Tag Archive for Videogames

Those that came before

Science fiction is littered, quite literally, with the corpses of long-dead civilizations. Forerunnersprecursorselders, the generic-ness of the names suggests that we can’t ever know the reality of them.  At the same time, we cannot resist the idea of a vastly advanced race that came before us. Adding the relics of a long-ago culture to your science fictional video game gives you the opportunity to add depth and mystery to your world without the expectation that it will be resolved… Ever.

One of the differences between games and literary science fiction is the active presence of the player. In games (much like film or television) every little thing costs. It costs time, sure, but you’ve also got your designer, concept artist, sound engineer, gameplay engineer, texture painter, environment designer all involved trying to bring a story to life. Game players learned a long time ago that anything in a game is there with deliberate purpose.  This is one of the reasons easter-eggs are so precious. They are a deliberate action, a gift, if you will.

Image credit: comicvine.com

This “every polygon has a purpose” mindset means that, like toddlers at the Louvre, game players will poke, prod, shoot, roll over, kick, pray to, finger, collect and carry about in one’s inventory for months in the (possibly vain) hope that an object will reveal its secrets. If, as a game designer, you failed to make it clear to the player that the forerunners are just part of the backstory, they’re going to burn hours on tasks that do nothing to advance the gameplay experience (or, these days, just head to the internet to see about a walkthrough).  As a gameplay concept, this can work well in a sandbox style game, but if it’s something more immediate and mission based (say a FPS), it’s going to be rage-inducing.

Image credit: R. Martone

In fact, where science-fiction videogames are concerned, I would go so far as to say that probably 80% have a forerunner civilization involved somewhere in the narrative. Sometimes you’re simply fighting your way through the ruins of their cities. Sometimes they have left behind a technology that is essential to finishing the game. Sometimes they are the reason given to all the incredible technological advances (like flying cars and full-body regenerations).

This gives us a loose “trope-y” framework on which to classify the presence of forerunner races in videogames.  By and large, you’re going to see them pop up in one of three forms.

Set-dressing.  Things like ruins with mysterious glowing lights or miles of dimly lit metal corridors.  Sometimes even the ground itself is an artifact, like the ring-world in Halo: Combat Evolved (widely considered to be one of the best videogames of its era) and it’s sequels. Under the set-dressing heading, I would include elements like backstory, architecture and non-useable technology.  Essentially, this focuses on elements that are used to deepen the world, but that are not essential or active participants in the playing of the game.

Excuses. Ray-guns the size of a BMW that you can yank out of your hip-pocket? Doomsday weapons that can wipe out all life on the planet? Flying cars (okay, maybe not that one) but any kind of handwave-y improbable technology is often attributed to the existence of a precursor race.  The technology might be useful (even essential) but any hard sci-fi fan is going to peg it as a stretch. This kind of use is different from set-dressing in that it is often integral to the gameplay itself, The players need to interact with and.or use the technology rather than it serving solely as a worldbuilding element.

Game mechanics. These elements are *essential* to the way the game is played.   Sometimes it is a technological tool that allows the player to complete the game, sometimes it is a literal change in the way you think about solving problems.  Players may be asked to memorize musical notation or computer code, they may need to remember that the forerunner race had no single central brain and therefore headshots on the robots they left behind will never succeed.  One way or another the game itself revolves around the player’s ability to understand and problem solve around a race that’s been gone for millennia.

Last time I talked briefly about the Anthem of Creation, a prime example forerunner technology and a core piece of that particular game. This week I want to take a look at Halo: Combat Evolved which showcases two out of the above three themes.  The final theme: Game mechanics, I will cover in the next article in the series.

Now, let’s be clear, Halo is a first person shooter, or FPS. The general perception of these games is that they are light on story and heavy on the “pew-pew-pew”. While may have been accurate in the earliest days of the genre, at the AAA level everything has a story.  How much of that story makes it into the game is up for grabs, but I guarantee you that somewhere in the design chain, somebody has a fully realized narrative that they are developing from. “But why bother writing the story if you’re just going to shoot everything anyway?” you may ask.  The reason is simple enough. Games (almost every game, but there are always exceptions) are the product of multiple people. That means different experiences, different ideas and different styles. At the AAA level it can be tricky to streamline communication and production under a single visionary.  So the story, the high-concept of the game is laid out. If a decision needs to be made on something small, or something that has to happen rapidly, it can be checked versus the story and the existing design to see if it will fit.


In the case of the first Halo game, we are delivered onto a larger-than-planet-sized Set Dressing referred to as the Halo ring. It is an artificial ring-shaped world built for an unknown purpose by a long vanished race. It is, essentially, variation on the Dyson sphere. A ring-shaped artificial habitat surrounding a power-source (like a star).  But, in the case of Halo: Combat Evolved, we are not here to examine the structure. We’re not here to figure any of this sh*t out. We are a super-soldier in an exo-suit being guided by an AI that’s a h*ll of a lot smarter than we are. It is merely the closest place for us to crash a broken spaceship. And so we do, quite spectacularly.

Of course, since we are in the middle of a combat scenario, and the guys who punched a hole in our ship are coming to finish the job, it is up to the Master Chief (our player avatar) to clear a path to what’s left of the command section of the ship.  Bring on the pew-pew-pew!

