Saturday 15 May 2010

No Aliens Allowed

Dystopia and now the equally beautiful Shattered Horizon are two of my favourite multi player shooters. If you own Half Life 2: Episode 2 or later you owe it to yourself to download the Dystopia mod and invest a couple of hours getting a feel for the game; similarly I won't spend the time trying to convince you to buy the newly revamped Shattered Horizon when the Poisoned Sponge aka Phill Cameron has already invested the time writing an article on the update to do so.

There is something in the grognardian science fiction nerd in me that instantly finds near future warfare innately appealing. Shattered Horizon takes this to a whole new level: the ballet of physics and ballistics while staring at the face of the world immerses me in the future I dreamed of as a child. Whereas uninventive epics like Oblivion sit unplayed in the desk drawer next to me.

You may be a little surprised at my love of science fiction over fantasy, especially given the genre I currently develop in is Tolkien high fantasy. Unfortunately, Tolkien is one of the few fantasy writer I still find appealing. I passed through the phase of Weis and Hickman as a young teenager, and the closest I come to reading fantasy these days is the space opera antics of Peter F. Hamilton and Iain M Banks and the post modernist flights of fancy of Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami.

(I steer pretty much clear of the military science fiction genre - which Dystopia and Shattered Horizons cleave to most closely - except noting that Joe Haldeman has said most everything that needed to be said on the subject, and with the sad voice of first hand experience.)

But where Dystopia and Shattered Horizons provide my multi player fix for near future science fiction settings, there has been this weird gulf for similar single player games: an inexplicable absence of narrative driven near future gaming experiences.

Let's be clear straight away: I'm specifically referring to near future, non-apocalyptic settings for single player gaming. There are plenty of apocalyptic settings: Stalker being the most fully realised science fiction, Half Life 2 the best selling, Fallout the archetype. And far future gaming is well served: Halo, Gears of War and others provide aliens and lasers in abundance.

But neither apocalypse or aliens provides me with the hacking, cybernetics and futuristic but recognisable military hardware buzz that these two multi player experiences give.

Only the inferior Haze and Sin: Emergence have featured a similar setting of late - and before that you have to search back to Deus Ex and Deus Ex 2 for the same ideas. Far Cry and Crysis make the mistake of throwing mutants/aliens at you, Metal Gear Solid comes closest but is bat shit insane (I've yet to play Metal Gear Solid 4 and PSP versions, but I hear the insanity still holds), Bioshock has the right ideas but exists in this retrofuturistic spellcasting culdesac, anything with zombies or mutants is just aliens dressed up in different clothing, which are usually elves, ghosts and dragons dressed up in different clothing. Am I missing anything?

The reason I'm asking is that telling a single player story about the near future demands a certain level of rigour in game design and narrative which a far future or apocalyptic story does not. You are held to higher standards, because the story you're telling is so close to the real world that you risk future events invalidating it, you can't invent as much handwavium to make combat play fun when the weapons are close to real world standards, you certainly can't insert the level of variety of enemies when you're restricted to the dull human chromosome.

But you can - and Shattered Horizons and Dystopia are evidence of it. But so is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and sequel, and Armed Assault 2, only they've chosen to place their fiction in the present day (or weirdly Tom Clancy-fied versions of it), not twenty years down the track. But even with guns blazing, Dystopia and Shattered Horizon are not just militarised scenarios, they are stories about where we are going.

There is some hope forthcoming: a possible remake of Syndicate, and Introversion's Subversion promise to explore some of this territory. And the Deus Ex sequel, of course. But these are the few exceptions which prove the rule. (And the fact they have retrostylized the X-Com remake says so much more about the difficulties of doing so).

The best explanation to me is the one science fiction writer Charles Stross gives: he has had to rewrite so much of his near future stories as he works on them, because the present keeps catching up with the future he is trying to tell. For a science fiction writer, this is an inconvenience; for a triple A game, with a lead time of three, four, five years or more, this is a disaster. If you predicate your story on the Chinese invasion of Japan, and by the time the game is released China no longer exists as a political entity, you have an expensive fiasco on your hands - whereas the Narn Confederacy invading the Klingon Archipelago has less risk of wiping out your development budget.

