bare minimum, we'll get better art and people in the process.