One of the trademarks of a game by Team Zero Escape is the use of real-world pseudoscience and conspiracy theories as driving elements of the science fiction story. When I played the original AI: The Somnium Files, I was intrigued enough by some of the concepts discuss to dive in further – researching what was real, what was fake, and what was real fake. Now that I’ve made some significant progress in the sequel, nirvanA Initiative, I’d like to do the same for this game. Ryuki and Mizuki face all kinds of new tricks and traps, but which ones are based in reality and which ones are simple sci-fi indulgence? Today, I’m determined to find out!
Note: this article will feature some mild spoilers for the early portions of the game, but I will not include major spoilers here
Carbon Nanotube (CNT)
Carbon nanotubes are the Half Body Serial Killer’s tool of choice for setting up the mechanism that causes the mysterious appearance of the first victim. As described in-game, these threads are stronger than steel, invisible to the naked eye, but burn up perfectly in a thermite reaction, as if they were tailor-made for Tearer’s schemes. It may seem like this magic rope is too good to be true, but as it turns out this is one aspect of the game that is firmly grounded in reality: carbon nanotubes are a real thing. If anything, the way they are used in the game makes them seem less cool than they actually are! Their strength factor compared to steel can reach as much as 400x greater (the game I believe says they are about 50x stronger), and they are highly heat resistant – it takes very high temperatures and an oxidation agent to take them out. Depending on how the carbon nanotube is made, they have varying levels of electrical conductivity for use in electronics as well. You can read more about carbon nanotubes here – it is certainly more detail than I ever expected to find, particularly on the first thing I searched!
The other half of the equation for the disappearing half-body that sets off the Half Body Serial Killings, as well as a favorite tool of Tearer anytime they need to blow some shit up. There are multiple thermite bombs in the game with a variety of applications, from a small and contained blast meant to emulate spontaneous combustion to explosions on a large enough scale to bring down foundations. The part of thermite that I thought seemed a little too good to be true was that it was supposedly not leaving any kind of trace behind of being used to set the first body on fire. Could this stuff really burn hot enough to destroy CNT as well as any evidence that thermite had been involved in the destruction?
Thermite as it turns out does burn pretty damn hot, reaching as much as 4400 degrees Fahrenheit (around 2400 Celsius). Carbon nanotubes do indeed struggle at temperatures that high, especially functionalized carbon nanotubes which are probably the kind Tearer would be using. CNT would likely start to struggle at 500 Celsius and would definitely start to lose its shape by 1000, and we’re talking about over 2000. So yeah, the whole “use thermite to destroy the CNT and the body at the same time” plan makes sense based on what I was able to find. But what about the components of the thermite bomb inside the body of the first victim? Would those really all burn up too? Unfortunately this part is harder to verify. The composition of the fuse is never described other than saying it contains an “oxidizing agent” and the containers for the thermite and the firestarting chemicals are only ever shown in x-ray vision, making it difficult to tell if they are metal or glass. Glass does melt at 1600 or so Celsius so if we assume that the containers for the bomb chemicals are glass, the thermite definitely could have caused it to melt. Would melted glass not still leave some kind of trace, though? This one we’ll have to file under possible but unverifiable.
There’s one more aspect of the victims that left me wondering just how much science was involved, and that is the process which cuts them in half. Obviously this is a huge question posed in the game and I don’t intend to post spoilers here; there’s really just one question I wanted to explore. The bodies are described in game as being cut “at the molecular level” – Tama even goes on to explain that the cuts are intramolecular as opposed to intermolecular, the latter of which would apparently be much easier to pull off. I’m no expert on molecular bonds or the like, so I thought it would be interesting to see if something that can slice a molecule in two could in fact exist in the real world. It sounds fake, but I’m a theater major so what the hell do I know?
