In a world inhabited by unimaginable demons, the most frightening sight was a familiar face.
Protagonist Ringo and her band of Devil Summoners were near the finish line — they had finally unmasked the identity of their nemesis and were ready to take them down. But on their way to the encounter, as they ran through isolated alleyways and infinite rows of shipping containers, one particular demon stood out from the rest. They looked just like Ringo: same clothes, same hair, same sword in their hands. The only difference was a shadow cast upon their head that covered their eyes, and the ear-to-ear grin as they prepared to attack.
It was the first time I laid eyes on a Doppelganger in JRPG Soul Hackers 2. This demon, which has been present in several games in the Shin Megami Tensei series (of which Soul Hackers, like Devil Summoner and Persona, is a spinoff), has the ability to mimic someone’s appearance. As if finding a reflection of yourself wasn’t eerie enough, the universe’s description adds to its unsettling presence. In Soul Hackers 2, the Doppelganger is considered a “phantom copy of a living being.” The demon is usually regarded as an omen of bad luck — while it’s common for others to spot them from afar, it’s said that “one may see their own Doppelganger in the moments before they die.”
While Ringo survived the encounter, I was left with an uneasy feeling. Later on, as is common in developer Atlus’ suite of games, I had the chance to recruit the demon, and they greeted the group with mockery: “I’m Doppelganger… or maybe you’re the fake, and I’m the real one.” The mimic was not only uncanny, but proud of re-creating the protagonist so easily. In the context of Soul Hackers 2, in which society is under constant surveillance and an AI called Aion acts as an overseer that literally predicted the end of the world, the prospect is even scarier. If Ringo, who is an incarnation of the universe’s vast sea of information, can be so easily mimicked, is there any privacy left at all?
In August, Motherboard reported on how Facebook shared private conversations between a 17-year-old and her mother with law enforcement, providing details for an investigation of an apparent abortion made at their home in Nebraska. Ever since Roe v. Wade was overturned, denying the right to access safe and legal abortions in some U.S. states, there has been renewed concern about data gathering, especially in regard to period tracking apps. What’s more, in an NPR report, Evan Greer, director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, pointed out that using apps that collect data in a clinic that offers abortion services can also leave a record of the location. “Any app that is collecting sensitive information about your health or your body should be given an additional level of scrutiny,” Greer told NPR.
As companies continue to collect and sell personal information through apps (and Roombas now owned by Amazon), identity theft is becoming increasingly more common. AI imaging tools such as DALL-E can effectively re-create the work of many artists and win competitions. Deepfakes are still a thing. Cyberattacks, impersonators, data breaches — the list goes on.
Soul Hackers 2 is set in a fictional depiction of the 21st century where privacy holds little to no weight. One conversation in particular, in which somebody asks Ringo if it would be possible for Aion to read minds, paints a grim reality. While literal “mind reading” can’t technically be achieved, the amount of data gathered from each person can easily lead to a similar result, allowing the AI to guess the answers in certain conversations before the words even leave the person’s mouth. It sounds dystopian — but with the current state of the world, it’s not wholly unbelievable.
This future is taking shape in our everyday routines on different scales. While writing this piece, I saw a TikTok featuring Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg dancing to “Despechá” by Rosalía being shared on Twitter and Instagram. For the trained eye, one can easily discern that this is a random person using a deepfake of Bryan Cranston’s character. But of the thousands of comments across the profile, which has millions of views and followers, not everyone is able to notice that it’s fake.
Ringo’s Doppelganger wasn’t a perfect match either, but it was enough to trick some people. During a side mission called “Girl’s Night Out,” a detective confronts Ringo to say that she was spotted shoplifting at two separate stores. The managers demand the payment they think she owes, before the detective discovers that Ringo was supposedly sighted in one of the subway lines just a few moments ago. Turns out, the thief was a Doppelganger all along.
In Soul Hackers 2, the sight of a Doppelganger is often an omen of bad luck. In our case, it’s an eerie reminder of the constantly surveilled dystopia we inch closer to every day. We don’t need an AI to predict our grim future — there’s living proof around us already.