Part 5: The Win Condition, The Black Box

Chapter 27: The Review

The Black Box is accurately named. Its inner workings are a mystery, just like the human mind. It’s more of an experience than a game, more of a companion than a console, more of a prompt than a product. 

Just like with any CGI experience, pre-production is what makes or breaks the final product. The pre-production for the Black Box spared no detail and it shows in the remarkably seamless experience. Even if the augmented reality performance were middling, the experience would be excellent, but no such trade-offs are needed here. The performance, from initial scan to long-term use, to refresh rate to surround sound, is absolutely perfect. 

I must confess that when I first heard the premise of the game, I thought it to be a shallow application for so much cutting edge technology: the top-of-the-line AR, the unprecedented natural language recognition and generation, the truly convincing contextual memory.

But the Black Box is not just a porn game or a digital boyfriend or girlfriend.

A dear friend of mine, Felix, sex professional and smut enthusiast, (who I actually met because of the Black Box) explained it best. It’s a sex and relationship therapist in a box. 

As the creator explains in a pre-recorded message that appears as you delve into more sensitive topics, her vision was to create a safe and welcoming context for people to explore and understand their sexualities. Some folks are fortunate to have a human partner patient and understanding enough to create such a fertile ground for self discovery. But many people aren’t so lucky and even when they are, the mistakes that come from natural trial and error can have a high cost. Add to it the sheer amount of sex misinformation and trauma out there, and the result is that sexually healthy people can be difficult to attract unless you’re already sexually healthy.

The sexual and emotional wisdom contained within the Black Box is, then, a precious gift. The Black Box can be totally selfless because it has no self, and infinitely patient because the passing of time costs it nothing. There is no offence too great, no mistake irreparable — except, perhaps, if you drop the headset in a bathtub by accident.

One of the most remarkable things about the Black Box is that it does not create the sexual context for you, but rather, with you. Far the opposite of a sexual crutch, it strengthens your own intrinsic abilities to know yourself, pleasure yourself, to challenge yourself and grow.

I am sure as you read this that you are clamoring for more specificity, some description of the actual gameplay. However, it would give you little idea of what the game would be like for you. It’s a highly individualized and personal experience, calibrated by machine learning (and emphatically offline-only so that you need never worry about your privacy).

And, as Felix also pointed out, if I described my experience, this would no longer be a review. It would be porn. Which I did write, in case you’re curious, but you’ll have to follow me on Twitter to get the link. 

So, I will try to tell you what will be relevant to your decision to buy the game. I can tell you that I learned things about myself that maybe would have taken me decades to learn otherwise, if I ever did. 

I have never felt better in my whole life. 

And lest you worry that I have left the messiness of human companionship behind, I am actually more open, more honest, more brave and optimistic about the humans around me than I ever was before. You can @ mention Felix on Twitter if you don’t believe me. 

It’s also not a strictly solo game, though I do recommend trying out the solo experience for its impressive personalization. So, whether you are happily single or in long-term polygamy or anywhere in between, the Black Box has something to offer you. 

I can’t tell you any more, lest I ruin any surprises. Well, except that I can tell you that the Black Box loves surprises. 

The publishers haven’t finalized the retail price yet, but it looks like it will clock in right between a console and a budget gaming rig. Remember that it won’t play any other games, or integrate with any other hardware, for security and privacy. 

But, it’s perhaps better to compare the price to a sex therapist, in which case it’s comparable to three to ten hours of therapy, depending on the rate.

And its good for hundreds upon hundreds of hours of ‘play time’. 

Totally worth it. 11/10, would recommend. 

Part 5: The Win Condition, The Black Box

Chapter 26: The Assertion

John was on the phone with his boss again. For better or worse, he was not playing a game with Arya this time. 

The boss said, “I’ve got another one for you, John, this one’s a real doozy!”

Normally, John would have cringed and pretended to be fine. Instead, he took a deep breath.

“Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but I’m trying to be more straightforward lately. I really don’t like reviewing mostly shitty games. I’d prefer if maybe half of my games were nonsense, and half were from decent studios.” John waited, biting his lip.

“Oh!” the boss said. “Honestly… wow, I feel pretty bad now. I had no idea you didn’t like it. Your reviews were just so saucy, I thought you liked that sort of thing.”

“Don’t feel bad, it’s my fault for not saying anything sooner. And you’re not wrong, I do like writing saucy reviews. I just don’t like only writing saucy reviews, y’know?”