Despite the insanity, it is Hideo Kojima who gets the future the best - which is why Metal Gear Solid 4 was telling the story of private military contractors the same time that Blackwater was being prosecuted in the Iraqi court of public opinion. It amazes me that no one pointed out reviewing the game the prognosticative powers necessary to achieve this feat. And no other great designer, sans Warren Spector, appears to have the confidence to do so.

Which is a shame because while the 20th century was about what we could be as people, the 21st century will be about what a person is (vanilla, polygendered, cybernetic, simulated). I want to explore those stories through the avenue of games. And I don't yet see the games there to do so.


pi2squared said...

I remember being very impressed with Dystopia quite some time ago when I tried it at a friend's place. (I bet it's only gotten better since) I really should invest in HL2 to be able to play some of those source mods myself.

Guy said...

Err...MGS4 was hardly clairvoyant. Executive Outcomes (EO) was founded in 1989 and the 1990's were full of PMC's. By the time Kojima was talking about them he was ten years late (and he fundamentally misunderstood them anyway).

Far from being a prophet he's usually pretty out of date, partly because of his overweening focus on physical technology (guns, mechs). Certainly he shows few signs of having read hardcore military futurists like John Robb, Shlok Vaidya, Adam Elkus, Thomas PM Barnett, Rupert Smith, John Arquilla etc.

Itantor said...

"the story you're telling is so close to the real world that you risk future events invalidating it"

Unless that game is Deus Ex and manages to predict the future with eerie accuracy, with the WTC towers missing from the NYC skyline and expained in-game as a terrorist attack years previously.

Andrew Doull said...

Guy: I've also not read the list of hardcore military futurists you've mentioned. Who should I start with?

Guy said...

Depends how interested you are in military futurism. John Robb is probably the easiest to get into[1]. Rupert Smith gives a pretty good overview of much current thinking and is available in paperback[2]. Elkus is good for his range[3]. The chap who used to run Executive Outcomes also blogs these days[4].

That should be a pretty good introduction. Modern war and military futurism meld a lot these days as we're going through something of a paradigm shift. Most of the military futurists reference each other so you should be able to find the rest in blogrolls, referenced in books or linked to, provided you're interested.

After that your best bet is probably:

Good luck!


Burk Morrison said...


CdrJameson said...

As I get older, I'm finding that I like fantasy less and less. Dragon Age: Origins lost me at the end of the tutorial; Oblivion, similiarly.

Would a near-future roguelike work? Hmm.

Shattered Horizons single player would certainly get me in.

Matt said...

There is the upcoming Ghost Recon Future Soldier, a kind of black-ops twenty years down the line kind of thing, with miniature UAVs and adaptive camouflage and whatnot.

Personally, I'd like to see a kind of space SWAT4 meets Space Hulk; a team of realistically-outfitted space marines travelling the solar system clearing squatters out of abandoned space stations and derelict hulks. I think Shattered Horizons is along the right lines, though I've yet to play it...

CdrJameson said...

Aaaargh! My interest piqued, I just tried to get Shattered Horizons only to find that it doesn't support Windows XP.

Unknown said...

Metro 2033

Andrew Doull said...

CdrJameson: It's time to stop living in the past...

F.E.A.R. and Metro 2033 are horror and post-apocalyptic.

Red Faction: Guerilla was the answer I was missing. Not sure if it is the right answer though.

Mark said...

If the question is "what is an awesome fun game?" RF:G is the correct answer. I wouldn't call it rigorous SF or anything like that, but the more I think about it the more grounded -- compared to games like Halo -- a title it is.

Mark said...

While I'm here: It seems like you're hunting for cyberpunk games. There's always System Shock (the original one) and... yeah, not many others, especially not recently. (Crusader: No Remorse? Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri? Beneath a Steel Sky? All ancient games.) This is a real pity as that's my favorite genre as well.

What I'd also like to see is some gaming based on New Space Opera. Basically that's space opera crossed with cyberpunk, so far-future space exploration but with realistic clumsy vehicles and technology. Alastair Reynolds is a perfect example of an author in that field.

CdrJameson said...

Andrew: Heh, one day. Seriously though, as a professional game dev I'd rather eat my shoes than not have my game run on the most popular OS with gamers.

Anyhow, I'm working on a turn-based near future tactical game (inspired by Snapshot/UFO) called Boarding Party. Early days yet, but It's nice to know there might be some interest beyond, well, me.

Andrew Doull said...

Quick addendum: Also Portal.