Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Sci-Fi Blues

Along with my collection of “normal” books about urban malaise, medical practitioners, and feuding families, a hefty portion of my yearly reading list includes science-fiction and fantasy novels. Many of these works approach the subject with a scalpel, selecting the strangest and most revealing aspects of the genre to both confound and surprise the reader. The best works of any genre understand the contributions of predecessors and contribute to a conversation between work; they play with expectations and surprise readers. Sci-fi in particular is rife with astounding literary works taking an array of approaches to the genre. Why, then, does the sci-fi genre of videogames seem so mute? Why is the future so predictable in games?

Ask my co-writer Scott why Star Trek is such an influential television program some time. He will tell you how the show’s creators tackled nearly every element of science fiction possible, wrangling the concepts to their will and influencing a generation of sci-fi writers onwards. The utility of genre in the first place (and here I refer to thematic conceptions of game genres that I furiously espouse), lies not just in its suite of common elements, but in its ability to foment a conversation across time, between both creators and consumers. Sci-fi games, however, tend to collect the genre’s cliche’s without contributing to an ongoing discussion across art forms.

Mass Effect, for example, is a space opera, and an amazingly successful one at that. I absolutely adore this franchise. Yet while it adds a great deal to the games industry, it adds little to the sci-fi genre. The “bad guys” are scary-looking aliens who can raise the dead, and a rag-tag crew of humans and aliens, unsupported by the galactic council, must defeat them. To be fair, the game’s minor quests play with the genre more than the main story arch, but even these tend to be homages to past sci-fi works, not contributions to an ongoing conversation.

Dead Space, although predominantly a horror game, also fails to defy or play with sci-genre expectations. The dangers of interstellar mining operations have been thoroughly explored (all the tentacled zombies that will arise from their depths have done so). Yet the game’s protagonist is named Isaac Clarke, an allusion to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, two masters of hard sci-fi. Where are the explorations of fate and control of Foundation? Where are the enigmas of Rendezvous with Rama? Like Isaac in the first Dead Space, the games are mute.

Braid, of course, stands as a genre success, incorporating time travel with the sensations hope, loss, and regret. Achron manages to work time travel into strategy games as well, incorporating paradoxes into the mix. Yet these games are not indicative of the whole, and I do not think sci-fi is the only genre suffering. Are fantasy games that much better off? Do they engage with the history of fantasy fiction? Have games rightly abandoned genre conversations or are we languishing in the doldrums of genre isolation?


  1. I'm still waiting for something that does justice to The Stars My Destination or Dhalgren. I think we're languishing in the doldrums of genre ignorance. They borrow the tropes, but they don't understand SF.

  2. Valve stands out as a clear leader in the world of sci-fi video games, both with Half-Life and Portal.

    Adventure games tackled sci-fi many times, often adapting classic sci-fi writers (Douglas Adams, Ellison, etc.). The Dig, while in many ways a very obtuse and flawed adventure game, is still an awesome premise with some really excellent visual design. Machinarium is also a really great 'sci-fi fantasy,' so to speak.

    I would also say that Introversion Software is a prominent 'sci-fi' developer. They do not deal in spaceships and laser pistols, but I would say that Darwinia deals intelligently with some major sci-fi themes.

    Fallout is also an obvious example of an excellent sci-fi game.

    And then you have plenty of sci-fi themed strategy games: XCOM, Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations, Alpha Centauri, etc. These games go a little further than merely dealing in the trappings of sci-fi.

    I'd also toss out MDK and Outcast as interesting sci-fi games.

    Heck, I think it's also worth considering that games like Osmos might be their own video game-specific form of sci-fi, since they are essentially 'gamified' scientific concepts.

  3. Out of This World, Metroid, System Shock, etc. The list goes on.

  4. @ Grayson

    Touche sir! You're absolutely right about Valve. As for the others, The Dig is a good one, but game out in '95, so it has been awhile. Darwinia I have never played myself. The recent Fallout I'm not a big fan of, although I give credit to its predecessors for contributing to the genre. Actually, the vast majority of the games you mentioned came out in the 90s. Was there something more enriching about sci-fi before the millennium that we haven't reproduced in the last decade?

  5. Hi Jorge. This really got me thinking.

    I think Grayson is on to something important here. Sure, gaming scifi has stagnated in the last 10 years, but its real heyday in gaming was in the 80s and 90s. It'd be nice to see some new and wonderful scifi game on the horizon, but when we have such a gigantic back-catalogue of *very* high quality scifi games to play through - literally more than most people could play in their lifetime - I'm not sure that we've got much to complain about.

    BothFoundation and Rendezvous with Rama were made into games - in fact, each has more than one computer adaptation. Not to mention Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (for weird scifi), Dune - both Dune 1 and 2 were amazingly faithful to the originals, Neuromancer spawned its own adventure as well as its Shadowrun GEN/SNES variants, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy got its text adventure treatment... hell, Ringworld got two adventure games, the list goes on.

    There are a plethora of amazingly well-written games out there just waiting to get unearthed. Take "Portal" for instance. Not the predictable casual gamer FPS, but the original hard sci-fi title from the 80s that is truly original sci-fi, where you return to an empty and abandoned earth. Your only conduit to earth's grisly past is by interacting with a computer AI, digging through historical documents and e-mails, to dig up the truth. Like an interactive graphical book.
    Want comedy scifi? Well, Space Quest kind of did it all, and then some. Want sexy comedy scifi? Try Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender.

    Moreso, because none of these games attempted herculean graphical feats (even in their time), the focus was purely on expressing a believable fantasy/sci-fi world worth dwelling in. I'd like some of the designers working today to play through a few dozen of these games, and try to come up with a scifi game that is even half as fascinating as any of the above.
    If you want literary scifi games, they've been floating underneath of you for a couple of decades. :)

    The only sci-fi books that I would truly love to see adaptions of are:
    Ender's Game (as you noted)
    The Forever War (hell, any of Joe Haldeman's scifi books!)
    Red Mars (just because I want to see the climax of the book visually)
    Sphere (the setting of Crichton's book always appealed to me)