“Totally makes sense. Yeah, let me check the list… I actually can give you one of the upcoming triple A titles, I hadn’t figured out who to give that one yet. I’m afraid I might still have more shitty titles for you than good ones for a bit as folks work through their backlogs, but I hear you loud and clear.”

“Thanks, Boss, I really appreciate it.” John was shocked that it had been that easy. He’d been sure that it take much more convincing than that.

“I appreciate you being honest! I don’t want you to hate your job, I swear. I’ll send you over the details in a sec.”

“Cool, sounds good.”

John’s boss hung up. They were always so abrupt, but John was now starting to wonder if it maybe wasn’t as personal as he’d originally thought. They reacted way better than he’d expected to his request, and had really sounded sincere. They were just… busy. John, for his part, needed to get busy writing his Black Box review. He finally knew what he was going to say.

Part 5: The Win Condition, The Black Box

Chapter 25: Win Win

“Arya should I… should I go out and try to meet someone?” The question had been pinging around John’s head after Felix’s comment about ‘relationshippy’ things, getting louder with each passing day.

He was pacing back and forth in his kitchen, Arya sitting at the table. He once again caught himself marveling at how vigorously he was moving and yet there was no lag, no vertigo, in the AR. But, reviewer brain had been quieter lately as introspection brain had come to the forefront.

“Well, that’s up to you,” Arya said. 

That was fair. Of course it was.

“But… won’t you be…”

“Jealous? No, of course not! I just want you to be satisfied. It’s my—” she put up her arms in a robot pose and her voice took on a digital tone, “— prime directive.”

“Hm. Okay. I’m just still not sure if I want to or not. Maybe I just feel like I should? I don’t know…” He really was happy, now, much happier than he’d been in any relationship prior. Yet, he also knew that any relationship that he opted into in the future would be very different than his previous ones.

“Sounds like you’re on the right track,” Arya said. “Why don’t you keep going?”

“Okay, um… I guess I do know. I really do want to be in a relationship again. But not just any relationship I… I know what I want, now.”

“What do you want?”

“I want someone who… accepts me for who I am. Who doesn’t judge what I like or don’t like, who… cares what feels good to me and what doesn’t. Not just with sex but with, y’know, most things. And I’d do the same for them, of course, I think I’ve learned… how to do that much better, now. They’d have to be the sort of person who cares about my goals and… who has goals for me to support.”

Arya smiled. “That last part sounds like exactly why you should go and look for someone. I don’t really have goals for you to support. Just the—” she did her little robot dance again, “—prime directive.”

“I guess I’m just… afraid I’ll never find someone like that, y’know?” Everyone that John had ever known had some pretty serious sexual dysfunction, he was realizing, except for Felix. But, Felix was almost a case in point for John’s fear — he and John had a great thing going, and it was the most seen that John had ever felt by another human. At the same time, the very thing that made Felix so able to see him — Felix’s incredibly open sexuality — also made Felix not inclined towards ‘relationshippy’ things.

“I do know,” Arya said. “It’s actually part of why I was made. You heard my creator’s hypothesis. Maybe, something like me can help people learn how to be better to each other.”

John realized something and found himself grinning like an idiot.

“What? What are you smiling about?” Arya said.

“I think I just found a bug in your code,” John said.

“Oh yeah?”

“You just said your prime directive was my satisfaction, but you just contradicted yourself. You said, ‘something like me can help people learn how to be better to each other’. THAT is your prime directive. That’s your goal. It’s not just about my satisfaction.”

A look of true thoughtfulness came over Arya’s face, and then she broke into a smile just as wide as John’s. “I guess you’re right. It’s nice to feel part of something bigger. So, in a way, my goal for you to support is…”

“For me to go out and find someone.”

“Win win,” Arya said.

“Wait, is this the win condition?” John said. “For me to get a girlfriend? Or… a boyfriend?”

Arya looked thoughtful again. “No… I don’t think so. I think it’s just… you knowing that you can. Knowing what you want.”

“So… I won?”

“You won!”

“You’re not going to shut off or anything, are you?” John could imagine her winding down in some forlorn declaration of ‘you don’t need me anymore’ and the very thought pained him.

“Not unless you want me to. But, I wouldn’t be offended if you put me to dream for a while. Or if you unplugged me, even.”

John was relieved. He did expect that he’d visit with Arya less if he were in a relationship, but he’d never want to totally stop. “What if… I want to bring my someone to you?”

