Tag Archive for scifi

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.


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.


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.

I Sold a STORY!

I am absolutely delighted to announce that Galaxy’s Edge has acquired the rights to my Laumer-esque short story “The Aborted Robot Uprising of Tasty Home Things”. I don’t have a publication date yet, but believe me, I’ll shout about it when I do! You can check out this month’s Galaxy’s Edge at the link below…

Terraforming in Games

Welcome to the first of a monthly series on science-fiction in video games. The full version of this article can be found over at Amazing Stories, and the abbreviated version gets posted here a month after.

Terraformed World

Making the uninhabitable a nice place to be since 1942.

The goal is not to deliver a “how to video game ur sci-fi” series of posts.  I want to take a look at how closely science fiction in games is entwined with the science fiction expressed in books and other media.  Sometimes it’s licensing, sometimes it’s homage and sometimes is it something new and unique.

So let’s start off this column by looking at the worldbuilding of a recent entry, “Anthem”. Anthem is a new type of product referred to as a “split narrative MMO”. It’s best described as a single player story cleverly couched in a massively multiplayer online world. The game is from BioWare, a studio known for building deep storytelling experiences within their games.  They handle both science fiction and fantasy narratives with equal grace and engagement.

Underpinning all the bright colors and big alien sky, the world of Anthem contains a classic “man vs nature” backstory. Some time long ago, the planet was terraformed by an object called the “Anthem of Creation.” Along the way, someone failed to turn it off, resulting in a planet with an ecosystem that is in a state of constant, dangerous flux.  The formerly enslaved human population has overthrown their alien masters and begun to thrive despite this ever-changing and sometimes openly hostile environment.

In 1942 the idea of terraforming first shows up in a short story written by Jack Williamson (under the pen name Will Stewart). At the time he used a more hand wavy “far-flung future“ science in order to make this happen. Much like Williamson’s original work, and the work of the many many authors to follow, Anthem is less worried about the “how” of terraforming and has instead focused on the end results (and the challenges that they bring).  

In action-heavy games the lens of time is always dedicated to the immediate, human-scale view.  This means that terraforming in hard-science terms is difficult to work with.  In video-game terms, if we want to include the environment as a potential hazard/ally, this timescale is simply a non-starter. Instead, Anthem has embraced the more catastrophic short form terraforming that you see in places like Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan’s Genesis device, or the Arkfalls from Defiance. Not only does it make for a much more visually stunning environment, but it allows for a great many incidental hazards for a player to overcome, allowing the design team to build towards a more emergent style of play to fill in the gaps between the must-do missions that push the story forward.

This aggressive terraforming idea serves as the core foundation on which the game mechanics and story are built.  In order to first overthrow their enslavers, then later deal with a constant onslaught of threats driven by the Anthem running off the chain, the human population develops the “Javelin”, a powered exo-suit via which the player can survive encounters that would turn even a top-form human physique into a sticky paste.

The Javelin provides the perfect vehicle (no pun intended) by which the player can customize their experience.  Different Javelins support different styles of play.  Over time there are modifications and upgrades that players can pick and choose from, earn or outright purchase, thereby feeding the beast of in-game transactions (and ensuring the ongoing creation of new game content).  Upgrading the Javelin is a personal and immediate action, the suit becomes the tool by which we give the players agency.

The exo-suit has been a very popular piece of kit in the more action-driven science fiction games for over a decade. From the vehicle-scale, human controlled machines in games like Titanfall or novels like John Steakly’s Armor, on down to the entirely robotic frames of Warframe or the more lightweight frames of Elysium, they are a solid “science fictional” way to rationalize the ability of one person to punch through an army of killer robots.

You can put off the danger for another day maybe, you can wrap up a mission, close out a chapter, but this does not a long-form narrative make.  Anthem, like so many stories before it, has tackled this need for conclusion by introducing a villain and, of course, taken advantage of the biggest, shiniest piece of science fiction on the planet, the terraforming engine itself.  So now we have not only the immense, uncaring power of the Anthem, but we have a near and viable threat. We have a bad guy looking to take that power and put it to deliberate use. Something that requires immediate (for human-timescale values of immediate) action, which is something game players find supremely satisfying to deal with.

As we all know, once you create a world that clicks, the fans of that world, be it Anthem or Gotham City, are going to consume as much content as they can lay hands on.  They will be perpetually hungry for new stories, new characters and new toys. If you’re lucky, you’re going to get a bunch of players that take your world and run with it, giving you a vibrant and active community. By going with an active terraforming scenario, the team at BioWare have given themselves (and us game players) an open door for everything to change in the future and thereby ensure the vitality of the game for years.