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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.

It’s Official!

Your Parent’s Toolkit

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.

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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.

Sourced from: https://i.redd.it/b9cu00ywy4s01.jpg

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.

Source: https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/t_original/svpctcmyehf3coybx2tn.png

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).

Image source: https://oyster.ignimgs.com/mediawiki/apis.ign.com/horizon-zero-dawn/4/45/CauldronRho2_Screen_Shot_3-1-17%2C_4.13_PM.png?width=960

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.

Image source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/e2xjqdDeoec/maxresdefault.jpg

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.

WRAP UP

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.