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Tag Archive for scifi

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.

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.

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…