Friday, November 4, 2011

Feminist Analysis of i love bees (Part 1)

(Written for the video version)

I hate bees, and oddly enough, that’s one thing I have in common with the main character of ilovebees. Okay, so prior to the release of Halo 2, Microsoft hired 42 Entertainment to make an alternate reality game to promote the game. An alternate reality game is a kind of role playing game/scavenger hunt where the lines between reality and fiction are blurred, and if all goes well you forget you’re dealing with an advertisement because you become so immersed in the environment. 42 has pulled off some really high-quality ARGs, and ilovebees is one of them. Thus, I would consider ilovebees to be at roughly the same level as the main articles of Halo fiction if not quite canon. ilovebees is also incredibly complex and hard to explain, but I’ll do my best.


In 2537, six-year-old Yasmine Zaman is abducted into the Spartan-II program because of her advanced intellect and ability to learn languages. In 2545, Dr. Catherine Halsey attempts to physically augment her to make her strong enough to wear MJOLNIR armor. She knocks her out with a black-lined syringe filled with yellow liquid and says it will only hurt a bit, “just a little sting”. Yasmine’s last thought is that it reminds her of a bee. When she dies during surgery, Dr. Halsey has her brain used to create a smart AI, who names herself Melissa subconsciously after the Greek word for bee. Yasmine’s memories are included in the program but sealed off so that Melissa can’t access them.
Melissa becomes the shipboard AI for the Office of Naval Intelligence spy ship Apocalypso. In 2552, the Apocalypso heads into Covenant space to try and pick up their transmissions. When Melissa is able to predict when a planet will be attacked, the Covenant realize someone’s listening in, so they send another transmission with a Trojan horse viral AI called the Seeker. The Seeker’s a spy sent to gather information and reveal it to the Covenant. When the Apocalypso picks up a Forerunner artifact floating around in deep-space, they believe it to be Covenant technology of a completely new design and turn around and head for Earth so it could be examined. The Covenant revere the Forerunner, and the Seeker’s especially interested in the artifact, so it influences Melissa to urge a crewmember to fiddle with the device.
Humans have this instinctual drive to activate Forerunner controls once they get close enough, so the device gets turned on. It emits a giant EMP while the ship is travelling through Slipspace, which causes weird things to happen. The ship crashes in Lunar orbit, all electronic communication in the Solar system gets disrupted for seven seconds, and Melissa is split into three parts as a bridge is opened to the past. She had a friendly relationship with a man named Jason Morelli, and one of the three parts ends up finding the home computer of his son Jersey in New Jersey (or New York City; hard to tell) in the present. The other two parts get sent back in time to 2004, where they find an amateur beekeeper’s personal website due to Yasmine’s last memory. This website is called I Love Bees.
In 2004, a young woman named Dana Awbrey makes a site for her Aunt Margaret to celebrate bees and advertise her honey business. When her site is invaded by AIs from the future, Dana tries to purge it of what she believes are viruses sent by some malicious hacker, but can’t get rid of them. She makes a blog about the issue and posts a message on ilovebees.com linking to it and asking people to help her fix the site.
If you went to the movies in July, 2004, you might have seen an ad for Halo 2. At the end of the ad, there’s the address for xbox.com. For a few seconds, it flickers and is replaced with ilovebees.com. If you went to the site, you’d find a glitchy beekeeping site with a lot of weird streams of consciousness. A young woman would ask for help, and you’d respond as if it were all real. That’s how the ARG began.
I’ll try to keep to fiction-perspective. On I Love Bees, there are two fragments of Melissa: The Operator, which is her cold logical Spartan side in great pain after the crash, and The Sleeping Princess, which is Yasmine’s child self, based on her human memories. She describes being locked up within the main AI as if in a glass coffin, hence the name Sleeping Princess. There’s also a process advanced enough to be called an AI: the System Peril Distributive Reflex—the SPDR, the “spider”—and the Seeker. The Sleeping Princess sees things as though they were in a fairy tale, and she renames The Operator as The Queen, the SPDR as The Widow, and the Seeker as the Pious Flea. As if it weren’t already confusing, right?
When they crash there, the SPDR, a minor AI kept within Melissa, activates automatically to assist in repairing her. It recognizes the Seeker as a threat and tries to kill it, but it runs and hides. It tells The Operator about this rogue process, and she comes to believe that the Sleeping Princess is it and tries to kill her. The Princess hides in the 404 page that comes up when you try to access a part of the site that doesn’t exist. The Seeker joins her. She tries to have a conversation with it while it rudely tries to “attach” itself to her. That is, it tries to get inside her and control her.
The Sleeping Princess is able to block it. She makes comments characterizing it as a boy trying to kiss her without asking. So, a genderless AI construct tries to assert control over her, and she portrays it essentially as a boy trying to sexually assault her. Note that unlike Cortana and Serina, the Seeker has no voice and no avatar. It is just text in a simplistic programming language fans have dubbed Flea++, partially derived from the SPDR, and the Sleeping Princess characterizes the SPDR as female—probably due to the mythological connotations its name has if you pronounce it as “spider”. The Seeker is the only entity on the site she considers male.
I believe this is due to classic conceptions of gender. The Seeker is a Trojan horse, a parasite that sneaks inside other AIs and corrupts them. It is possible that the Seeker is made male for its role as an invader. The feminine is seen as a passive nature associated with a home, while the masculine is an active and aggressive nature that may be associated with the assault of foreign establishments. This is sometimes used as a metaphor for sex, where a man tries to “get inside and occupy” a woman. In modern fiction, this is usually recognized to have rapey connotations. The Sleeping Princess’ conception of the Seeker as a boy trying to force a kiss can be interpreted as the rape reference played down to a childhood level of sexuality. More on the Seeker’s kissing later.