But about halfway through the game, the Halo ring (which is one of seven that form the Halo Array doomsday device) goes from being Set Dressing to an Excuse.  The ring itself is a tool, much like the Anthem of Creation from last month’s article, and direct intervention with this tool is key to the winning of the game.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Doomsday Weapon)

As we power through the narrative via a now standard set of shooter game mechanics, more of the world gets revealed to us and we come in contact with the immortal maintainers of the Halo ring. These are not precursors or forerunners themselves, but rather they are stewards and as such form another piece of the overall gameplay puzzle.  The ring is being overrun by a parasitic organism called The Flood. The stewards are responsible for keeping the infection under control. The arrival of the survivors of the crash and the enemies that are hunting them has provided a fresh new source of hosts for the Flood and, of course, the clock begins to count down. You (as the Master Chief) and your smarter half (Cortana, the AI) are engaged to help activate the Halo ring, which will eliminate the Flood and save the day.

So, through the discovery of these stewards and the reveal of the ring as more than just a big, dumb, object, the forerunner technology takes a step forward from Set Dressing to Excuse.

Why Excuse rather than Game Mechanic? Because you, as the player, still don’t get to work with any of this technology. It doesn’t require you change the way you think or the way you play. You don’t get bigger, fancier shields or bigger, better guns. You now have robot friends with improbable beam weapons and have been told of some kind of super weapon you can use to save the day, but you don’t really get to use much of anything the elder civilization left behind. As a gameplay element the precursors and their technology are still just a way to explain not only the structure of the ring world but the presence of the new bad guys (the Flood),  the robot friends and their beam weapons and ultimately a doomsday weapon that only a human can fire.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Busted by humans)

In Halo: Combat Evolved, we never get to the point where the forerunner/precursor technology is a central to the gameplay mechanics themselves. In games that is a much more rarified event.  Here are the technology serves as a threat, it serves as a location and only very occasionally serves as a tool. In fact the climactic moment of the game involves, not the use of the advanced race’s technology to win the day, but instead the oldest trick in the book.  Blowing up the remains of your crashed ship. This cracks the ring world and defeats the forerunner/elder civilization technology without the player ever really engaging with it in a meaningful fashion.


So while Halo: Combat Evolved does a reasonable job of using the science fiction concept of an elder civilization as an underpinning for the game, it never makes the final jump to having that experience being a more intimate part of the game experience.  That is reserved for other AAA titles on the market.  However, within the greater context of Halo’s climactic moment, this makes perfect sense.  After all, it is by reverting to the technology that the main character (and through them the player) has at hand that the the day is saved.  The story of Halo at the end of the day, is that humanity’s current state, their will to survive, trumps the rationale put forth by their ancient ancestors.

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.

The Hero’s Journey and Useful Frameworks

So let me talk a little bit about Campbell’s “heroes journey”.  Thanks to Mr. Lucas and a number of other well-known storytellers over the past decades, Campbell’s “heroes journey” has become an easy reference for the uninitiated, a touchstone for critics, for commentary.

The idea of Campbell’s “Monomyth”, the idea that there is one single structure that appears over and over throughout all cultures and narratives is hugely compelling, isn’t it?  That ALL humans have this in common, that any story written to fit this heroic structure is going to instantly connect with every member of the human race.  Like it’s some kind of built-in genetic proclivity.

But look, storytelling is a *profession*.  Whether you’re penning narratives for Telltale’s latest IP-driven opus, orating in a Hellenic-era amphitheater, or trying to convince the innkeeper that you can keep his rowdy customers entertained long enough to be worth the price of a beer and a corner by the fire, it is a craft.  And like all crafts, elements of it become standardized.

Many high-producing authors, writers who crank out multiple books in the year, or journalists who pen ten to twenty pieces per day, have to develop their own process, their own standardized format that they can hang their story on. I would suggest that this is, the fact that storytelling is a business, is the reason the “Hero’s Journey” format still exists.

It serves as a useful tool, a way to frame a narrative in such a fashion that the author knows that the readers will be able to understand it. Most readers have been exposed to it or something very much like it. They may not recognize it as such (much like nobody ever seems to notice that one episode of Colombo that was essentially Macbeth but with early-80’s hair), but they are unconsciously familiar enough to be able to follow the beats. It reduces the workload on a storyteller, they can focus on character building, they can focus on world building, and they can focus on their luscious purple prose without having to worry that the reader will be able to follow the plot.

BUT, as with all such tools, it can become as much of a hindrance as it is a help. Many stories (even different episodes of the same longer storyline) will do better with a different sub-structure, this kind of repetition is an easy way to get Franchise Fatigue. BUT because the “Hero’s Journey” format is such a convenient shortcut  when you’re writing to a deadline (or coming up with a story on the fly to keep the innkeeper from making you sleep in the barn) it has been the default setting for a thousand years or more.

But you know, as creatives, (writers, filmmakers, sequential artists and more) part of our job is pushing the envelope. Stories that once were too experimental (the lunatic structure in Inception comes to mind, as does the “everything’s connected” wrap-ups in Dirk Gently) are cropping up more and more.  Audiences that are getting tired of sequel-itis (oh look, it’s the same as the first movie, with a different bad-guy and more kissing) are starting to look for more surprises in their storytelling, and anyone still relying too heavily on old, unmodified story structures is going to find themselves in a niche market.