As it turns out, I just forgot everything I learned in high school science. Molecules are just groups of more than one atom. Like, uh, ya know, a water molecule being two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom. An intermolecular bond would just be the connection between two separate water molecules while an intramolecular bond would be the connection between the atoms making up a single water molecule. Breaking intramolecular bonds is harder, yes, but doable: it just takes a chemical reaction. Now here’s what I think is significant in relation to the game – breaking an intramolecular bond is fundamentally unmaking the molecule. When you separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water, you don’t have water anymore. So this device that is apparently cutting human beings in half at the molecular level would be fundamentally changing the severed molecules, not just slicing one molecule into two little half-molecules. So while I definitely feel silly for forgetting buzzwords like ionic or covalent bonds, I at least wasn’t off track in thinking that the idea of severing a molecule seemed a little far-fetched; the ramifications of that would be more significant than the game decides to get in to. With that in mind, we’re gonna set this one just on the fake side of center.
Your first real challenge in nirvanA Initiative is to investigate Horadori Institute, a gene therapy research facility. Now the experiments that Chikara describes are mostly concepts that rest firmly in the realm of science fiction – immortality through genetic treatments? The total elimination of death by aging? I don’t need to research that one. But there is a particular breakthrough Chikara describes that seems like it could be possible: gene therapy to treat hereditary conditions like congenital heart disease. How far has real life gene research come? I decided it would be interesting to see what I could find online.
Gene therapy is a branch of medicine that is currently seeing a lot of research, with many clinical trials currently underway for various conditions. The way gene therapy works is by attaching the modified genes to something like a virus and then using that virus to introduce the therapeutic genes into the body. This can be dangerous due to complications with the virus, so using nanoparticles to make this delivery instead is also being tested. In the US, there are a handful of conditions with FDA-approved gene therapies available, including a couple of cancers as well as rare disorders of the skin or eyes. The most common gene therapy is CRISPR-Cas9, but even that is primarily being utilized on animal cells or isolated human cells. This is all to say that even the tamer accomplishments shown at the Horadori Institute are aspirational, applications of gene therapy that we may hope to achieve someday but are currently still being thoroughly researched and tested. And that’s to say nothing of the ethical implications – currently in the UK, performing gene editing therapy on any cells which would be passed down generationally is illegal, so there is still a lot to unpack with this science. While we’re beginning to see the genesis of this research in real life, the gene therapy shown in nirvanA Initiative is for the most part firmly in the realm of science fiction.
While in the original Somnium Files the organization Naixatloz was introduced as a satanic cult or a secret organization connected to aliens, in nirvanA Initiative we get to meet members directly and see their true colors. Naix is an “ideological society” whose ideology is simulation theory: the belief that reality as we experience it is actually a technologically-generated simulation not unlike The Matrix. Naix in particular states that their ultimate goal is to no longer be trapped inside the simulation, and to instead see the real world. Now simulation theory is something I’ve always seen presented in a joking light as internet memes rather than a real theory, so I was curious how much of the “evidence” that Naix references is actually used by real-life simulationists to back up their claims. What proof do people think is out there? That’s what I wanted to learn.
I was surprised to find that most of what Tokiko Shigure explains with regards to simulation theory strongly matches reality, even down to name dropping specific pioneers in the field. I read two articles – one from Vox and one from Scientific American – and between the two of them they covered basically every explanation and argument that Tokiko goes through when she is explaining simulation theory to others in the game. From the cave paintings to Bostrom’s trilemma to the butterfly dream to quantum physics, the ideology that drives Naixatloz in nirvanA Initiative absolutely does exist in real life, and there are people thinking about it other than just Elon Musk or the developers at Spike Chunsoft. That said, in terms of actual proof in favor of simulation theory, it’s about like trying to prove the multiverse exists. Most of the arguments for it have more logical explanations and there are plenty of reasons not to get too caught up in the idea that reality isn’t real. So while the simulation theory as described by Naix does have a perfect match in reality, at the end of the day it’s just a realistic portrayal of what is ultimately a conspiracy theory.
As was the case with the first Somnium Files, nirvanA Initiative uses a lot of concepts from real life and punches them up to make the science fiction setting feel authentic and relevant. While some of the real science is stretched to its limit and a little more credence than is warranted is given to the conspiracies, it’s all in the name of creating a compelling mystery for the players to solve. I’ve been enjoying the game a lot and I can appreciate it even more knowing how much research went both into the mechanisms of the crimes as well as the philosophy to which they might be connected.