A similar male gendering occurs in the Sleeping Princess’ allegorical fairy tale Perdita’s Story. Perdita’s Story is a creepy little tale about a young girl who gets separated from her family and tries to find her way back home. The story is full of symbolism relating to Yasmine’s capture, with Perdita most obviously representing Yasmine herself. A particularly interesting part is where she befriends the Clockwork Rat, which as the name implies is a steampunk robotic rat. The Clockwork Rat first seems like an ally who will help her get back to her family, but they never quite find them, and the Rat starts converting Perdita into a cyborg while she sleeps. Perdita worries that she won’t be as beautiful as she was and that her family might not recognize her, but the Rat warns her not to look at her reflection. Eventually, she looks and weeps oil, and the Rat reveals that he has been conspiring to keep Perdita’s family from finding her. And that’s the end. The end. The end. It really has three “the end”s like that.
So, I think the Clockwork Rat is symbolic of Dr. Halsey and her Spartan program. Parts of his robotic body evoke the military and surgery. It’s interesting that the Rat is male when Dr. Halsey is female. Again, I attribute this to masculinity traditionally being associated with aggressiveness, and femininity associated with passiveness. In a fairy tale, however, one would expect some evil women like step-mothers or witches. The Sleeping Princess considers the Operator to be a Queen, but her femininity is the same as the Sleeping Princess’ given that they derive from the same being. In Perdita’s Story, all women are friendly. There’s the mother, who’s a part of her loving family, and there’s the Broken Lady from the circus, who in the alternate happy ending represents an obstacle where Perdita has to acknowledge that beauty isn’t important but is basically a good character that helps her.
Anyway, the SPDR repairs The Operator to a point where she’s able to access Dana’s webcam. She recognizes that Dana tried to kill her and tries to repay the favor but is restricted by the technological restraints of 2004. Dana flees to China, leaving the helpful Internet users to interact with the AIs via her email and voicemail. Around this time, the SPDR finds the Seeker again. The Seeker can’t confront it directly, so it contacts The Operator and indicates that it’s a SPDR of a more recent version, so she disables what she believes is an old copy.
There’s still some connection to the fragment in 2552. Digital files start sliding down the portal, what the Sleeping Princess calls the Mirror. The fragment is recording things, and we get a look at what it sees in a manner of speaking. Though it’s implied that the original files were video and audio, the Mirror greatly distorted them so that they’re now only audio. The 2552 part of the story makes up the audio drama part of ilovebees.
In the future, 18-year-old Jersey is upset to come across what he thinks is a porn ad downloaded on his system and tells his dumb AI assistant to remove the spam. This amuses me because it implies that Melissa’s avatar looks something like Cortana, a beautiful naked woman, and he thinks it’s porn. It seems like a little jab at Bungie for designing Cortana that way.
Jersey: “Jeanie, there’s an adult entertainment bot on the system. Liquefy it, will you?”
The fragment of Melissa responds by completely destroying it without blinking. Now thinking he’s got malware, Jersey tries everything he can think of to get rid of it, but the fragment’s ridiculously powerful and acts like they’re playing a game. He then realizes she’s a smart AI. She’s lost her memory and wants to stay with Jersey for companionship. He marvels at her power and decides to name her Durga after the Hindu goddess of war.
She reveals that she has great ability to spy and find things out. Jersey tests her on himself, and she rattles off a stream of information about him and his family, including the fact that his mom’s apparently having an affair. Jersey idly wonders if she could do that with powerful people in the UNSC, and she has nothing wrong with finding out. Durga doesn’t have much of a conscience or even loyalty toward the UNSC. Jersey urges her not to because it would be dangerous. He then asks her to spy on the hot girl in his apartment building, Jan James.
He doesn’t just stop at the initial information she picks up. He asks for pictures. Durga promises him she can do better than that, which I believe means video and audio, probably in hologram format. It’s like the cloak of invisibility. If you have the ability to spy without being seen, will you use it? Jersey will. He thinks it’s awesome and jumps in head first.
Now, you’re probably thinking right now that this is really messed up, and it is. Jersey is a voyeur, and he’s not particularly unlikable either. He’s actually rather lovable as a goofy, youthful character. Jersey’s voyeurism is not feminist itself, but it doesn’t frame the narrative like with Rear Window or the more recent Disturbia. ilovebees actually uses the subjects of voyeurism and spying as an interesting theme. Characters Kamal and Sophia spy in a similar way as Durga, and ONI’s got actual spies. At one point, Jersey says it would be creepy if someone were spying on him right now. On the I Love Bees website, the Sleeping Princess and the Seeker listen to him saying that, and the Sleeping Princess explains why that’s creepy and the Seeker understands and agrees. Because the humans reading that on the website are a part of the same universe, we players are effectively voyeurs and spies ourselves. The characters feel real enough that you can feel uncomfortable just reading the webpage.
So, the audio drama is split into different stories happening at roughly the same time. The main one focuses on Durga in her interactions with Jersey, while the others focus on the people she spies on. The first is Jan James on Jersey’s request; and then there’s Kamal Zaman—Yasmine’s brother; a spy named Herzog investigating the Apocalypso; and a girl named Rani who Herzog has picked for a protégé. These people were chosen without conscious understanding of why, but simply because Durga found them each interesting in some way. In my opinion, the audio drama is the best part of the game, so I’ll analyze it thoroughly in the next parts.

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