Your favorite science fiction game is flawed.
It may introduce you to alien worlds, ask you to make difficult decisions, and understand cultures you never thought you’d fraternize with, but it’s recycling the same science fiction of mass media we’ve seen over the last few centuries. You think you’re experiencing new things because they simply feel foreign to you. But if you take a step back and examine the themes and events of the acclaimed science fiction games you enjoy, you’ll see an amalgam of the same tropes employed since the genre became popular, and little of the rarer “road less traveled” scenarios explored in books, film, and television. Though gaming has grown decidedly more mature and diverse, it’s still in its relative infancy when compared to other mediums in the realm of science fiction.
There are several distinct narrative vehicles continually traversed within games like Halo, Mass Effect, XCOM: Declassified, and many others still. While each do admirable jobs of communicating unique source material that operates on a level one step beyond “little green men from outer space,” there’s a distinct lack of “true” sci-fi at work here, and more so a cluster of ideas that are continually drawn from. With speculative fiction being such an open field, it’s bizarre that we should settle for such simplistic ideas when gaming is the only real medium open to interpretation for some of the most complex, interactive ideas humankind can produce. These are some of the most common sci-fi narrative threads we’re seeing on a constant basis in mainstream gaming, and some substitutes that could be explored as alternatives. There’s an entire (speculative) universe out there, so why not give it its fair due?
Planets Just Like Earth, Aliens Just Like Humans
In nearly every video game in which alien races are introduced or their planets explored, the aliens themselves seem as though they could be our scaly green neighbor, or our gelatinous mass of a friend. They’ve studied our culture. They speak our language, or have clever methods of communicating with us despite the bizarre assumption that English would be a language on their radar at all. They even slightly resemble humanity, with similar limbs, features, and personalities. And while their outward appearances may differ, they’re decidedly humanoid so as to not ruffle any feathers. When they’re not, they can still speak our language or appear as forms we don’t find too offensive: apelike beings, jellyfish, or other recognizable yet fully harmless body that makes it somewhat easier to communicate with them without scaring away players or making anyone feel as though an alien encounter is too terrifying to endure.
In turn, you have the asari and quarians of Mass Effect fame, or the Sangheili, hailing from Halo. While Liara and Tali (and even Thane, Garrus, and Legion) take on humanlike characteristics and quirks, the Elites are much the same, despite a more “monstrous” appearance. It’s true that the asari take on forms most aesthetically pleasing to whomever is viewing them, but the sentiment remains the same. It’s based off several ideas, one of which is it makes the host less “scary” to have to interface with. Their planets may be savage, but for the most part seem as though humans are steps away from inhabiting them. While this makes for a great story to tell the typical consumer, it’s hardly stepping beyond the boundaries of what could possibly be “out there.” They are relatable, so that better stories can be told. After all, how could you form an emotional bond with a creature you can’t understand? Have we tried to make this possible without falling back on a “universal translator” or other convenient deus ex machina?
Where are the hideous mutated aliens that can’t speak in quantifiable language? What of the formless beings who forgo corporeal forms and merge together to form a hivemind? What use could these creatures have with the English language or pithy human concepts or emotion? It’s narcissistic to assume humanity’s shape is the flagship form across the universe, or that Earth is the penultimate utopia for all species. Let’s see more bizarre flora and fauna, decidedly dangerous planets that our own explorers would never be able to set foot on, and more culture shock than one could ever imagine. Just think of a game where you can’t use words at all to communicate with the alien inhabitants of a faraway world. Like Journey, perhaps you would use actions or body language. Or could you? It’s a challenge that would be an exciting undertaking, and one that we’re ready, as a culture, to take on. Anything to introduce new and stimulating concepts beyond the same old shapeshifting humanoid would be welcome these days.
Invasion of the Tired Plotline
How many games have explored “invasion” scenarios? Two? Twenty? No matter how many have tackled the subject matter, the reasons are always changing, but the same exact ideas form the core of understanding. An alien race is descending to Earth to make us change our ways, to steal our resources, to enslave us, or to warn us of a mutual threat. To subvert this idea, perhaps we turn on the aliens and ignore their warnings. Or perhaps we enslave said aliens until it’s too late for them to actually help us. Variations on the same themes exist: look at The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, Crysis, and Resistance: Fall of Man come to mind, though if you simply peer out into the vast universe of sci-fi gaming, you’re bound to find quite a few similar stories with ideas that hardly differ.
But is Earth really all that special? Is conquering humanity the ultimate prize? Surely there are other planets and civilizations out there in the whole of space worth spending time on. Is it our intelligence or our naivete that makes us targets? And how many more ways can we explore the angles of an invasion? These are questions better left to players to decide, as the answers will all, of course, vary. A solution is out there: instead of telling the story of a hypothetical invasion that may or may not occur due to our iniquity as a race, why not explore the conquering of another race through the aliens’ point of view, or view it as a historical fact? That’s just how things are. “Resolving” things isn’t the climax. It’s simply the way of the world now that Race X is now higher on the food chain, thus making things as clear cut as night and day. Set a game in that sort of universe, where the invasion and subsequent effects are no longer in the spotlight, but more aspects that are viewed as every day normalcy, much like our relationships with animals. There are multiple angles to this trope, and it’s time we tried a few on for size rather than defaulting to the crowds running in terror, cities being destroyed, and the tired old “take me to your leader” nonsense.
