Wherefore Art Thou, Sci-Fi?
That video games use what was once futuristic science-fiction technology to simulate young worlds of magic and elves never fails to befuddle me. It's not that I have any particular gripe to levy at the over-populated spawn of Tolkien, and certainly I've participated in as many adventures into dragon infested dungeons as the next nerd, but I wouldn't mind seeing a few more derelict spaceships, many-sunned alien landscapes and antiseptic futuristic control rooms in the gaming canon. Why has science-fiction been relegated to second or third chair in the most technologically advanced entertainment medium available?
Science fiction at its best is far more than shooting aliens with guns of increasing unlikelihood, but that's all we've been getting the past few years. It has become a sub-section of the genre that encompasses games like Ghost Recon and Battlefield, an action gaming conceit that permits the development of the unreal. This, while fantasy gaming surges through epic role-playing games, MMOs, immersive strategy games and every corner of the industry where consumers put cash to counter. But I'm encouraged by the potential of several upcoming titles to free gaming's red-headed stepchild from the creatively bereft shackles by which it has been bound. From the hype-overload of Bioshock – of which, we have certainly drank if not actually prepared the drug-laced Kool-Aid – to Mass Effect and Tabula Rasa, it's good to see that Sci-Fi is getting some overdue attention.
I understand that fantasy gaming is easy, because magic offers developers and story-writers the freedom to do virtually anything. No creature or plot-point is off-limits with the omnipotence of magic to craft and shape worlds of daring impossibility, but what seems missed in the process is that the conceit of hyper-advanced technology offers the same design latitudes. Sci-fi is no less prepared to visualize the fantastic, and that developers haven't taken as broad advantage of that signifies that something ain't quite right here in River City. At a functional level, sci-fi and fantasy aren't particularly different, in that magic or technology can both be employed to open wide the doors of unrestrained creativity.
So why is it that fantasy has become the realm of the imaginative and sci-fi the realm of the derivative? Why are there compelling fantasy worlds with varied populations, while sci-fi seems to be limited to shooting Borg rip-offs in dull hallways with plasma rifles, plasma cannons, plasma guns and plasma swords?
The number of really good sci-fi games released in the last few years is pretty thin, and can mostly be defined by the offerings of Bungie, Relic and one or two others. The rest of the sci-fi gaming genre is just mediocre shooters that take the trappings of science fiction so you can shoot helmeted alien guards with futuristic machine guns, and Star Wars games.
There's nothing fundamentally wrong with Star Wars games, mind you, or to a lesser extent Star Trek, but the two franchises represent a disproportionate chunk of the genre over the last ten or fifteen years. They so dominate the idea of sci-fi gaming that even if games don't have the franchise license, they continue to exist within the conceits and clichés defined by Lucas and Roddenberry.
It might be easy enough to levy the same complaints at fantasy for doing the same with Tokien and Gygax, but there are a few important differences. First, Tolkien's world is far more imaginative and creative, but more importantly, until recently, it was not a visualized and concrete world to the masses. Middle-Earth existed only like an abstract idea of a world, still open to the imagination of those who read and those who borrowed from it. Star Wars, arguably the Lord of the Rings of sci-fi, is a hard edged world of finite imagination, we all know how it works and worse what it looks like. As to Gygax and D&D, well that was more a foundation for a game than a dogmatic definition. D&D demanded your creativity to work, and provided a framework of original story telling. Fantasy paragons were painted in broad brush-strokes, while sci-fi was a finely imagined portrait.
In short, we were taught from the start to tell our own fantasy stories while we learned to watch others tell us the stories of sci-fi.
That's not to say that plenty of games didn't break the mold of Star Wars, but that it was far easier to fall back on the conceits of existing franchises rather than fully realizing worlds. There were visual and ideological icons of sci-fi coming from these franchises that were mostly inescapable, and they cropped up all the time. And, of course, half the damn sci-fi games just dropped the pretense and slapped the franchise name right on the box.
But, what that's left us with is a few key games that broke the mold by being entirely different, and a bunch of customers who kind of got tired of sci-fi because it the rest of it all seemed the same. With another round of years revolving around Lucas and his middling prequels there wasn't room for much else, and when it was gone there was a hole in the ground where games like Deus Ex, Fallout, Freespace 2, Wing Commander and Synidcate used to be.
But, this is an unusual article, because it ends with concrete enthusiasm for what the gaming industry has got in store for us. Someone must have noticed the hole in the ground, because the next few years have a slew of games coming to our eager eyes with fresh IPs and loads of potential. Too Human, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Fallout 3, Crysis, Tabula Rasa and others seem to be ushering a new era of science fiction gaming.
After ten years of elves and magic, I could use a bit of a change.