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.
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.