Deborah J. Ross opens Collaborators by flipping the script in a first contact scenario and not stopping there. In her story of a strange new world, the Terrans are the outsiders reaching in and the people of Chacarre and the Erlind are the normal, the everyday folk.
It’s through this flipped lens that the story first opens, a rare look at our version of humanity through the eyes of a different… humanity. Because, as details of this alien world get revealed, it becomes apparent that while some of the structures of Chacarran civilization are strikingly familiar, particularly in politics and protest, there are just as many cultural and biological differences, from gender constructs that transcend the binary on through to clan structures and societal languages hidden in the tremble of fur.
Ross brings us along to follow several life stories as they play out across the backdrop of the politics and perils of diplomacy and, as is almost inevitable when new cultures meet, mistakes are made. Brief windows into the lives and relationships of the Terrans first reveal an earnest attempt to stay neutral and avoid upsetting the balance between two nations in conflict, then a desire to do everything in their power to repair their ship so they can go home. As they overstay their welcome, the Terrans leverage first their influence and then their might. The logic is the same line we have all heard before both in real-life and fiction, to establish a new and stable rule of law so they can get the help they need and leave. The Chacarran and the Erlind start the story on the edge of conflict with each other, but as all the tragedies unfold, the truth of the Terran manipulation comes to light.
With the Terrans and the Chacarran now entangled in a conflict that none wants to continue, but neither can find a way out of, the storylines of our main characters all come together, each contributing their own piece to the final outcome and ultimately finding a way forward that everyone can live with.
This novel is a refresh of a work Ross originally published under the name of Deborah Wheeler, and as such, I feel it may have been a bit ahead of its time. The depth of the world and the complex relations feel much more at home among today’s science-fiction trends than in previous decades and as such I am delighted I managed to catch this novel in it;s latest release. Deborah Ross is an expert worldbuilder and the care and attention she pays to developing the specifics of Chacarran culture and the diverse viewpoints of her world helps to put a fresh frame a complex story of first contact, political machinations and a revolution that everybody, even the invaders, wants to see succeed.
Jobs are an interesting element in both science-fictional games and literature. As anyone who has a creative outlet outside their day-job knows that the line between vocation and avocation is often a frustrating one. There’s a clear separation for most of us between what we do to put food on the table versus what we do in our “me” time.
There’s a reason that Batman and Iron Man are billionaires, right? All those toys, all that tech? Everything you need to turn an everyday genius with an excellent fitness routine into someone who can fight on an even playing field with the likes of Superman or Captain America? That’s an expensive kit right there, just ask Spider-Man just how easy it is to keep yourself in SCIENCE when you’re delivering pizzas or shooting celebrity photographs for a living.
In science-fiction, we tend to handwave the sheer, unadulterated costs of everything. Flying millions of miles simply gets written off as “Faster than Light” travel, Gene Roddenberry (and many others) even went so far as to imaging a post-scarcity world where someone can get what they need, whether it be life-altering medication or a two-ton rocket engine. Trying to calculate the sheer volume of resources needed to build something on the scale of the Death Star will cause any average pocket calculator to set itself on fire and fling itself into the first available well.
So if, in science fiction, money has no real meaning, than what the hell is your day-job exactly for?
In more traditional literature, the day job is often boring. Your main character might be a barista, a private detective, an insurance adjuster, a diplomat. As often as not, the day job is the start of the plot, how your character gets into the story in the first place. Three eyed, orange skinned slug complained to the manager about your vanilla cappuccino froth? Billy the Knife had his shuttle get hijacked and now he wants insurance to cover the damages? But in literature, once the setup has been laid in, the rest has a tendency to get hand-waved. No one keeps regular office hours, nobody has to show up at 8am for school or to open the shop. The skills and relationships required to execute the job itself are rarely referenced. The day-job serves as a fragile framework and, as often as not in science-fiction, quickly vanishes as a consideration as the broader story arc chugs along. The mundane bits of everyday life, of how to make enough money for rent is often relegated to a call to action, but rarely stays central piece as the story moves forward.
In fact, in literature, the main character often has a surprising skillset or two that doesn’t match their day job. Something in their backstory that makes them qualified to step up and be the hero, or gives them an extra tool in their problem-solving kit; time in the military, an older brother or sister who taught them how to drift a quantum noodler at lightspeed, a mad-genius of an uncle who taught them six long-dead alien languages on the sly. But these are all backstory devices, pieces the writer can pull out to add depth, to get them out of a corner, rather than part of the primary plot.
