By Nathan Grayson on April 28th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.
Last Life is an exceedingly promising looking cyberpunk noir adventure game being published by Double Fine. As is often the case with these things, you’re solving a murder. As is significantly less often the case with these things, it’s your own. The game’s utopian, dystopian, MarsTopian future posits that humans have figured out how to 3D print new bodies, thus making The End significantly less… final. It’s an interesting conceit for a mystery plot, but it turns out that the rabbit hole runs much deeper for creator Sam Farmer. An abiding love for transhumanism practically bleeds out of him, and there’s a very good reason for this: he’s been struggling with a chronic disease for most of his life. His health issues are always right behind him, lunging to drag him down, hold him back. But this life doesn’t offer do-overs, so he’s done holding back.
Last Life creator Sam Farmer greets me over Skype video chat, and it takes me a moment to figure out where exactly he is. There are seats… buckles… windows – is this some kind of spaceship-based promotional stunt? Last Life does take place in a future where Earth has become more or less uninhabitable. It’d certainly fit the theme. Working in games journalism, it wouldn’t be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.
I blink and then it hits me. Duh. He’s in the front seat of a car. His car. I can see a parking lot behind him. This, he somewhat nervously informs me, is his first interview ever. This is my first time interviewing someone for the first time ever, so we’re in for quite a ride. In a car. An actual car (that is thankfully not moving).
We talk about videogames, like you do. Despite Farmer’s relative youth, he speaks knowingly, from a place of experience. There’s electric excitement in his voice and mannerisms, and why shouldn’t there be? He’s finally on track to fulfill a dream, to realize a world that’s been in his head in various forms since high school and college. But behind all that, there’s also a weariness that defies his years. I can’t quite put my finger on the pulse of it, but the beats – slow, deliberate – are palpable in his speech.
Farmer previously worked as a designer on everything from mobile word puzzler Yumby Words to licensed BBC properties like Top Gear and Sherlock. Pretty cushy gigs, in other words. Farmer, however, always wanted to go indie. He just couldn’t – until now. I ask why, and he shifts in his seat as he explains:
“I’ve always wanted to go indie. That’s kind of been my goal all along. But it hasn’t even been financially feasible for me, until Kickstarter reached this point and I was able to kind of break away from the necessities of corporation. Now with Obamacare I can get my own health insurance, that’s a big one. Unemployment benefits are helping pave the way with this Kickstarter, but if this doesn’t succeed then I’m going to have to find another way to make this game, or I’m going to have to take contract work until I can do it again.”
I’m not hugely surprised, then, when Farmer mentions that one of Last Life’s major themes will be class disparity and the way people cope with a world that’s not necessarily made for them. For him, it’s definitely personal. I probe a little more, and then he shows the true colors beneath his cocksure cyberpunk exterior. Turns out, it’s really personal.
“I suffer from a chronic disease, and the medication to treat it is very expensive,” he tells me, a slight wariness creeping into his voice. “So the only way that I could survive is if I had some kind of health insurance that would pay for this medicine. I needed to get a job for the benefits because I couldn’t be added back to my parents’ policies. I had to support myself in that way, until Obamacare came about. That was really the catalyst that allowed me to make this game.”
“Having a pre-existing condition has been a pretty daunting thing when it comes to affording health insurance. When you work for a big company with great benefits, you get added to their group health insurance, no problem. But as an individual – before Obamacare – it was insanely expensive for me to get an individual policy. My medication is cutting edge, which has been great for my health, but it costs a lot. So now, suddenly, I can actually afford to pay for my own health insurance, which gives me the freedom to work independently on a project like Last Life.”
“Worrying about and being responsible for this health insurance stuff is the opposite of fun, but it’s been one of my concerns and – really – a concern of anyone who is dealing with health issues that require ongoing treatments.”
Obamacare – the controversial set of US healthcare changes otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act – isn’t perfect, Farmer readily admits, but it still offers a bedrock. Something to keep him standing while his body does its damndest to take his legs out from under him. Farmer is optimistic, but he hasn’t always had cause to feel that way.
“I was on some pretty nasty medicine when I was younger, but I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve never been hospitalized,” he explains. “Over the years, the treatments have changed but I’ve been taking medications every day of my life since I was 11, so it’s sort of part of my routine. But, you know, mentally, I’m always aware.”
Last Life’s basic concept – that bodies can be artificially manufactured, that consciousness can persist through physical trauma, disease, and even death – is an extension of Farmer’s own life. There’s a certain idealistic hopefulness to it, fused with a resigned admission that solving one human problem definitely won’t solve them all. In fact, it stands to create new ones. And also bring noir detective work back into vogue, so I suppose it isn’t all bad.
“Last Life is in part a product of my experience with the US Health care system and my frustrations with it,” says Farmer. “The worst kind of problems are health problems. So to live in a world where health problems are no longer the main issue is a really cool space that I like to explore.”
Last Life’s transhumanism-based world, then, has been incubating inside Farmer for nearly as long as his illness. “As a kid, I was forced to become a little more aware of my own mortality and of all of our vulnerabilities than most kids my age. Ever since, the fantasy of overcoming physical weakness, conquering disease and outsmarting death has just been irresistible to me. I guess I’m naturally drawn to the idea that someday we’ll all be able to overcome the body’s natural human susceptibility to damage and decay.”
“We’ll have to be careful, of course, because all evolution brings risks of abuse and we’ll need to be rigorous in achieving peaceful methods of such a major readjustment, but I think transhumanism is coming and it’s for the good.”
He smiles quite a lot while discussing these topics. It is, after all, a domain in which his sickness doesn’t rule him. Whether it’s his world’s fantasy or our world’s future, he’s free from the shackles of a thing that’s held him back for his whole life. That has to feel good. Still though, there’s an inherent darkness to it all, a looming specter of mortality that’s always just out of view, and it shows through in Farmer’s perception of how a truly transhuman world would function.
“In the future I’ve envisioned for Last Life, AIs and robots do a lot of the more menial tasks and easily integrate with humans,” he reiterates. “Furthermore, 3D printers can reprint your human body and your memories can be reinstalled so that the death of your body is not, in fact, the end of you. Of course, this process is expensive and, as such, it’s mostly the wealthy who can afford such immortality.”
“Still, there are a few odd loopholes. For example, on Mars where Last Life takes place the governing corporations hold an annual Day of the Dead celebration where they magnanimously reprint every person who has died in the past year without a prepaid life insurance policy. They get a few free hours of life – to join the party, as it were.”
“When the game begins, it’s the morning after detective Jack Parker has been murdered and – lucky Jack – it happens to be the Day of the Dead. He has four hours, locked into the reprint lab, to drink and party with the other re-boots before he’s deactivated. But this reprint of Jack is pretty damned intent on finding out who killed him and why.”
That’s where Last Life begins, assuming its Kickstarter goes off without a hitch, of course. Farmer, though, is taking it all one step at a time. Even when everything’s on the up and up, it’s important to stay grounded. In Farmer’s life, that groundedness goes both ways. Sickness is neither a chain or a crutch. It simply is.
“I know a lot of people have dealt with medical challenges as kids and I think we can all relate. Basically, I’ve tried not to let it define me, and I have never wanted to be treated differently because of it.”