Welcome to the first of a monthly series on science-fiction in video games. The plan is to start with a look at science fiction themes in more obvious titles like Anthem and Quantum Break. Over time we will slide into fuzzier “what ifs”, like Subnautica and even titles as massive and brain-bending as Homestuck. Hyperlinks are provided throughout these articles in case you’re a. not a game player or b. more gamer than reader and want to dig into other examples.
The goal is not to deliver a “how to video game ur sci-fi” series of articles. I want to take a look at how close science fiction in games is entwined with the science fiction expressed in books and other media. Sometimes it’s licensing, sometimes it’s homage and sometimes is it something new and unique.
So let’s start off this column by looking at the worldbuilding of a recent entry, “Anthem”. Anthem is a new type of product referred to as a “split narrative MMO”. It’s best described as a single player story cleverly couched in a massively multiplayer online world. The game is from BioWare, a studio known for building deep storytelling experiences within their games. They handle both science fiction and fantasy narratives with equal grace and engagement.
The development teams who build these games come from a wonderfully mixed bag of fans. You will find DnD players to cosplayers to CrossFit enthusiasts to comic book collectors, competitive knitters and robotics experts. Not every single person on a team is going to be a science-fiction fan, but every single one is a professional. The core creative team, the ones with the vision, that’s where you find your key science-fiction fans. At some point every game is a pitch and, just as you see in books or television or film, a pitch needs to have passion behind it, as well as the potential to make buckets of money.
Underpinning all the bright colors and big alien sky, the world of Anthem contains a classic “man vs nature” backstory. Some time long ago, the planet was terraformed by an object called the “Anthem of Creation.” Along the way, someone failed to turn it off, resulting in a planet with an ecosystem that is in a state of constant, dangerous flux. The formerly enslaved human population has overthrown their alien masters and begun to thrive despite this ever-changing and sometimes openly hostile environment.
KEY CONCEPT: TERRAFORMING
In 1942 the idea of terraforming first shows up in a short story written by Jack Williamson (under the pen name Will Stewart). At the time he used a more hand wavy “far-flung future“ science in order to make this happen. Much like Williamson’s original work, and the work of the many many authors to follow, Anthem is less worried about the “how” of terraforming and has instead focused on the end results (and the challenges that they bring).
In action-heavy games the lens of time is always dedicated to the immediate, human-scale view. This means that terraforming in hard-science terms is difficult to work with. In video-game terms, if we want to include the environment as a potential hazard/ally, this timescale is simply a non-starter. Instead, Anthem has embraced the more catastrophic short form terraforming that you see in places like Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan’s Genesis device, or the Arkfalls from Defiance. Not only does it make for a much more visually stunning environment, but it allows for a great many incidental hazards for a player to overcome, allowing the design team to build towards a more emergent style of play to fill in the gaps between the must-do missions that push the story forward.
This aggressive terraforming idea serves as the core foundation on which the game mechanics and story are built. In order to first overthrow their enslavers, then later deal with a constant onslaught of threats driven by the Anthem running off the chain, the human population develops the “Javelin”, a powered exo-suit via which the player can survive encounters that would turn even a top-form human physique into a sticky paste.
KEY CONCEPT: THE EXO-SUIT
Of all the big science fiction ideas that Anthem rolls in, the exosuit is probably the one is going to ground the rest of the narrative for many game players who are not necessarily science fiction fans. Ripley’s loader from Aliens, the Iron Man suit(s), even recent advances in real-world mobility aids like those Ekso Bionics’ develops are the kinds of things that non-science fiction fans have been exposed to through popular culture.
This suit, called a Javelin, provides the perfect vehicle (no pun intended) by which the player can customize their experience. Different Javelins support different styles of play. Over time there are modifications and upgrades that players can pick and choose from, earn or outright purchase, thereby feeding the beast of in-game transactions (and ensuring the ongoing creation of new game content). Upgrading the Javelin is a personal and immediate action, the suit becomes the tool by which we give the players agency.
The exo-suit has been a very popular piece of kit in the more action-driven science fiction games for over a decade. From the vehicle-scale, human controlled machines in games like Titanfall or novels like John Steakly’s Armor, on down to the entirely robotic frames of Warframe or the more lightweight frames of Elysium, they are a solid “science fictional” way to rationalize the ability of one person to punch through an army of killer robots.
Because, let’s face it, even in video-game terms, it’s difficult to defeat an uncaring ecosystem in a way that gives you a satisfying conclusion to a story. The inclusion of the Javelin and it’s improvement system helps to give the player ongoing, short-term goals while still allowing the titular Anthem to remain a key force.
You can put off the danger for another day maybe, you can wrap up a mission, close out a chapter, but this does not a long-form narrative make. Anthem, like so many stories before it, has tackled this need for conclusion by introducing a villain and, of course, taken advantage of the biggest, shiniest piece of science fiction on the planet, the terraforming engine itself. So now we have not only the immense, uncaring power of the Anthem, but we have a near and viable threat. We have a bad guy looking to take that power and put it to deliberate use. Something that requires immediate (for human-timescale values of immediate) action, which is something game players find supremely satisfying to deal with.
So by invoking these two pillars of science fiction world-building, Anthem is seeking to solve multiple game design problems at once. The largest of these is the need to refresh the world. This used to be the kind of thing you would handle by releasing a sequel (or multiple sequels) but the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) element of Anthem means that it will be live and playable for at least five years and likely longer. When you take the leap for MMO development, you place your bets in decade-scale, not in the shorter 3-month-to-profit time frames of single player titles. This means player boredom is a very real risk.
As we all know, once you create a world that clicks, the fans of that world, be it Anthem or Gotham City, are going to consume as much content as they can lay hands on. They will be perpetually hungry for new stories, new characters and new toys. If you’re lucky, you’re going to get a bunch of players that take your world and run with it, giving you a vibrant and active community. By going with an active terraforming scenario, the team at BioWare have given themselves (and us game players) an open door for everything to change in the future and thereby ensure the vitality of the game for years.