Saturday, 22 May 2010

Games are Science Fiction

I wrote No Aliens Allowed as a plea to developers to make games with more intelligent science fiction instead of lazy genre tropes. No aliens and no mutants was a short hand way of expressing this; and excluding the far future and post apocalyptic settings was intended to cast aside the most common places science gets confused with fantasy. I also listed the games which I considered closest to qualifying and asked you for alternatives that I may have missed.

Thanks to those at reddit and Rock Paper Shotgun who commented and made suggestions, as well as those who responded here. There were some useful suggestions, Red Faction: Guerilla being the most glaring omission, Ghost Recon and various near future military shooters falling near the mark, and various games offered up by those people who hadn't read or understood the point I was making (Mass Effect 2, Borderlands etc).

Not one person suggested Portal.

I will admit, the direction I pushing towards was militarised games, and in Portal you don't have a gun. But in terms of near future, intelligent science fiction, Portal is a master class in Philip K Dick mind bending fun. It should have been foremost in everyone's mind, since Valve have cleverly given the game away for free for now, and yet not one person made the association when I asked for science fiction games without aliens.

What is it about Portal that isn't science fiction? The protagonist is in a scientific facility, using physics to solve puzzles, guided by an antagonist modelled on one of the most famous science fiction characters from one of the best known science fiction movies. This game is the archetype of what literary science fiction since the Golden Age of sci fi has been all about.

There is a key qualifier there: literary science fiction. The problem with Portal is that what people think of science fiction isn't literature - it's other media. And sadly, if your favourite fictional work is not written down, and has or rhymes with the word 'star' somewhere in it's title, you've been left behind by science fiction writing somewhere in the 60s.

Let me backpeddle immediately, and apologise for this unfairly broad brushstroke. You're at least one quarter a science fiction fan and probably more. I'll agree straight away that you are a fan of the conventions of the genre. No Aliens Allowed was a direct appeal to genre, and the strength of the science fiction genre: the romance of aliens, space ships, faster than light travel, psychic powers and futuristic technology is what gets many people into science fiction in the first place. Games like Mass Effect 2 appear to be science fiction games because they use the tropes of the genre to resonate with your love of which ever star film or television series appeals to you most. Genre appeals to the gut, and the love I have for Shattered Horizons and Dystopia is almost entirely genre driven - these games play my Cyberpunk strings the same way that that Wing Commander gets to your Space Opera fiddle.

It is the lack of genre conventions that made us all forget Portal was science fiction.

But science fiction isn't just about conventions of the genre, and genre is often the most lazy way to appeal to an audience. We can equally subvert the genre and remain science fiction, and I'll argue that Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is as much a science fiction series as Iain M Banks' Culture novels, despite the conventions of historical drama and costume romance he adopts. That's because science fiction as much about thematic concerns as it is about genre. By removing the story from the immediate setting of the present day, it is often easier to explore the controversial and the taboo, as well as different ways of looking at the present and simply interesting alternatives. That is why Star Trek and Battlestar Galatica are better science fiction than Star Wars and Avatar, because they choose to deal with themes (race for the original Star Trek series, the American political situation for the re-imagined Battlestar Galatica) with a depth that George Lucas and James Cameron chose not to do so with their respective franchises.

The strand of science fiction that links it to fantasy on the bookshelves is world building - one pioneered by JRR Tolkien and Olaf Stapledon. Worldbuilding isn't a requirement of science fiction as it is for fantasy, but most science fiction authors must engage in it to project any further than a few minutes into the future. Unfortunately, worldbuilding often leads the resulting narrative to degenerate into the road trip movie of interesting people placed in a succession of unexpected situations; and the road to Mordor is closer to Sean William Scott getting interrectal assistance for a semen sample than you think.

But what uniquely appeals to me with science fiction - and hopefully to you if you're tolerated what I've said so far - is the science. Science fiction must be about science, above all else.

Having the characters exposed to vacuum in a movie doesn't make it a science fiction movie. The vacuum of space is now a science fiction trope, like space suits are a trope, or the hero being long haired and muscular in romance novels and wrestling are a trope. Having the character expose himself to vacuum as a calculated risk, where the alternatives are far worse, and the risks are depicted in a manner consistent with reality (and more importantly counter intuitive to what you think you know). That is science fiction.

