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If you’ve got kids, you’ve done a bit of googling. These days the origin of phrases, of objects or patterns or names is much less a mystery than it was even a mere twenty years ago. When your kid comes up with a question like “who invented the screwdriver” you know where to go, you know the answer’s gonna be there somewhere and, chances are, you’re kind of interested to know yourself.
But in science fiction, this kind of research introspection is often in short supply. Not only because it means rabbit-holing in a fashion that can derail the tightness of the narrative, but also because a certain amount of fuzzyness allows the story to evolve in new ways as it continues. Storytelling is full of “retcons”, where an author said one thing in Book 01 or Episode 01 and then had to walk it back in Book 03 or Episode 25, either due to an evolving plot or evolving science in the real world. Couple this with a reader/player’s boundless ability to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge and expectations and you have a recipe that benefits more from handwaving than accuracy.
In last month’s article, I had made a clear delineation between the three most common ways in which forerunner technology shows up in science fiction videogames. The first was as “Set Dressing”, where the technology forms a pretty backdrop and comprises some of the lore, but otherwise serves no other function. The second was “Excuse”, where the tech is a narrative force, either though lore and backstory or as the basis for supremely advanced technology but doesn’t really change the methods by which the game is played. The third, and the topic of today’s article, is “game mechanics”, where the technology and thought processes of said forerunners is an integral part of the methods by which the game is played. This last one is fairly rare in games, particularly in the AAA space, but there are a few who pull it off.
Horizon Zero Dawn is a Playstation 4 exclusive game that nails this third example. In many ways this game exemplifies the current best of the “forerunner” storylines present in games and lays bare the tendencies of humanity to turn history into “story” given enough time and generations.
At first glance this game appears to be a fairly straightforward skills-based action game. You are introduced to the current state of the world through a training level as a child. Much like all children you learn about what you can and cannot do by promptly sticking your foot in something forbidden. That forbidden element turns out to be an impromptu exploration of the abandoned forerunner tunnels near your home. An exploration, in fact, that gifts you a piece of ancient technology that will become an indispensable gameplay element as your work your way through the storyline. The Focus.
KEY CONCEPT: The Heads-Up Display
Now, here’s the thing. At this point of the game the forerunner technology is still basically an excuse. The bit of engineering is a heads-up display tool called the Focus. It gives you a menu system through which you can access your character stats and upgrades, it gives you the extra insight and information on the bad guys and it allows you to access essential backstory elements like crew logs and recordings. There are a lot of ways that this gets handwaved in games, from Issac’s projected display in Dead Space (as seen below) on through through no-seeum (displays only visible to the player, not their avatar) displays in fantasy RPG’s like Skyrim.
In the training area of Horizon Zero Dawn, despite the Focus’ overall immersiveness compared to other games, it is still merely a tool to deliver information, it’s not really a piece of the action. It is, at the outset, simply an Excuse. Forerunner technology used to gin-up the common player interface menu. However, by combining this tool with your player’s natural gift for mayhem, it will eventually become an integral part of just how you play the game.
As we get deeper into the game you start actively utilizing the rest of the forerunner technology available. The basic “sneak up and hunt things bigger than you” gameplay is a standard set of mechanics underpinning similar action/rpg games like Far Cry. By giving you the Focus, Horizon Zero Dawn starts you down the road to more options by allowing you to use the forerunner technology to your advantage.
As you progress through the game, you develop the tools to Override the now-feral machines, harnessing them and turning them into allies. This gives you a key advantage in encounters where you are facing multiple opponents, your robot-ally will defend you unto it’s vicious and sparkly death. It is, in fact, a version of this Override tool that allows to to deliver the coup de grâce to the final in-game boss.
KEY CONCEPT: What Killed the Forerunners
Like most modern adventure games the player gets to choose their path. These types of games are no longer designed with only a single set of linear decisions to make. There are hours of exploration and smaller quests available. If you are the type of player who is more interested in engaging with the world rather than chasing completion of the game, there is plenty here to engage you. However, as you go, you become more and more reliant on forerunner technology to complete more and more complex tasks. Tasks that would be nigh-impossible without this technology at your disposal. Your ability to complete these tasks is what gives us the translation from forerunner technology being simply an Excuse to becoming part of the gameplay.
Now, I will point out that, as a player, you’ve always had a “mission”. You may not have known what the end-game is quite going to look like, but like all stories, Horizon Zero Dawn has an ending. Part of your meta-goal as a player is to reveal what it is. In any narrative where forerunners are a key part of the gameplay, figuring out what happened to them, what killed them or how they evolved is a key element. In games, the goal is often to either A. defeat this same evil (i.e. prove that humanity has evolved past the forerunner’s shortcomings) or B. set your feet upon the same path (i.e. prove that humanity is worthy of the same kind of grand ascension to a higher state of being).