As an example, take a look at Andy Weir’s novel “Artemis”. A more traditional sort of sci-fi story than The Martian was, our main character holds her job out of sheer stubborn contrariness, a determination to fly under her own flag. But very quickly that job falls by the wayside and in the crux of the moment, it’s her other skills held in reserve, the welding she learned from her father, that saves the day.
In contrast, in videogames, your job is often integral to the story being told right now, its the time and place and skills that allow your story to continue. The day-job provides a skill-tree that the player uses to evolve the main character to be a better fit for the way they want to play the story.
As an interesting side-note, even when given the opportunity to steer their character towards being a bad-guy, most players will still lean towards the heroic archetype, even when there might be clear benefits to playing on the side of evil.
In part this job/game connection is because military speculative fiction and related styles are the biggest and easiest sell in science fiction games. Games like Halo are about a military person in a military setting. The day job is part and parcel to the entire wartime narrative arc. I would file procedural cop stories in the same part of the cabinet, with games like Deus Ex and Detroit: Beyond Human following a similar example. Fuzzier examples might be Mirror’s Edge, where the main character’s job as a courier drives the parkour-style game mechanics in a post-singularity world, or Portal where your “job” as a test subject permeates every moment of the gameplay.
In almost every sci-fi video game, your job is the KEY. Your job is not only why you are on this adventure, but it is key to your character development, your skills, your character’s knowledge. The relationship to the job is an often inflexible, concrete part of the overall story.
So why the difference? In part its because of the needs of the medium. In traditional fiction, a character’s growth is driven by the author. It’s part of the writing toolkit, a way to connect the reader to a story they cannot influence directly. They can follow along, but never affect the outcome, never affect the order of action or the actions of the characters.. Character growth is revealed over time, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, but in the end it is still all show and tell. The author is not constrained by the needs of interaction, but at the same time, they need to find a way for the reader to connect.
Videogames are all about doing, rather than telling, the character growth is ultimately driven by the player. Character reveals become part of the backstory, part of the world litter rather than the tool by which a player is engaged. The player must move through the game under their own influences, they’re never truly going to be a 1/1 match for the main character.
What this means is that the player has to know all about a characters skills and resources in order to play them most effectively, but the drivers, the motivations are overall less significant. Who a character is, what their influences and motivations are is information that is nice to know, but in terms of gameplay the actionable skills, the product of your character’s day job are a far more valuable focus for the narrative.
Let’s talk a little bit about the notion of “fair”.
Most of the time when I’m writing these posts, I’m looking for a way to tie video games and traditional literature a little bit closer together. I hold the opinion that the quality of a story can transcend the original media in which it is developed.
But sometimes the constraints of the media, the ability of media to make a deeper connection to the human mind, can affect the outcome from an observer-experience point of view.
It doesn’t sound like a very science fictional topic at first glance, does it?
But the notion of “fair”, or delivering the illusion of fair, plays heavily into the way we read science-fiction texts and in the way we play science-fiction games.
Allow me to start by pointing out a key difference in the way these two forms of media are created. In a novel, in any text-based story in fact, the decisions you make are driven predominantly by what the story requires. If you have a disconnect between the characters and the story, then one of them is going to have to be changed. They must work together to create a convincing, blended whole that can be delivered to the reader as an observer.
In video games, as a contrast, everything is created in favor of a player’s gameplay experience. The “blending” of main character and world and plot takes place on an individualized basis and is often slightly different for every player. The player, in this case, is an integral part of the story, taking direct action to push the story forward.
And these two key differences play very heavily into the way “fair“ is determined in those different kinds of media.
I’m going to pull a few of my favorite examples in science fiction to address this, and I’m sure there are many others out there.
Let’s start with a classic example of a “hard” science fiction story, one that many people (sci-fi fans and non-fans alike) have encountered. It’s the kind of text that pops up in college lit classes and high-school AP English courses. I’m talking about The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin. This is a prime example of the kinds of moral conundrums science fiction is capable of in a strictly textual form.
In the face of an uncaring universe driven by physics and mathematics, what is fair?
The premise of the story is that travel through space is a precise science. The amount of fuel and the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B is specifically tailored. Adding extra mass changes the equation. In order to ensure that a vessel has the necessary resources to complete the mission to point B, those equations must be rigorously and coldly kept. There is no room for error.
A stowaway hides on the ship carrying vaccines that will save the planetary population. the crew member on the ship is faced with an “impossible” choice. Do they throw the stowaway out the airlock? Do they throw the vaccines out the airlock? Who lives? Who dies?