BioShock, Half-Life, and even Papers, Please are all excellent games set in dystopian worlds where oppression is the norm. Big Brother is watching. Stay in line and stay out of trouble. Certain feelings/items/actions are prohibited. Whether you game or prefer to watch movies this is a plot line you’ve seen time and time again, only with different rules and different times and places. The fix is always “how to survive” or how to overthrow totalitarian rule, standing up and taking out the “man.” There’s always a brief look at how things degraded to such a lowly state, as well as those in-game who have tried, in vain, to improve their situation. But what about worlds in which these so-called “oppressive” societies are actually beneficial? It’s unthinkable, perhaps, that a world without freedoms could benefit humans and other races as a whole, but a scenario worth exploring, especially when you consider the fight to overthrow Big Brother is quickly becoming a hackneyed one.
For “advanced” societies, we sure see a lot of fancy-looking machine guns and repeating energy rifles. Is warfare not important enough to alien races or advanced civilizations that the same tired humanoid designs are fit to combat others with? Sure, an energy sword is cool and all, but when you get right down to it, it’s still a sword. A needler is still a gun. Would societies who supposedly have transcended the bounds of human knowledge still engage in warfare with such primitive means of weaponry, or would they have invented new ways to inflict harm upon each other? Would their words emit painful rays of energy or could they infiltrate their foes’ minds directly? A better question is why we’re still relying on tired old munitions to get our point across.
Communicators, holograms, and “all-in-one” devices are guilty of the same thing. A communicator wouldn’t just resemble some sort of new age iPhone – it would truly embody the advanced technology of a civilization that’s light-years away from humanity. It should perform functions beyond our understanding. Or at the very least, it should give us the impression that it does. Omni-tools, from Mass Effect, are glorified Swiss Army knives, and the rest of gaming seems to follow suit. It seems our imaginations are truly limiting us within the bounds of communication and effectiveness as we know it rather than allowing us to exercise creative muscles with tools and weaponry that could and would be utilized in societies explored in science fiction.
You Won’t Need A Watch Where You’re Going
Time travel is a difficult enough concept to understand without sullying it with plot holes and continuity goofs, yet it’s as popular as ever to explore in gaming. Time Hollow, a cult Nintendo DS visual novel, interestingly did a fine job of conveying how it could work in a practical sense, but for the most part there are so many questions left unanswered when attempting to write storylines with time travel that it begins to seem like a battle you can’t win. Aliens come from the future to make peace or invade. So-and-so communicates with their former or future self to carry a message. What happens when Future You meets Past You? Does a new timeline begin, and what happens to everyone else affected in the meantime?
Rather than attempting to close the time travel loop and opening a new can of worms, the concept of time itself and what it means to humanity as far as space travel, contact with alien worlds, and other iniquities would be a welcome topic. Investigating the “blemishes” one might be causing when jumping through time (a la Looper) would make a welcome addition to one’s gaming library, for example, offering explanations where there previously were none, allowing for true investigation and character development during such.
A Familiar Problem
Though the aforementioned tropes certainly aren’t the only ones floating around in gaming that should be addressed, they run rampant in a genre that’s seen so many ingenious creations that it’s nearly criminal that we keep returning to the same things. The problem is familiarity, or keeping things relatable. Science fiction is at the forefront of human curiosity and knowledge. It’s about exploring the unknown and coming to terms with it, even if you think you can’t. It’s about gazing out into the beyond, pondering all that is possible and what has ever been possible. Sci-fi allows us to quantify that is unquantifiable, while simultaneously allowing us to rationalize concepts we couldn’t possibly understand without parables, action epics, and role-playing games that force us to come to terms with a dying sun, forced conversion to android bodies, or the addition of a fifth dimension where our wildest dreams and our most terrifying nightmares dwell.
Gaming is a medium in which we’re free to truly explore things we haven’t yet seen, going beyond the pages of a book or past the shiny veneer of a film which we’re only spectating. True science fiction deserves an audience of seasoned entertainment veterans and those who have consistently dabbled in the medium since its infancy, and by going beyond the tropes named earlier, we can create ever-changing worlds that deserve as much exposure as that of Mass Effect, Portal, or any of the blockbuster franchises out on the market.
Think outside the universe. Look beyond what you can see when you gaze up into the stars at night. Someone else is out there doing the same thing. Hopefully this will soon be reflected in the games we’re enjoying. There are countless worlds out there and countless reasons to explore them. Let’s go out and conquer.