Other than Aliens, is there anything more science-fictional than spaceships? I think not. From the earliest days of cinema we’ve had a fascination with the kinds of vehicles that get us off the planet we were born on and out into the vastness of space.
So let’s have a little conversation this week about a particular kind of vehicle. Your hero or main cast-member’s one true love. Their one and only reliable family member, the one thing they will fight and die for before the narrative turns them into somebody with a wider gaze.
You know the ships I’m talking about, the Millennium Falcon, Serenity, the Tardis, the Heart of Gold… (just to name a few of the best known examples). The idea of vehicle as compatriot comes through into many other genres, it’s not restricted to science fiction. Travis McGee’s Busted Flush, Eleanor from Gone in 60 Seconds, Betty from American Gods are just a few of these reliable yet non-conversational characters.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that undying love and loyalty often appear in the guise of a machine.
Now in keeping with my usual game-centric theme, I’ll point out that video games don’t tackle these kinds of relationships unless they are working with somebody else’s intellectual property. We don’t tend to build them into our own narratives. There are a couple reasons for this. The partnership of person and machine seems to be outside the usual run of video game protagonists and sidekicks.
Wait, wait, wait… I can hear the laundry list of objections rise to your keyboard and those will be addressed shortly.
To the difficulty in bringing a vehicle to life games is less of an issue with making an inanimate object come to life and more in a question of game design.
So let me ask you, when was the last time you played a game that took place in a single room? Or even a single level? Yes, there are exceptions, especially in the indie game arena, but having the game design a character locked into a single place becomes a challenge. A place that the player has to return to in order to gain a narrative interaction becomes a weight. It becomes the kind of thing that slows a game down. The player may have progressed through the tasks or other requirements, but the psychological heft of that space and their need to return to it can cause a game to feel restricted, held back.
This is a very different effect than having a home-base, like the Tower in Destiny. A companion-vehicle is a character in their own right rather than simply a location. And as a character they are most effective via their interactions with the player. Their very nature prevents them from having any other expressive outlet.
In order fulfill their role as a character they have to be able to travel with the player, otherwise all your gameplay happens in isolation.
All of this means that these kinds of characters have been eliminated from games almost entirely. Instead of the “ship with a soul” video games lean into the “Swiss Army knife sidekick” idea. Our loyal and sometimes less than on the ball machines are no longer vehicles, they instead travel with the player in a much more literal sense. They posses a physical form like the Ghosts in Destiny or they are mobile through the use of communications equipment. In almost all cases they lose the communications barrier that is often used to great effect in film or television. They stop being the unusual, slightly magical vehicle with a soul and instead become a full-blown member of the ensemble cast.
Which brings me to point number two. Communication, or the difficulty thereof.
The trick with nonverbal communication, like the Doctor ranting at something the Tardis has “said” or Han sweet-talking the Millenium Falcon, is that it’s remarkably hard to do in games.
We don’t know if the player on the other end is going to be an extrovert or an introvert. Are they going to be the kind of gonzo player that likes to pull a full-blown “Leroy Jenkins” and go charging into the battle at the drop of a hat? Are they going to be interested in the more subtle world-building elements or are they only going to be interested in which problem to solve next? In order to make an interaction work between player and vehicle work, the nonverbal communication of the machine has to be recognized and understood by the player.
In cinema/television and even the written word, this is a far easier thing to accomplish. Your main character and your sidekicks are matched, even designed, to work well with one another. The doctor never misunderstands the Tardis unless the narrative requires him to do so. Han and the Falcon always seem to know exactly what to say to each other at exactly the right moment.
But in video games we have the randomness of an unscripted interaction. You might have a player who decides they’re not going to put up with this ship’s bullshit and will ignore every type of communication other than the written word. You may have another player who is so into the interaction between themselves and the ship that they fail to execute the rest of the game in any meaningful fashion.
These are both perfectly valid styles of gameplay, but the disconnect between them and the larger game experience becomes a problem in a world where you want a player to feel rewarded and fulfilled by the end of the experience. Both of these play-styles really need their own style of design and the vehicle-as-family is not a robust element on it’s own to base an entire game around.
Add to that the fact that one of the key problems with allowing for miscommunication in video games is that the game player is never sure if it was done on purpose. Was it included for a narrative reason? Did they miss something? Is it a BUG!?! The uncertainty factor is high and can make disruption of the overall gameplay experience a very real possibility if the developers don’t take the proper care.