(And by induction, McGyver is as much a science fiction television series as Babylon Five.)

It's easy to identify if something is not science fiction, because it has features something that directly contradicts what was known about science at the time. We are now certain that psychic powers don't exist in any measurable form - there's a million dollars waiting for you if you can prove otherwise - and so any fiction since about the early nineties that features psychic powers is not science fiction.

Or at least, probably not science fiction. Because the fiction part of the name allows you a generous number of what ifs? What if psychic powers existed: how would that alter society? What if a door opened to the Pliocene era from a futuristic society and those who went through it discovered aliens there? What if a religious group used computers to enumerate the Nine Billion Names of God? What if the skills required to organise MMO raiding were transferrable to real world politics and scientific research? What would be the consequences?

Science fiction isn't about aliens, or space ships, or star systems: it is about the scientific method. What is the simplist explanation of the observable phenomena which doesn't directly contradict what I know? How can I test this explanation, and if I observe a contradiction, can I modify or revise my theory to account for it? Science fiction allows you to exist in a universe where dragons fly and breath fire, but demands you explain how this is possible, and what the evolutionary advantage of this behaviour is - even if it is the necessity of intercepting and burning wormlike invaders from another world crossing through space.

Science fiction is gaming.

That may appear to be a bizarre conclusion to make. But bear with me.

Imagine you could travel backwards through time and change your decisions. What would be the consequences? How would it impact what you do? Time travel is rich territory for science fiction, for exactly this wealth of possibilities.

But you don't have to imagine. You can play Braid.

Games give you a predetermined set of rules and let you discover the consequences to those rules. You are the scientist testing the observable phenomena, coming to conclusions, deriving underlying rules from test results. There is a finite ruleset for the behaviour you're observing, because the underlying computer program is finite in size. So even if apples fall upwards when you least expect it (and other conventions of masocore gaming), you can still learn this from repeated experiment.

The difference between art and games is that gaming is scientific. Games are better than art.

And that is why I love science fiction above other types of writing, and why I make games instead of any other art.


The Mad Tinkerer said...

This is why I like the classic Ultima series, among others.

The short explanation: Magic in the Ultima games (certainly VII, UW2, and IX) is treated very scientifically. Even though there is a "spell" where your Avatar can shoot fire from his hands; when there's a detailed pseudo-scientific explanation for the "spell" that's consistently tied in with the mythos and overall pseudo-science of the whole world, that's not fantasy but rather science-fiction.

See also Fullmetal Alchemist. While the bastardised (first) Anime series takes the sci-fi elements in a different direction than the original manga/second Anime does, the manga/anime2 continuity still has a rigorous set of rules to everything that happens that also drives the plot forward. Plus the alchemists themselves would tell you it's pure science, just science that allows you to draw on things (or in some cases clap your hands) to rearrange matter instantaneously.

Some D&D supplements have suggested replacing wizards with wizard-like mad scientist-style classes who create gizmos instead of casting spells. The Savage Worlds rules even unifies the mechanics of magic with weird science gadgets.

And then there's Bioshock. "Very, very special" sea slugs and an underwater society obsessed with various social philosophies can "scientifically" justify all manner of what would plainly be magic in other settings. But it's all consistent in the context. (except for a couple things in #2 which were not adequately explained, and I still want to know how eve and plasmids/tonics are actually made, but I digress)

Andrew E Harasty said...

Another Game to consider is EVE online. It is very close to your classic Space Opera style game. There is some "alien influence" in the game in terms some of the back story, but in your day-to-day dealings in the game it is all the work of humans.

One other element is the detail of the fiction that surrounds the game. Not only are there four major Factions/Nations/Empires, but plenty of smaller organizations that have their own story.

I suspect that one problem is that when people here "Science Fiction" they expect the Science itself to the the core of the Fiction. This is more evident in computer games. But with EVE and the other games mentioned, the fiction itself is the core. It just happens to be fit in a scientific setting.

Andrew Doull said...

Andrew: Space is not equal to Science. (Except as a genre convention)

Eve is in a fantasy fiction setting that just happens to be in space.