It’s interesting to note that most of the time forerunner civilizations either nuke themselves out of existence (via nukes or some other planet-glassing tech) or they ascend to a higher plane of existence. We don’t see as many forerunners who follow the more Earthly pattern of being subsumed into another culture or simply being invaded and taken over. In science-fiction, civilizations don’t just go quietly into the night, they either succumb to their worst impulses or become the best version of themselves and, either way, the POV character is a part of the group that comes after. Usually thousands of years after.
The world of Horizon Zero Dawn has been rebooted, quite literally. With the demise of the machines that drove the forerunner civilization to it’s destruction, the world reverted to a simpler state, one where self-replicating robots filled in niches in the ecosystem and technology of many sorts became vilified.
But as the player discovers over the course of the game, there are other groups in the world that have begun to seek and embrace the forerunner technology, reawakening the old machines to their old humanity-destroying agendas.
Technology belonging to a forerunner race, whether it be the human race or one from a far-away galaxy is a common science-fiction concept in videogames. In the case of Horizon Zero Dawn, this technology, and your mastery of those pieces of it that still work, are key elements not only of the gameplay mechanics but of the larger game narrative.
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Science fiction is littered, quite literally, with the corpses of long-dead civilizations. Forerunners, precursors, elders, the generic-ness of the names suggests that we can’t ever know the reality of them. At the same time, we cannot resist the idea of a vastly advanced race that came before us. Adding the relics of a long-ago culture to your science fictional video game gives you the opportunity to add depth and mystery to your world without the expectation that it will be resolved… Ever.
One of the differences between games and literary science fiction is the active presence of the player. In games (much like film or television) every little thing costs. It costs time, sure, but you’ve also got your designer, concept artist, sound engineer, gameplay engineer, texture painter, environment designer all involved trying to bring a story to life. Game players learned a long time ago that anything in a game is there with deliberate purpose. This is one of the reasons easter-eggs are so precious. They are a deliberate action, a gift, if you will.
This “every polygon has a purpose” mindset means that, like toddlers at the Louvre, game players will poke, prod, shoot, roll over, kick, pray to, finger, collect and carry about in one’s inventory for months in the (possibly vain) hope that an object will reveal its secrets. If, as a game designer, you failed to make it clear to the player that the forerunners are just part of the backstory, they’re going to burn hours on tasks that do nothing to advance the gameplay experience (or, these days, just head to the internet to see about a walkthrough). As a gameplay concept, this can work well in a sandbox style game, but if it’s something more immediate and mission based (say a FPS), it’s going to be rage-inducing.
In fact, where science-fiction videogames are concerned, I would go so far as to say that probably 80% have a forerunner civilization involved somewhere in the narrative. Sometimes you’re simply fighting your way through the ruins of their cities. Sometimes they have left behind a technology that is essential to finishing the game. Sometimes they are the reason given to all the incredible technological advances (like flying cars and full-body regenerations).
This gives us a loose “trope-y” framework on which to classify the presence of forerunner races in videogames. By and large, you’re going to see them pop up in one of three forms.
Set-dressing. Things like ruins with mysterious glowing lights or miles of dimly lit metal corridors. Sometimes even the ground itself is an artifact, like the ring-world in Halo: Combat Evolved (widely considered to be one of the best videogames of its era) and it’s sequels. Under the set-dressing heading, I would include elements like backstory, architecture and non-useable technology. Essentially, this focuses on elements that are used to deepen the world, but that are not essential or active participants in the playing of the game.
Excuses. Ray-guns the size of a BMW that you can yank out of your hip-pocket? Doomsday weapons that can wipe out all life on the planet? Flying cars (okay, maybe not that one) but any kind of handwave-y improbable technology is often attributed to the existence of a precursor race. The technology might be useful (even essential) but any hard sci-fi fan is going to peg it as a stretch. This kind of use is different from set-dressing in that it is often integral to the gameplay itself, The players need to interact with and.or use the technology rather than it serving solely as a worldbuilding element.
Game mechanics. These elements are *essential* to the way the game is played. Sometimes it is a technological tool that allows the player to complete the game, sometimes it is a literal change in the way you think about solving problems. Players may be asked to memorize musical notation or computer code, they may need to remember that the forerunner race had no single central brain and therefore headshots on the robots they left behind will never succeed. One way or another the game itself revolves around the player’s ability to understand and problem solve around a race that’s been gone for millennia.
