Tuesday, May 17, 2011
The Sci-Fi Blues
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?