As a closing example of mysterious communication, I will point you at the Myst games from the 1990s. Created by the developer Cyan, Myst and it successor Riven, were some of the original blockbuster puzzle games. It’s the mystery game by which many science-fiction mystery properties have been held to as a standard and it serves as both an example and as a warning.
More players rage quit this game because they were unable to find a clue then any other game at the time. It was hard, intellectually hard, to get through from start to finish. It required taking, maps, careful thought and even a bit of library research in order to complete. Millions of people played and millions of people failed to gene get pat the first level of the game.
BUT. In order to tolerate that level of frustration on the part of the players, you have to have millions of game sales. It’s not enough to be hard to play, there has to be a compelling reason for players to put up with the effort and trouble. It’s not the kind of thing that you want to be banking a multi-million dollar investment on.
So if you’re looking for that silent sidekick. That quirky vehicle that manages to make sure you end up in the right place at the right time in order to continue the story, video games are probably not going to give you that kind of interaction. At the moment that is still comfortably the purview of film television in the literature, rather than video games.
You knew we were going to get here sooner or later, didn’t you. One of the most interesting things about aliens showing up in videogames is that they often serve the same purpose as they do in broader science fiction.
So let’s talk about aliens in videogames a little bit. You knew we were going to get here sooner or later, let’s be honest. When you say “science fiction“ to your average person, rocket ships and aliens are the two things that come to mind first.
Rocket ships we will tackle another day.
Video games love their aliens. When games first started out, decades ago, there was a resistance to having human-form enemies. Mowing down ranks upon ranks of little pixelated people was simply not the way things were done. Never mind the fact that the state of graphics at the time gave you “people” that were on a par with your two year old’s first chicken scratch attempt to write his or her name.
In response to this, having your game take out hordes of aliens, or zombies, or skeletons was an easy way to get humanoid looking enemies while not crossing that invisible line that denoted people as bad-guys was one step too far for light entertainment.
And as an industry we have used aliens heavily ever since. Not always in science fiction stories (okay, granted, some might argue that the mere presence of an alien from outer space categorically defines a work as science-fiction, but I would argue that you’d need to look at the use-case… *cough cough GTA*). Sometimes it’s a tongue-in-cheek presentation, sometimes there’s a key element of plot that revolves around an alien presence, sometimes they’re just there as enemies, as friends and all the grey* spaces in-between.
Faceless hordes are the oldest trick in the book where videogame aliens are concerned. Earliest games like Galaga and, of course, Space Invaders just threw hundreds of copies of the exact same sprite (or pre-programmed set of pixels) at you over and over. Sometimes in waves, sometimes in small strike forces and every so often you got to fight a big, bad boss. Because the levels were often “procedurally generated” (ie, created by the software following a set of rules, rather than designed by hand) these games could literally go on forever, if you had enough quarters in your pocket.
These types of “wave tactic” aliens show up in literary science-fiction as well. Novels like “Starship Troopers” boast aliens who rely on the kinds of military tactics that involve throwing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bodies at an opponent, overwhelming them by sheer numbers rather than brinkmanship. While literature has the time and pacing to go deeper into the motivations of these kinds of aliens, in “wave” games the focus is usually tightly tied to the gameplay mechanics and the motivations are left to the imagination of the player.
While many of the early 8-bit games relied on this kind of wave attack to extend gameplay time (and to keep you feeding quarters into the machine), more recently they have evolved into RTS (Real Time Strategy) experiences. The pace is a little slower, but the enemies keep coming and, beyond the basic “invasion” premise, the specifics of why they are invading and who they are tend to stay very sketchy in-game. They are invading, you’re defending, get down to business.
They’re not all bad:
The alien with the heart of gold is a popular idea, not least of all because game players love the idea of a redeemable villain. Sometimes the alien is the protagonist (as played by the gamer), sometimes a sidekick or sometimes a helpful NPC (non-player character).
Most of the time when we find the “not all aliens” idea popping up in games, we have a clear point of reference between the “good guy” alien helping us out and the cast of characters arrayed against the hero. (This, by the way, is a different scenario than a traitor “mechanic” which is rare in videogames, but pops up a lot in traditional tabletop games). In order to make this effective, the presence of the “good guy” alien is often revealed later in the game and the player is often privy to the events that cause this change in the alien’s mindset.