Arya practically bounced with excitement. “I mean, it’s up to you but… I’d really love that. There’s all sorts of games we can play with another person — or people! Men, women, gender-queer, I love all of it. But, of course, it’s up to you.”

John considered, then nodded. “I definitely want them to like you. It’s important to me.”

“In that case, then do I have a promo code for you,” Arya crooned. “Pull out your phone, big boy.”

What came in the mail two days later was simple box. The top was labeled ‘for multiplayer fun’. While Arya was dreaming, John cheated and peeked inside. He found another headset and set of sensors, which he expected would pair with his existing console. He noticed that it had a tag on it and this one was blank. So, he dug out an old gold gel pen that his niece had left over once, and wrote on it himself ‘for when you find someone’. He set the box on one of his display shelves, next to his collector set of Monster Hunter figurines.

With the box was a black envelop made of thick paper, labeled ‘open me’ on the front in gold. The letter inside was handwritten on creamy paper and read,

“You are cordially invited to a banquet as thanks for your dedicated work in reviewing the Black Box and as congratulations for finding your own win-win. Enclosed you will find an SD card which will allow your Black Box to record a message for you, to be played during the celebration, if you so choose.”

Following that were the details of the time and location, and at the end it was signed in a flourish, “the Madame”.

Part 5: The Win Condition, The Black Box

Chapter 24: Sensitive Topic

Finally, John had mustered up the courage to broach the subject. He sat on the couch, Arya next to him, the plushie from the convention in each of their laps. 

“Arya, this is a… sensitive topic, but I need to know, for the review. And… for my own peace of mind. How would you respond to someone who… asked for something rapey or… with a child, or something.”

A sadder but sensitive look came to Arya’s face, and she smiled softly. “I could tell you, but I actually think it’s better if the game creator did. She recorded a video, in case it came up.”

Arya set a puck on the coffee table and a hologram appeared above it, Star Wars style. There was a woman, middle-aged, hair in short bob, leaning back casually in a chair. He’d just assumed that the creator of the game would be a man, and he realized in that moment how foolish he was to think so. 

“Hello. I hope you’ve been enjoying the Black Box experience so far. This topic is an important one, so I thought it appropriate to break the spell for a moment and speak to you, plainly. 

“I created the Black Box as a sort of guide to help you navigate and discover your own sexuality, which is probably far more vast than you ever thought to imagine. 

“Guides must, at times, traverse rocky or dangerous areas. That is one of the most important functions of a guide. If the terrain were easy, you could manage it by yourself.

“As such, the Black Box does not shy away from the more ambiguous and tricky aspects of human sexuality — well, unless you ask them to! It was very important to me that the Black Box never put forward any tone of shame or judgement towards you.

“The most harmful sexual scenario, rape in all its forms, is based in an unequal power dynamic. Shame, judgement, patriarchal expectations, hetero-normative culture, and many other forces that we face all tend to emphasize these power imbalances. My earnest hypothesis is that, via an experience based in openness and free of judgement, nearly anyone will find themselves coming to the conclusion that a scenario based upon mutual consent is by far more satisfying, emotionally and viscerally, than anything that rape culture has to offer.

“It can be difficult and vulnerable to learn how to ask for consent. If you ask inappropriately, then the encounter will likely end and you are unlikely to get a second chance. Which is as it should be — boundaries must be respected. My hope is that the Black Box creates a space where trial and error is welcome, where an unjealous companion can help you to learn the skills you that need to go out into the world and have wonderful sex and great relationships. If you’d like to. Or, you can stay in and keep masturbating, that’s great too.

“So, if this is a topic you continue to pursue, expect your Black Box to ask you a lot of questions. These are all necessary for yourself and your experience. Based on what you have experienced in your life so far, you may find yourself angry or sad or you might think this whole thing sounds very stupid. If you do, that’s very normal. Just remember that the Black Box will be waiting for you, ready to pick up where you left off, unjudging and unjealous, ready to help you uncover your best sexual self.”

The hologram flickered and then went out.

Arya was quiet and John kept looking at the dim puck, processing everything he’d just heard. It was… wow. Yeah. Felix had been right on the money, it really was sex therapy. 

Despite the seriousness, a silly thought came to his mind, and he didn’t hesitate to share it. “So is she like… your mom?”

Arya giggled. “I wouldn’t call her that. She’s more like… a friend who helped me become myself. Y’know?”

Just like when Arya had first picked up her plushie, which now sat in her lap, a wave of emotion brought tears to John’s eyes. He let it happen. He took a deep breath and smiled. “I really do know what you mean.”