wed 29/05/2024

Listed: Science Fiction in Videogames | reviews, news & interviews

Listed: Science Fiction in Videogames

Listed: Science Fiction in Videogames

Nearly all videogames are fantastical, but few are interestingly fantastical

'BioShock Infinite': cloud-city 'manifest destiny'? The series continues to explore novel themes and settings

By far the majority of interactive art, entertainment and fiction – videogames for want of a better rubric – could be described as science fiction or fantasy. Very little of what you do when you pick up a gamepad has to do with real life. Even contemporary crime thrillers such as Grand Theft Auto or combat games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare take only a highly-stylised glance at reality.

But most games allow you to be and do things that far outstrip any notion of reality.

Sci-fi, then, is woven through videogaming, but rarely in an interesting or novel way. Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare may feature utterly realistic near-future weaponry – active camo, exoskeletons and video gunsights, but the game uses these sci-fi gizmos and its futuristic backdrop simply to add new twists to a distinctly familiar genre. Most sci-fi in videogames is at the mechanical level – an excuse for a pretty backdrop, a new superpower or a terrifyingly powerful weapon. But a few videogames do manage to say something genuinely new and interesting in science fiction.


BioshockBioshock - videogames and science fiction

While other first-person shooters increasingly fetishise modern military culture and ape the grainy, distressed and distressing footage of helmetcams and drone pilot screens, Bioshock crafted a ruined art deco Steampunk underwater city, populated by Ayn Rand fanatics allowed to take their ideology to its logical end. Not only did the setting take us into genuinely new and unexplored territory, but thematically it asked interesting questions about the future of current medical science and the trend for self-improvement. The third in the series, Bioshock Infinite explored the rise of religious fanaticism and racism in American politics, in a floating cloud city.


Eve OnlineEve Online - MMO massively multiplayer online space opera

"Massively Multi-player Online" (MMO) games such as Eve Online and World Of Warcraft see thousands of players simultaneously co-existing in the same world – players can cooperate or fight each other, form clans and trade. From these simple systems and mechanics, hugely complex social behaviour can emerge. Players can become double-agents, clan wars can stretch over decades, and players with real-world money to burn, buying powerful in-game items has led to the in-game economy and real-world money intertwining – with "gold farms" in China. As time progresses these games have become a strange mirror of modern society dictated by a mix of top-down tinkering and bottom-up "gaming" the system – a Petri dish that US military researchers have even studied for a better understanding on online behaviour, asymmetric warfare and (probably) how good exactly a +58 vorpal sword is in combat. Eve Online stands out, not just because of its space opera setting and mechanics (starship combat), but because of the sheer complexity and depths of its ongoing inter-clan rivalries.


Mass EffectMass Effect series - role-playing with choice

A classic "space opera" role-playing game of huge starships, galaxy-crushing enemies and alien friendships. What set the series apart from others of its ilk was part of a general commitment to player moral and narrative choice, embracing a polymorphous sexuality as a default for the hero. You could romance and bed males, females, aliens or no one. This, of course, proved massively controversial among the "hardcore" videogaming community – as did the emphasis on storytelling and dialogue "trees" as much as blasting aliens with a gun.

Deus Ex

Deus Ex Human Revolution

The original cyberpunk role-playing game was interesting not just because it offered a huge amount of mechanical choice inside its dystopian role-playing game world – how you approached missions was very flexible. But beyond that, and far more importantly, it offered real moral choice. In one key section this choice entirely changed the nature of the game and plot. Were you fascist or freedom fighter? You choose. Since the original Deus Ex, few games have been that open to not just player agency, but moral choice – although the post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 comes close.


EliteElite Dangerous now with dredger ships and ninth galaxy

The 1984 free-roaming space exploration title is finally set to get a proper, modern sequel in Elite: Dangerous. The sheer scale and mix of slow-paced exploration of vast areas of three dimensional space, and sudden bursts of combat, led to playground rumours of "dredger" and "generation ships" in the original, and even an accessible "ninth galaxy". Freedom to explore and choice of approach were gaming ideals created in the original Elite. The "procedurally generated" No Man's Sky also looks set to continue the Elite tradition in 2015, but many games since Elite have sought to give player freedom to act as a key element of play. Both Mirror's Edge and the Assassin's Creed series, for instance, are examples of using parkour or free-running movement as a way of increasing freedom of movement and action for game protagonists.


PortalPortal series from Valve first-person puzzle

Many videogames use sci-fi gadgetry or ideas as play mechanics, but few so seamlessly and successfully as the wonderful first-person puzzle series Portal. A very simple mechanic – you can shoot red and blue portal holes onto particular surfaces and then step, fall or throw things from one to the other – leads to both fantastically complex puzzles and a beautifully and icily-constructed, darkly humorous sci-fi narrative. See the time-manipulating Braid as another example of sci-fi theme and mechanic fused together beautifully.


SporeSpore from Will Wright creator of The Sims and SimCity

The real-time strategy and simulation genres are overrun with science fiction attempts to depict future civilisations. But mostly this involves a way to ensure three warring alien factions don't all have essentially the same units. Spore, from Will Wright, the man who created SimCity and The Sims, lets you design your own alien then play it from single-celled amoeba to sea dweller, to taking its first steps onto land, to creating tribes, towns and cities, to planetary and then interplanetary conquest. And your initial alien design – how many mouths, hands, feet etc. you give it – affects how best your species should set about conquering the universe.



Half-Life 2 from Valve best first-person shooter ever

Revered as two of the best games ever, the Half-Life series brilliantly puts you into a beautifully detailed and subtly, narratively-realised science fiction present of shadowy government organisations, alien factions and human relationships. It's the detail, lovingly crafted, but also the juxtaposition of the sheer alienness of some sections of both games, with the delicately crafted humanity and empathy of supporting characters, that marks it out.

A Petri dish that US military researchers have even studied for a better understanding on online behaviour, asymmetric warfare

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