In Halo 2, for example, we are introduced to the Arbiter, a disgraced Elite warrior of the Covenant who is offered a chance to redeem himself by taking on the mantle of Arbiter (a position nobody holds for long). The game then splits the player’s gameplay time between the Master Chief and the Arbiter as both storylines head towards a collision. By the time they meet in-game, the Arbiter has achieved a greater understanding of just how his people are being manipulated and the Master Chief has come to understand that the Covenant are not just a monolith. There may be a way to bring some of the Covenant factions over to humanity’s side of the fight.
They are way cooler than us:
The deeper we get into the backstory of any aliens involved in a videogame, the more narrative elements the game is going to have. On the simplest end, we have our “invading aliens” shooters like Space invaders, but at the complete other end of the spectrum we have large, complex action RPG’s like the Mass Effect series of games.
Not only does the braided narrative of Mass Effect allow the main character to develop along the lines of a player’s personal preferences, but it incorporates multiple smaller storylines as well as an extensive Codex or world and background information on pretty much everything in the world a player might need to or want to know. This level of depth allows the game to deliver multiple elements on the theme (Forerunners, as an example) that would normally be more effectively done in a literary form.
Much like different races (Orcs, elves, etc) in Fantasy RPG’s, aliens in these larger-scale properties tend to be better than humans along a particular axis. Stronger, faster, better able to use certain technology, psychic, whatever the improvable characteristics are, you will find them sorted between the different alien groups with humans as the “base standard”.
Funny science fiction is a subset of the genre that comes and goes depending on the talent that’s available to write it. Some years we have works of literary genius, some years everything seems to fall flat. Comedic intent can be anything from wry tongue-in-cheek references to popular culture and alien bobbleheads popping up in your hot-rod’s glove compartment to full-on situational comedies involving romance, mistaken identities and good old-fashioned fart-jokes (because every culture, on every planet, has a place in its heart for fart jokes).
There is an inherent ludicrousness in the presence of aliens in standard urban environments and scenarios. In the much beloved “Surgeon Simulator” we find a game that already borders on the silly, due to the sub-par physics-based nature of the controls, taking it one step further by handing the player an alien autopsy to take command of. Sometimes they are a perfectly serious inclusion in an X-Files type scenario, sometimes they are an out-of-the-box type situation (a-la Valente’s Space Opera) where the entire narrative, from the aliens to the circumstances is so far outside the norm that everyone involved just accepts the wackiness and moves on with their lives.
*speaking of humor, you didn’t think I could avoid working at least one pun in here somewhere, did you?
In videogames, aliens are one of the most versatile elements you can work with. From providing much-needed comedic relief to setting the basis for a well-balanced race and class system, adding aliens can mean adding critical gameplay elements and narrative backstory that will improve a wide variety of game styles and genres.
Something that every game designer must keep in mind is that the players are going to break all your toys. That’s part of being a game player. Take a look at the wealth of “speed runs” on YouTube sometime and you’ll find a whole array of methods by which players jump, skip, glitch through, dodge and otherwise break the game in service of getting to the end the fastest.
I’m bringing this up because as game players, we will find and exploit every mechanical possible in order to improve our success in a game. It doesn’t matter if the game has a win condition or not, what matters is our personal experience, how much satisfaction we derive. The truth of the matter is some of us get as much satisfaction from taking advantage of the game as we do in the objectives that the original game designers laid out for us.
Death as a Mechanic
Not “mechanic” as is the person who repairs your car, but rather in the vein of “deus ex machina”. Death as a mechanic in games serves many different uses. It’s original use was as a “paywall”. A way to get you to pony up another $.25 for another 15 minutes of glory. Those early games of Pac-Man and Asteroids didn’t need to include your death or destruction as a method of losing the game, they included it for the same reason it works in fiction. Death adds a ticking clock. It adds drama, conflict. It is the one thing that every single human (gamer or not) is uncomfortable with.
But once a player gets over that feeling that their mortality (in game) is important, death becomes just another tool you can use to win the game.
The various forms of brain-swapping are particular favorite of the cyber punk genre, that idea that the body might be disposable, but the important thing is the mind. It’s in this genre, and it’s close siblings, that the idea of death as a game mechanic starts to show purchase.