Last time I talked briefly about the Anthem of Creation, a prime example forerunner technology and a core piece of that particular game. This week I want to take a look at Halo: Combat Evolved which showcases two out of the above three themes. The final theme: Game mechanics, I will cover in the next article in the series.
Now, let’s be clear, Halo is a first person shooter, or FPS. The general perception of these games is that they are light on story and heavy on the “pew-pew-pew”. While may have been accurate in the earliest days of the genre, at the AAA level everything has a story. How much of that story makes it into the game is up for grabs, but I guarantee you that somewhere in the design chain, somebody has a fully realized narrative that they are developing from. “But why bother writing the story if you’re just going to shoot everything anyway?” you may ask. The reason is simple enough. Games (almost every game, but there are always exceptions) are the product of multiple people. That means different experiences, different ideas and different styles. At the AAA level it can be tricky to streamline communication and production under a single visionary. So the story, the high-concept of the game is laid out. If a decision needs to be made on something small, or something that has to happen rapidly, it can be checked versus the story and the existing design to see if it will fit.
KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Dyson ring)
In the case of the first Halo game, we are delivered onto a larger-than-planet-sized Set Dressing referred to as the Halo ring. It is an artificial ring-shaped world built for an unknown purpose by a long vanished race. It is, essentially, variation on the Dyson sphere. A ring-shaped artificial habitat surrounding a power-source (like a star). But, in the case of Halo: Combat Evolved, we are not here to examine the structure. We’re not here to figure any of this sh*t out. We are a super-soldier in an exo-suit being guided by an AI that’s a h*ll of a lot smarter than we are. It is merely the closest place for us to crash a broken spaceship. And so we do, quite spectacularly.
Of course, since we are in the middle of a combat scenario, and the guys who punched a hole in our ship are coming to finish the job, it is up to the Master Chief (our player avatar) to clear a path to what’s left of the command section of the ship. Bring on the pew-pew-pew!
But about halfway through the game, the Halo ring (which is one of seven that form the Halo Array doomsday device) goes from being Set Dressing to an Excuse. The ring itself is a tool, much like the Anthem of Creation from last month’s article, and direct intervention with this tool is key to the winning of the game.
KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Doomsday Weapon)
As we power through the narrative via a now standard set of shooter game mechanics, more of the world gets revealed to us and we come in contact with the immortal maintainers of the Halo ring. These are not precursors or forerunners themselves, but rather they are stewards and as such form another piece of the overall gameplay puzzle. The ring is being overrun by a parasitic organism called The Flood. The stewards are responsible for keeping the infection under control. The arrival of the survivors of the crash and the enemies that are hunting them has provided a fresh new source of hosts for the Flood and, of course, the clock begins to count down. You (as the Master Chief) and your smarter half (Cortana, the AI) are engaged to help activate the Halo ring, which will eliminate the Flood and save the day.
So, through the discovery of these stewards and the reveal of the ring as more than just a big, dumb, object, the forerunner technology takes a step forward from Set Dressing to Excuse.
Why Excuse rather than Game Mechanic? Because you, as the player, still don’t get to work with any of this technology. It doesn’t require you change the way you think or the way you play. You don’t get bigger, fancier shields or bigger, better guns. You now have robot friends with improbable beam weapons and have been told of some kind of super weapon you can use to save the day, but you don’t really get to use much of anything the elder civilization left behind. As a gameplay element the precursors and their technology are still just a way to explain not only the structure of the ring world but the presence of the new bad guys (the Flood), the robot friends and their beam weapons and ultimately a doomsday weapon that only a human can fire.
KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Busted by humans)
In Halo: Combat Evolved, we never get to the point where the forerunner/precursor technology is a central to the gameplay mechanics themselves. In games that is a much more rarified event. Here are the technology serves as a threat, it serves as a location and only very occasionally serves as a tool. In fact the climactic moment of the game involves, not the use of the advanced race’s technology to win the day, but instead the oldest trick in the book. Blowing up the remains of your crashed ship. This cracks the ring world and defeats the forerunner/elder civilization technology without the player ever really engaging with it in a meaningful fashion.
THE WRAP UP
So while Halo: Combat Evolved does a reasonable job of using the science fiction concept of an elder civilization as an underpinning for the game, it never makes the final jump to having that experience being a more intimate part of the game experience. That is reserved for other AAA titles on the market. However, within the greater context of Halo’s climactic moment, this makes perfect sense. After all, it is by reverting to the technology that the main character (and through them the player) has at hand that the the day is saved. The story of Halo at the end of the day, is that humanity’s current state, their will to survive, trumps the rationale put forth by their ancient ancestors.