Thursday, 26 November 2009

Spaced out

I recently completed Dead Space, which is a slightly-better-than-average survival horror game set in, erm, space. It looks a bit like one of Alien's bastard children, albeit one of the ones that managed to get into university as opposed to one of the ones who dropped out in order to spend more time sniffing glue. Its one innovation is that enemies are dispatched not by a carefully-aimed head shot as in most shoot 'em ups, but by dismembering their limbs, one by one.

The plot is pretty ropey (meglomainiac scientist blah blah experiment gone wrong blah blah line man was not meant to cross blah blah), but it is the main character who is truly disappointing. With ideas several leagues above their station, the writers named their hero Isaac Clarke, which is clumsy mash-up of the names of science fiction behemoths Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Quite what Isaac (or his creators) have in common with two of the foremost voices of modern science fiction is anyone's guess. All it really shows is that the writers know of Clarke and Asimov. Which is very nice.   It's all very well paying homage to these great men, but it all feels rather out of place given that Clarke and Asmiov were known for their speculative fiction, and there is nothing remotely speculative about Dead Space or its protagonist. Unless you spend a lot of time speculating about the effect of a buzz-saw on rotten flesh. Isaac himself doesn't say anything much except "mmmrghh" and "urf" because he spends 99% of the game wearing a bucket-shaped helmet and is thus very difficult to identify with.
Dead Space is actually one of the better games in the revered "kill everything you see" genre. And as such, if the developers had wanted to give their protagonist a name which enlightened the player about the game's content, they should have named him Butcher McKillington as opposed to Isaac Clarke. The latter is a bit of misnomer because it implies that "hey, here's something new and refreshing, this is a SCIENCE FICTION game". This is silly because a ridiculous percentage of video games revolve around science fiction themes. This is due to the fact that the joy of video games is in the invention of new worlds and the new rules that apply to them. In fact the most well-known early video games were about spaceships trying to defend themselves against other spaceships, such as Asteroids and Space Invaders.
The medium lends itself to the genre because one of the major reason we play video games is to exist in worlds other than our own. The basis for creating worlds is looking at our own and asking "what if something were different, what would that change?" Science fiction is about asking "what if?" and trying to answer that question through story. 

In fact, some of the greatest ideas in science fiction are conveyed with formulaic stories and cardboard characters, because characters often become secondary to the concepts thatthe author is trying to convey, the "what ifs" that he or she is trying to answer. Given that, video games should in fact be the perfect medium, because they don't even have to have stories or characters.

Take the strongest candidate for "Game of the Decade", Valve's Portal. Portal was a complete surprise to everyone except the developers, who were presumably nudging each other and giggling at the sound of jaws dropping all over the world. 

The Orange Box was (if we're to use a record analogy) a double A-side single, featuring sure-fire hits Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. The clue to these games' guaranteed success is in the numbers at the end. Tacked onto the end, in what I suppose must be the "B" side, was Portal, a never-before heard of game set in a never-before seen corner of the Half-Life universe. After gorging themselves on the epic narrative of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and hilarious team-based combat in Team Fortress 2, gamers turned to Portal like overindulged children reach lazily for satsumas after an enormous Christmas lunch. 

To everyone's amazement, Portal, clocking in at a mere five hours long, effortlessly eclipsed its box-mates, like the girl you don't really know who decides to come to the party at the last moment, blags a ride in your car, looks way better than you and then proceeds to chat up the guy you fancy. And then goes home with him. Where was I? Oh right, Portal.

It's an astonishingly simple game in which you play a test subject at Aperture Science who is being observed as you complete puzzles with the portal gun, a device which creates portals in the walls, floors and ceilings, thus enabling you to reach otherwise inaccessible places. The puzzles gradually get harder, and the sterile computer voice which instructs you grows gradually less sterile and more unsettling until the climax. 

It manages to create perhaps the most exciting and memorable gaming experience of the decade with a remarkably simple idea at its core, the portal gun. There are no actual weapons in the game, and indeed no other living creatures besides yourself. The antagonists are the machinery surrounding you. It is very pure science fiction, reliant wholly on a simple "what if": "what if we could create portals in walls?"

Looking at it from the other angle, many of the best science fiction ideas exist as short stories, because although there is a terrific idea at their heart, there simply aren't the plot and character to create a full novel. Surely a medium that thrives on ideas but doesn't need plot or character is the perfect medium for such a genre? 

On average, I find video game science fiction universes more immersive and convincing than those in books in films (I stress the "on average" part, I am not suggestting for a minute that there are no great examples in film and literature. Quite the opposite). This is simply because science fiction narratives can often become tedious and convoluted when their central conceit has been fully explored even though its story remains unfinished. Games avoid this difficulty by not needing a story.

The best science fiction games are the ones that fully incorporate the "what if" into the gameplay. Take Bioshock, which explores the fate of underwater city Rapture, a failed utopia designed to give mankind refuge from the morals, ethics and conventions which restrict scientific endeavor. 

The result is a decaying asylum where people ravaged by the overuse of genetic modifiers weep at their reflections, and obsessive "artists" create grotesque living tableaux, having lost all sense of restraint, decency and humanity. In order to survive in this world, you must become like these monsters, and alter your own genetic code.
Less inspiring (though perhaps no less good) are games with a space theme, but with no science-fiction. No "what if". A bit like an outer space themed night at the student's union during freshers' week. Admittedly, this concept actually works quite well in film. Star Wars, for example, is actually space opera (the correct term for the outer-space-fancy-dress-party genre) rather than science fiction. It has no "what if", and The Force is not science, it's magic. Nothing is explained, and nothing needs to be and that's what makes the original trilogy so good (the prequels tried to go all sci-fi on our asses by introducing those midi-chlorian things, but it took away all that was mysterious and special about the original story). It's not that space opera doesn't work in games - Halo is great fun - but that it tends to become backdrop rather than backbone.

And as for Dead Space, it was a very entertaining game. I enjoyed playing it, though I can't really remember much besides the dismemberment. However, although the plot and ideas rather took a backseat to the action, the "space" setting was well-implemented. 

The vacuum of space was refreshingly silent (sound can't travel through space, y'know) and the zero gravity sections were imaginative. In fact, aside from the Isaac Clarke niggle, it's hard not to be encouraged by video game science fiction as a whole. The video game world is awash with interesting "what ifs", and as technology improves, we'll only be given more ways to explore them.


  1. Great stuff! Very funny. I'm waiting for an Xbox Space Opera that has Bear McCreary's music (composer from Battlestar Galactica) playing in the background. I'd literally drop out of society and just do that for a decade.

  2. Breaking up content with pictures is indeed the way forward. Having said that, you write so well i really hope we don't see less text, because i enjoy nothing more than opening this blog, getting my coffee and reading it start to finish. Beats going outside, definitely.
    If needed, i am happy to supply intricately -drawn pictures of dismemberment, in the style of a confused five-year old post-parental divorce. This might help with copyright issues, because i won't be claiming them as my own any time soon.

  3. Battlestar Galactica is my favourite sci fi at the moment (though I haven't finished it yet, so don't spoil it). I think it would be hard to replicate as a game given the constantly shifting questions about identity/humanity etc.