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Tag Archive for Videogames

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.

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.

KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Dyson ring)

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.

THE WRAP UP

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.