Are video games advancing sci-fi?

In the last few years the Science Fiction genre of entertainment has seen a surge in popularity. It has gone from geek to water cooler chic and broken into the mainstream. People who would once have balked at watching or reading anything remotely science fiction based were settling down every week to watch Lost or Heroes or Flash Forward.

They’re getting on the train to work and reading The Time Traveller’s Wife, Sookie Stackhouse and Twilight.

Non-Trekkies raved about the new JJ Abrams Star Trek movie, District 9 was a an understated work of genius, and Avatar was a box office smash (if a wee bit crap).

These are all advancing the genre in popularity and lore, but what about the video games?

2010 has already seen the release of Mass Effect 2, Star Trek Online and Aliens vs Predator. Still to come we have Halo: Reach, StarCraft II, an awesome looking Space Marine game from Games Workshop and two new Star Wars titles in the form of the highly anticipated MMO, Old Republic, and the second instalment of last year’s The Force Unleashed.

With games becoming more and more photorealistic with every release, and cut scenes more cinematic with art-direction and big budgets, will this relatively young entertainment medium enrich the sci-fi genre as much as traditional media?

We can look at early games on systems like the Spectrum, or even the Commodore Amiga, and say ‘no – these have not enhanced our genre.’ They were all too basic and the fledgling gaming technology was not powerful enough to do the good ideas justice.

The one notable exception to that is David Braben and Ian Bell’s Elite, which has been, arguably, the single most influential science fiction video game to date.

Spot the legitimate sci-fi epics?

Spot the legitimate sci-fi epics?

Too often video games that have claimed to be science fiction have not stood up to any deeper scrutiny than that afforded by quick play-through. They have had all the trappings of sci-fi: space ships, laser guns, aliens, etc but with very little substance in the way of story line. There hasn’t been anything new or original and, resultantly, conferred very little immersion on the player. There wasn’t enough to care about, and that is where they fell down.

Elite, and its sequels, made you care about your character, Commander Jameson, and his progression from a harmless pilot to a feared, elite space-trader. It was a game that made you think and invest time and sweat and fear in it. Ask old Elite players about getting caught in ‘witch-space’ and watch their faces drop. It was a real fear in a virtual world that sucked you in and only let go when hunger, sleep or the need to use the bathroom forced their way into your awareness.

The greatest books and films are the ones which have drawn us in just the same way and stuck with us all our lives irrespective of the genre.

When we think back on Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer we’re not recalling words and pages; we’re remembering experiences and emotions of William Mandella, Paul Atreides, and Henry Case.

The same can be said for the great movies. I do not remember where I was when I first saw Star Wars, but I will never forget looking out over an unattractive little space-port and Obi-Wan Kenobi telling me that I will never find a more wretched hive of scum, and villainy, than Mos Eisley.

I remember the great sadness I felt when I disconnected HAL 9000, and he sang Daisy Bell for me as he died.

Of course, it wasn’t me – it was Luke Skywalker and Dave Bowman – but I was there, and it’s that experience of captivation and total immersion that many video games have been missing.

This level of engagement is something developers have realised that gamers want and have started to implement it; but according to BioWare’s co-founder and CEO, Ray Muzyka, it’s not easy.

 

 

Last year, in an interview with VideoGamer.com, he said, “People know when they see something that’s not real and credible – like your eyes not moving right. It makes you realise maybe it’s not real. Or the facial expression’s not quite right, or a whole range of things that could be just not quite right about looking real and making you feel like the character you’re talking to is credible.

“If you don’t have all those things just right, you can’t break through that barrier to get the genuine emotional engagement with characters. That’s where you get some of the more difficult emotions to convey, of love, sadness, regret, fondness, hatred, dislike, these are all valid expressions and emotions we strive for, and they’re hard to do.”

Ray believes that video games are not quite on a par with movies when it comes to emotional engagement, but he puts it down to practice, “We’re getting close to it but we’re not quite there,” he said, “but we’re going to reach that point and break through it, like movies have. Movies have broken through that, but they’ve had a hundred years to develop their craft. Video games have had about 30 now, and the best is still to come.”

As BioWare prepared to release Mass Effect 2 in early 2010 they’d have been looking at the competitions’ offerings for the year ahead with interest. Bungie’s Halo: Reach would have been of particular concern.

The original Halo trilogy was the first blockbuster to hit the next-gen consoles and was hailed as a sci-fi epic in its own right.

In Halo the player took control of Master Chief Spartan John 117, the last known surviving member of the Spartan II programme. It bred a legion of super-soldiers to defend humanity against the scourge of the zealous Covenant.

The story was beautifully crafted, and the main characters of the Master Chief and Cortana were ably voiced by Chicago radio DJ Steve Downes and veteran vi
deo game voice actress Jen Taylor.

Each instalment of the Halo franchise would teasingly reveal layers of storyline between the levels in a way that kept the player invested. As Neil Gaiman once said there are four words that every story teller wants to hear from his audience: “And then what happened?”

All three Halo games ended on a cliff-hanger with the Master Chief floating in space on a ship, and in the case of Halo 2 the end came so suddenly and dramatically that gamers across the world cried out in despair at being left wanting. Every single one of them wanted to know what happened next.

They found out in Halo 3 but as canon stands the Chief and his companion, Cortana, are stranded on the wrecked hulk of half a starship, floating towards a mysterious planet. Fans worldwide are on tenterhooks.

Taking their cue from the iconic Halo series, developers such as Epic and BioWare have made story-telling a priority in titles like Gears of War and Mass Effect.

So successful have they been that each has become a successful science fiction franchise spawning novels, art books, action figures and, in the case of Gears of War, an up-coming movie.

By investing time and effort into solid back-story, which immerses the player in the world, the developers of video games legitimised their medium in a niche genre.

So to my original question – do video games enrich, or enhance the genre as much as books, TV and movies – I have to say no, not as much, not yet.

But in 2008 game sales in America reached $11.7 billion, out performing the same year’s box office takings of $9.79 billion. Characters like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario and Bomberman are embedded in the public consciousness and it’s the people who grew up with those characters who continue to buy and play games. This is a legitimate form of entertainment, embedded in society and playing an important role in our cultural evolution. The average gamer is 35 years old., and as the parents of today expose the next generation to characters like Master Chief, Marcus Feenix and John Shepherd they too will become part of the general awareness of tomorrow’s science fiction fans.

My three year old already has a Master Chief Bobblehead in his room. I bet he’s not the only one.

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