Although, admittedly, in a very timid form
Richard Morgan introduces us to the concept of “re-sleeving” in his recently-gone-to-Netflix Altered Carbon series of novels. In essence, every human in this post-singularity world, has a device installed that makes a backup of your mind (similar, in fact, to the identity disks in Tron). When your body is killed, your mind is downloaded to a new “skin”. They wealthy can afford clones of their original or favorite bodies, so they can wear the same face for millennia. People without the cash can buy or rent whatever they can get. The only permanent death is is when your device (referred to as the “stack”) is destroyed, which can happen in a variety of ways.
The gaming of this system is given to us as the key plot point. First, we have the client. A man who, in order to keep his conscience clear of what may be the only crime he thinks he was avoided committing (murder) blows out his own stack, preventing that evening’s download. When he is re-sleeved from the most recent backup (much like reloading your last saved-game file) everything that happened between the backup and his re-sleeving has been lost. In terms of videogames, this is one of the most common uses of player death as a tool. Here as a plot point in a novel, it is a rarity. Essentially it is being used to erase your mistakes and give one a fresh start.
And that may be one of the key differences between death and science-fiction games and death in science fiction novels. Death in games is rarely permanent (though there are games out there that kill your character permanently), much like reading a Marvel comic. But in science fiction literature, death is an important character motivator, so even in worlds where death is not to be feared, the stakes have to be set high. There is always a way to die.
One of the other key ways death is expressed in both games and literature is the concept of immortality, inability to die what so ever. In games this kind of mechanic is nearly an impossibility. Without the setbacks that going along with the players death (even if it’s not “permadeath”), the game very quickly gets boring. In sandbox games like Minecraft, the player never has to die even if they are playing on creative mode. But in those cases, sooner or later, most players start engaging in risky behavior, they knowingly attract or encourage the presence of monsters for no real reason other than the thrill of escaping them.
Science fictional literature, on the other hand, seems to have no real problem with immortal characters. They reoccur fairly regularly and often start to exhibit the same characteristics as a bored game player (risky behavior, a lack of care, boredom). Jack Vance starts this trend back in the 50’s with “To Live Forever”, a novel that points out that being immortal doesn’t keep one from making the same kinds of mistakes and have the same kinds of desires as a mortal. And while Charles Stross’ “Neptune’s Brood” universe deals with a post-human world, he gives an excellent look into the kinds of mindsets that are possible, and even common, when time-frames stretch into the millennia.
We all get attached to our favorite characters, whether they be in literature or in games or television/film. We are worried when we see our favorites taking on questionable heists, joining a team that wants to blow up the Sun, etc. We rage when a favorite gets killed off in a series or a show.
Once of the best literary (though not specifically science-fiction) examples of this was the death of Sherlock Holmes, which engendered a public display of mourning and eventually compelled Doyle to bring the character back. In videogames, we recently had the death of Cade6, one of Destiny/Destiny 2’s main narrative characters, which caused quite a stir (and if you don’t think video-games can cause an emotional reaction the way literature can, I challenge you to play through the Destiny 2 storyline for Cade6 and not come away weeping).
Death is the oldest backstory fluffer in the book. Husband, wife, child, lover, beloved pet, the life of a protagonist in both science fiction games and literature almost always involves a dead someone. Sometimes it is merely an explanation for what drives the character, sometimes it is much more directly plot related. The characters goal may be taking on risky tasks in exchange for enough money to revive a deceased loved one. So even while our imagined future societies have made death relevant, the ability for death to motivate us does not diminish. It is hardwired in.
I have to admit, death as a mechanic, either as a tool for the author/narrative designer to drive the story or as a literal game mechanic is not as prevalent as I would expect to see. The fact remains that death is one of the prime motivators, both of in terms of plot and of player/reader engagement. It is something that everyone, who consumes narratives in any fashion, is able to relate to on some level. As such, I feel that cheapening it is a risk. Turning it into a common game mechanic, rather than something transgressive that players do *outside* the intent of the original game design, removes it’s power as prime motivator. The same goes for literature. Once we start seeing “easy” death an rebirth as a casual story mechanic, we lose the ability to add weight to the character’s decisions.
This is not to say that death as a mechanic should not be avoided at *all costs*, but rather it should be a carefully considered choice on the part of the author/designer rather than a commonplace occurrence.