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Rules, rules, rules.

Welcome to Kimberly Unger’s blog!  Here you will find OPINIONS on all those entertainment industries my expertise touches.

Please keep discussions civil.  Drivebys/angry politicos/hateChat and other unhelpful comments will receive a tap with the banhammer.  Comments on any given post will be closed after two weeks.

The Issue with Aliens

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.

When games went from arcades to early consoles and PCs, the restrictions on enemy “humans” got lighter, but by then it had been baked into the culture.

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.

Galaga

Faceless opponents:

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.  

Space Invaders

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.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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).

Alien Hominid

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.

Halo 2’s Arbiter.

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”.

Comedic intent:

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?

Wrap Up:

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.

Death Becomes the Game

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.

Mind Games

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.

Immortality

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.

Audience Engagement

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).

Character Motivation

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.

Wrap Up

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.

The Road to Get There

Many times a story isn’t so much about what happens at the ending, but rather the journey taken to get there.  In fact the “road trip” movies of the 70’s and 80’s are a genre unto themselves.  Move this genre to science fiction and you have something that remains eminently relate-able to anyone who has ever had to cram five friends into a four-seater and make the run from Tijuana to San Francisco in eight hours OR ELSE*.

Hood cam shot of Musk's Tesla to the Stars
*Your personal road-trip experiences may vary, of course.

Allow me to to step up onto my soapbox for a moment to point out that a win-condition in games is a wildly varied thing.  When you try to describe a sandbox game like Minecraft to someone, one of their first questions is, “Okay, so how do you WIN?” Because everyone *presumes* that game==WINNING.  In the same way that enjoyment of a novel is not really about  the ending (you can have a great book with a perfectly unsatisfying ending and people will still love it) games are much more about the overall experience of play as they are about the win.

In games, the mechanics are the key, making sure that the interaction between player and game is a satisfactory (not even enjoyable, really) experience.  To that end, when we design a science-fictional videogame, the satisfaction of a science fiction audience is what we have in mind.  Not insofar as delivering the perfect fan experience, but rather delivering the same feeling of satisfaction a viewer/reader gets when when the hyperdrive finally kicks in, or when the final puzzle piece of a character’s backstory klunks into place, revealing the plan all along.  Science fiction audiences tend to be a little more patient, a little more drawn into the larger “what if” of a scenario and so those games tend to be a little richer, a littler slower when delivering mechanics to evoke that experience.

The Journey’s the Point

For this weeks article, I’m looking at science -fictional elements in games where the journey itself is the important thing.  In a more traditional media form this shows up in places like television’s Battlestar Galactica , or novels like Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Stephen King’s “The Stand“.  In games, however, journeys tend to appear most often in the independent or “experimental” games categories, often because the overall experience they deliver overrides the game mechanics you might otherwise use to classify the game.

A journey can span neighborhoods or galaxies.

By their very nature, journey stories tend to be lush.  The level of detail in the worlds is heightened, the incidents and activities that the characters engage in are more devoted to character building and growth than plot advancement.  They are more evenly paced and slower overall, allowing for moments of player introspection and world examination that make them perfect for the more existential “what-ifs” of science fiction.  There is often no end-goal in mind other than “arrive at Point B” and as such, the expectations of the audience are different than they might be with an action-narrative or a puzzle.

So with this in mind, I wanted to take a look at how science-fiction shows up in games that follow this more “experimental” format.  Game genres are identified by the primary mechanic the player uses to engage with the game.  We have the “First Person Shooter” or FPS, the “Real Time Strategy” or RTS and so on and so forth.  In a meta-game fashion, you can slot some of these AAA style games into the idea of a journey (Horizon Zero Dawn, after all, is all about Aloy’s journey from outcast savior of the world and there is a lot of road-travel in between those two points). In a real-playable terms fashion, these games often end up in the “experimental” game category, in large part because that’s where players looking for innovative experiences start looking for them.

Experimental Games

Experimental games in general are where a lot of concepts or mechanics can be tried out, especially if they are riskier.  Experimental games promise that, above all else, you’re going to be asked to take a leap of faith, to trust that the designers and engineers are going to deliver you an experience that is worth your time, even if you have never seen the mechanics anywhere else.  It’s a bit like ordering off the “degustation menu” at a high-end restaurant.  You don’t know what you’re going to get up front, but you know it’s going to be very good.

Key Concept: Cantankerous vehicle

“Far: Lone Sails”  is an independent game developed by Okomotive, originally for the PC, but it has since made an appearance on PS4  and is headed to other platforms as well.  The game takes advantage of one of the classic elements of sci-fi travel stories, the vehicle with a personality of it’s own.  Science fiction is full of vehicles that have some level of sentience.  In some cases they are fully aware, whole characters, in others they display moods and opinions through their own form of mechanical pantomime.  Sometimes the protagonist alone drives the impression, treating and speaking to the vehicle like a friend or lover.  But rather than the vehicle serving as a plot device (a-la the Tardis from Dr Who) or a fully realized character (such as The Ship Who Sang) the care, feeding and cajoling of your sail-ship is an integral part of the gameplay mechanics.  Your goal, after all, is to travel the dried-up seabed left after a civilization’s collapse.

Screenshot of your sail-ship in Far: Lone Sails
The care, feeding and maintenance of your ship will carry you through.

By taking this science fictional element and meshing it with a maintenance mechanic, the game has tied your survival, and ultimate success, directly to the ongoing health (and presumably happiness) of your cantankerous machine.

Key Concept: The Migration

The idea of the journey as a means to saving one’s village, or culture or civilization, crops up again and again in science fiction.  It might be a simple annual migration, as we saw in Homeward (Star Trek: TNG) or it might be a larger, more complicated trek and we are seeing just a small piece in a thousand year journey, as reflected in a work like Heinlein’s  “Orphans of the Sky”.  One of the best examples of this kind of story in videogames is Journey.  Very experimental in terms of not only it’s gameplay mechanics but that it was developed by indie studio ThatGameCompany and published by one of the big AAA publishers (Sony).  Much like Ecco the Dolphin did years before, Journey drove home the idea that the experience of playing the game, the journey itself was the best reason to play.

One of the most interesting aspects of this game is that, after a certain point, it becomes a multiplayer experience.   There’s no matchmaking, no signups or character creation tools.  Even more interesting, there is no method of communication, outside of pantomime and the ability to emit a PING.  As you work your way through this alien world, you simply… encounter other players, all traveling the same kind of journey as you, all with similar goals as you.

But, you may find yourself asking, how to you collaborate without words? How do you compete without a way to keep score?

And this, interestingly enough, is one of the key elements what makes the experience of playing Journey so unique.  It’s rather like being a stranded space-farer on an alien planet. You may know what you want, but the outcome when you encounter someone else is entirely dependent on you sharing similar goals.  You can’t make deals, you cannot rely on conversation or cajoling.  You have no common language to speak of. All you can do is PING.  It brings to mind films like The Arrival, where communication is the focus, but is frustratingly elusive.  But, at the end of the day, you all have the same goal, to finish getting from Point A to Point B and without a good reason to get there first (i.e. “winning”) it seems that many strangers are much more willing to work together towards that common goal.

Wrap Up

In purely narrative forms, the elements of the journey are often reflected in the development of the characters themselves, serving as a  way to reinforce and reflect.  For videogames, this often puts these kinds of stories into the Experimental Games category, not because they are less worthwhile than, say a FPS, but rather because when gamers are looking for an experience that is more introspective, that shows them something truly new and weird, that’s where they are going to start looking.