A challenge: better science fiction in games

At Psychochild’s Blog, a game developer recently put out a challenge for game designers to do a better job of drawing on the strengths of science fiction and to use it as more than just a cool-looking setting:

Science Fiction tends to be the second most abused setting (after Fantasy) in games. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and game developer are mostly just rehashing Fantasy type games even in Science Fiction settings. Unfortunately, I think this means that developers doing Science Fiction games are missing some of the great literary strengths of Science Fiction when they make games that are just Fantasy with laser weapons.

Exactly right. Too often, a “science fiction game” is nothing but a standard shooter with futuristic scenery and weapons. The article discusses how good science fiction can give us new perspectives on the future (and uses Vinge’s Rainbows End as an example). Why can’t a game do what a book can do — give you a new perspective, make you think about the world, engage your sense of wonder?

There have been some partial successes; for instance, Mass Effect had a satisfying sci-fi story behind it. But there is so much more that could be done if game designers took science fiction seriously and got really creative. I, for one, would love to see that kind of effort, and the kinds of results it might bring.

Another thing I’d like to see in games is less of a focus on killing. Now I enjoy blasting away at the baddies as much as the next guy, but sometimes I reach a point where it all just blurs together, and it seems like combat is the ONLY purpose of most games. Why can’t there be something more? How about more exploration of alien environments, and not just as a means of getting to the next battle? How about more problems solved with brains rather than guns? How about a game in which survival depends not on combat, but on understanding a new technology, or solving a mystery during an alien archaeology dig? There are so many possibilities.

In the end, the question is (as Psychochild puts it):

Can we capture some of the literary merits of the genre in our games? Can games give us a useful glimpse of the future? Or, is Space Invaders the standard for what our games will achieve?

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3 responses to “A challenge: better science fiction in games

  1. When you were describing an ideal game that involved alien archaeology and environments, Lucasarts’ The Dig was what first came to mind. It is a bit dated in that it was released in 1995, but it had all of the elements I had been wanting in an adventure game. Alien environment, long dead civilization, unknown technology, and a decent story.

    I would love another xenoarchaeogical game. And if it could be one that I did not have to play in god mode to enjoy the scenery that would be even better.

  2. Hey! Thanks for giving this some thought.

    I’m a online, multiplayer game developers, so I come at this from that particular angle. One interesting aspect of a multiplayer S.F. game is that you get people interacting. That can lead to interesting results if the game designer sets up a scenario then we introduce people and see how they react. This isn’t quite the same as traveling forward in time temporarily, but it can provide more insight than a single person letting his or her mind run free while writing a book.

    On the player side, I think there are some possibilities for players to really be engaged by a particular future. Say you have a game where there has been a major environmental catastrophe on Earth. It’s one thing to read about these types of events or hear about them from an Al Gore lecture, but if this directly affects what your character can do in a game, it could strike a bit closer to home.

    Anyway, I’m a writer as well as a game developer, so I’m really interested in expanding the medium. I’m a bit frustrated that things are so mindless and that the focus is largely on combat, as Ryan points out above. I have some hope that treating S.F. right in a game may lead to a lot more interest in the topics that S.F. is good at bringing up.

    My thoughts,

  3. Say you have a game where there has been a major environmental catastrophe on Earth. It’s one thing to read about these types of events or hear about them from an Al Gore lecture, but if this directly affects what your character can do in a game, it could strike a bit closer to home.

    Good point.

    I picked up the game Fracture and started playing it last night, and it’s an example of how an opportunity like that is wasted. Part of the background story is that global warming has raised ocean levels, and there’s also some new technology for raising landmasses, but somehow the middle of the U.S. ends up underwater, splitting the country in two. But that’s about as far as it goes, and after the initial background, it turns into a Halo-inspired shooter with barely any more thoughts on environmental matters. Science fiction is seen as scenery, nothing more.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Brian, and I hope your challenge has an influence on other designers!

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