Video Games -- A New Way to Experience SciFi

Video Games -- A New Way to Experience SciFi
Editor’s Note: We’ve decided to take a break from TV and focus on a newer way of storytelling--one that’s becoming more popular and more sophisticated with each release. The thing is--if you love scifi you can no longer just stick to TV and movies. The worlds created by video games are lusher, more interactive and more complex than ever, providing narrative and characterizations that rival anything we’ve ever seen on TV. Games are becoming important to the scifi psyche, and we think it’s time to investigate. Jason Morgan, our guest editor for the week, does the honors:

The aliens have come. We are under siege. A resistance movement has taken up arms against the invading horde, but they are badly outgunned and underequipped. With some loyal friends, a charismatic and tough-minded hero has arisen seemingly from the ashes to give humanity one last hope to avoid extinction…

Quick, which sci-fi franchise does this best describe? Wait! There’s more…
The resistance makes gains, suffers setbacks. Our hero learns shocking facts about the aliens. New technology is discovered to have been used with fantastic consequences. The human spirit is tested, and both the beautiful and terrible aspects of human nature and behavior are on display. There is love, hate, anger and betrayal. Plots twist, stories arc. Cliffs are hung upon.

Ok, which sci-fi franchise does this best describe? “V“? “Battlestar Galactica“? “Aliens“? Your guess may be a good one, but this description actually best fits any of several popular video games that have arrived on the scene in the last few years. Whether it’s Resistance: Fall of Man, Gears of War, Halo or even the venerable DOOM series, tried-and-true sci-fi narrative elements are getting big play in today’s gaming entertainment. And the trend is growing.

As technology has advanced to allow the medium greater capacity and flexibility, the complexity of the content has also burgeoned. Fully-fleshed narrative creates richly detailed worlds and engrossing storylines. Compelling dramas are acted out against carefully crafted, detailed backdrops. Characters, good and evil alike (but usually somewhere in between), are created … and killed.

One of the oldest axioms in entertainment is, “Tell a story and tell it well.” George Lucas and Steven Spielberg know how to do this. We’ve seen it work with varying degrees of skill and success throughout the history of television. And now the game developers have caught on.

Video games haven’t always been just fast-twist exercises of single-minded purpose, but many of them were. Once severely restricted by physical limitations and small budgets, developers could “pack in” only so much content into the chips and bits. If there happened to be any story to the action, it was usually implied or laid out flatly in text messages. No actors, no voiceovers. No emotion.

Purists may argue that early computer “text adventures” like the Zork franchise provided a quirky, engaging story, as did the graphic adventures that followed (King’s Quest, anyone?). This was back in the day when computer games were considered more cerebral and console and arcade games were, well … not. As the line has blurred, however, and the first-person-shooter (FPS) genre has become king, narrative elements have become the glue that holds the games together and provide a more complete entertainment experience.
Many credit the first Half-Life game (PC, 1998) for crafting a compelling, immersive sci-fi/horror game that had gamers clamoring for more. Although the protagonist of the game, theoretical physicist Dr. Gordon Freeman has literally nothing to say, the situations in which he finds himself (through you, playing him) are engrossing and terrifying. Trapped in a secret research facility in Arizona, Freeman unwittingly opens a portal to another universe where an invading alien horde awaits. As you are forced to fight off the bad guys, the mystery as to how exactly this happened and who is really responsible slowly unfolds.

Throw in cutting-edge (for the time) background design and character modeling, and the whole experience has a sinister, expectant feel. You get the kind of “tingle” you’d enjoy from a really good scare.

And that’s what makes it fun, doesn’t it? Getting involved with the story to the point of emotional investment? Caring about what happens and who it happens to?

Think for a moment about your favorite sci-fi TV shows. The futuristic technology may be creative and cool, but it’s the story and characters that draw you in. Whether it’s the stoic Spock or daunting Borg, you want to see what they do.

But here enters video gaming’s ace-in-the-hole: interactivity. Now you can control your favorite characters and guide the story along. Maybe what you do will even affect the ending. The technology is to the point now where it can rival the most slickly produced TV shows. And, heck, it might even have the same actors involved, since development studios now spend megabucks to attract top-shelf talent for their unique game universes. Like the best TV shows, well-realized characters can be crafted through engaging writing and voiceover acting. In the future, we may even be able to fully control perfectly-rendered versions of characters like Admiral Adama as he guides the Galactica to Earth.

Chances are, though, that the best video-game based scifi stories will be original ones--not seen on TV or in film until their popularity has been proven. For example, the popularity of 2007’s Bioshock has already spawned a sequel already due in 2009, but if you limit yourself to experiencing scifi worlds through traditional media, you won’t get to experience the fantastic, fallen nautical city of Rapture until 2010 when the movie debuts in theaters. Another example is the gritty, post-Apocalyptic tale told by 2006’s Gears of War, which will also be released as a feature film in 2010.

In Bioshock, you start out knowing nothing about your character or the game itself except for a brief cinema of a plane crashing. Soon, you find yourself floating in the ocean among burning debris. You don’t know why you are there or even what you look like, as you are in a first-person viewing mode. As you swim to a nearby lighthouse, you soon trigger a longer cinematic sequence that has you traveling to an underwater city called Rapture that seems to have recently fallen apart. You are befriended via radio by a mysterious stranger calling himself Atlas, and you start to explore the ruins of this bizarre underworld.

Soon you are fending off bizarre mutant/humanoid creatures with whatever weapons happen to be lying around. In order for the game (and story) to progress, you must inject yourself with a gene-altering, bioengineered cocktail which allows you superhuman powers. Now, with the ability to use “plasmids” to fight off the mutants, you can better explore the dangerous surroundings.

Plasmids allow you limited control over fire, electricity and other energies, and its power has some sinister implications. You learn more about this power by picking up tape-recorded messages strewn throughout the game, which also allows you get the backstory of the once-proud city bit by bit. This clever narrative device depends on your curiosity and patience in exploring Rapture thoroughly in order to find all or as many of the messages you can.

Backtracking may be required, and unlike a movie or television show, story progress is suspended while you do so. If you haven’t fulfilled certain objectives for the part of the city you are in (such as finding all of the pieces for a special diving suit), you are stuck, and accomplishing your allotted tasks before you can move on can be tedious. Eventually, more cinematic sequences trigger when you are able to progress. All the while you are collecting new plasmids and using them against your mutant enemies, reprogramming security robots to get into guarded areas and solving puzzles to proceed through the mission.

You’re actually offered very few choices in the direction of the story, as BioShock steers you towards one of two possible endings. One notable option you’re given is whether or not you will “harvest” genetically-altered little girls for your benefit, or set them free--as free as they can be in this environment, anyway. This choice will actually affect which ending you see, assuming you play all the way through. Storyline-based gaming often emphasizes how your actions create your own ending, and this quality often offers a huge payoff for players.

True, with these games and other first-person shooters, the primary mechanism for advancement is still just killing the bad guys. So if you have an aversion to violence, video games may not be for you. But even novices willing to give a game a try can choose their own difficulty level and progress at their own pace. And your reward: an experience that will rival or even exceed your favorite sci-fi TV shows in terms of artistic design and direction, immersion, action and drama; a cinematic set-up followed by pulse-pounding, action-packed battle sequences, then perhaps some plot twists, more action, then finally the denouement. Since a game of this type can take anywhere from 10 to over 50 hours to finish (depending on your skill level), it offers many more hours of entertainment and immersion than your average movie, and more than equals the time you spend going through a season’s worth of TV on DVD.

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