The story is delivered in such a fashion as to make this a binary choice. One life or million lives.
And as a reader, you can only watch as the math plays out. And it was originally written (but not published), there is no happy ending. The girl gets spaced, the vaccines get delivered all in the service of a universe that doesn’t give a sh*t about the individual.
When I first encountered this story in High School, it had no ending at all. The story closed with a crew member in the process of making the decision, but we as the reader never got to see that decision.
Of all the science fiction that I’ve been exposed to, this story seems to provoke the strongest reaction regarding the concept of “fair“. The idea that fair is a purely human construct is firmly driven home. The feeling that it’s not “fair” that the young stowaway be punished with death for not knowing how space-travel works is an anathema to many readers. People tend come away from the story, with its original ending, with a bad taste in their mouth.
I submit, however, that this is as much because there are other possible solutions than the binary choices delivered by the author, as because of the “unfairness” of the moral choice of the scenario as presented. The unfairness serves as the root of discussion that is ultimately driven by the fact that the reader is a spectator. We can only look through the limited lens that the author has presented us with and as such, we must ultimately accept the text that we have been given.
But in video games that concept of fair is much more personal. You cannot get away with handing a player the kinds of storylines and limited lenses that traditional text allows. The soul of gameplay, after all, is the player’s ability to ACT. If you force them into an “observation only” position, you’re gonna see some backlash.
And as we all know something awful happening to somebody else may be funny, but something awful happening to you is viewed in an entirely different light.
When one is reading a short story or novel written in the first person, the depth of experience is still quite different than one plays with a first-person viewpoint in video games. Unfair action taken against a player becomes personal and is invariably viewed much more harshly than unfair actions taken against a first person hero in a traditional narrative.
The above is not to imply that you *can’t* do this in game design. Instead consider that a game, designed in service to the gameplay experience of the player, but take these actions carefully and must spend the time and effort to get the player to “buy in” to the unfair outcome. The player must, ultimately accept that, despite every action they can take, the unfair outcome is the correct outcome.
You give the player opportunity to act their way out of the unfair option. They use the tools to solve the problem, to shoot the guns, to swing the sword, to make those kinds of decisions that you usually shout at a screen from the living room couch. If, at the end of all that, the player is still faced with an unfair outcome, they are inclined to accept it. They have done everything within their power, and still come up short.
As an example, take Halo: Reach, considered by many to be the masterwork of the Bungie era on the Halo games. Halo puts you firmly in the boots of one of that universe’s super-soldiers. An individual who, given the previous iterations of the franchise, is perfectly capable of clearing an entire platoon of enemy grunts all by their lonesome. They give you a team and they give you a full range of tools. You get all the guns, all the armor and, possibly most importantly, you get the long history of a AAA level mythology wherein your class of hero rarely ever loses.
They give you an impossible mission (as is always the case). You, your team, the entire planet are already doomed. The goal is to make sure that the rest of humanity has a chance to avoid that doom.
At the end of the game, there is no way out for you. The last ship takes off, the planet is in the process of having every inch bombarded by the Bad Guys and you are done. In a universe of gaming where the end scenes are so often triumphant, this is a strange and sad denouement. At the end, you have the guns, you have the tools, but there is only one of you and they just keep coming.
And interestingly enough, compared to The Cold Equation, which has a similarly “unfair” ending, your own inevitable demise at end of Reach does not engender the same kind of armchair-quarterbacking.
So the question becomes is the difference due to simply the point of view? Is the ending of a game like Reach different because it’s in the first person and the game has set the clear from the get-go? Is the cold equations because it is in the third person?
I would argue that in this case the different mediums are absolutely at fault. In literary text you must go where the author leads you. Even though you can think your way out of a scenario or can come up with alternate solutions, you simply have to sit on your hands and accept the road the author has chosen to send you down. Books are, after all, a monologue.
On the other hand, video games are a dialogue. There is a clear interplay between player actions and reactions and the game itself. If you don’t take fairness into account, if you don’t give the Claire the opportunity to do their best and be there cleverest, then they are simply going to declare the game scenario has unfair and will flip the table.
I submit that, while the point of view may be key to how the player perceives the element of fairness, at the end of a game you still get to take action. You get to try out every one of those ideas you have about how to survive the game and see them fail, no matter how good a gameplayer you happen to be.
This is one of those, in my opinion, rare instances where the media absolutely has a dramatic affect on the way a story can elicit a reaction from the player or reader.