Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Science Fiction Makes Great Games

Greg Tito | 24 Oct 2006 12:04
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Innovation comes through art. Sure, there are scientists and technicians that aspire to discover new things on their own, of course. But there are also ideas and concepts that are so far-fetched, the only people who are capable of visualizing them are the dreamers, the painters, the writers or the videogame designers.

Star Trek inspired numerous technological innovations. Remember, humans hadn't even made it to the moon when that fated first show aired in 1966. Very few people thought communicators or tricorders would ever be real. Yet, here we are in 2006, and neither seems particularly far-fetched. We have cell phones and pocket PCs, which aren't too far off from their fictional 23rd-century counterparts. Granted, the warp drive will probably never be created (faster-than-light travel violates several Einsteinian laws), but, hey, Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, needed something to move the plot along.

This trend of life imitating art is evident in the world of computer games, as well. It's no secret that science fiction fans and gamers have a large overlap. The same goes for science fiction writers and game designers. More than once, I've read something in a novel and seen a similar concept or idea appear in a videogame several years later. For example, the super resource Tiberium in the Command and Conquer series is inspired by Melange, the strategically important spice in Frank Herbert's Dune. But science fiction novels have inspired game designers in more than just minor plot elements or gameplay details.

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, detailed a young boy who undergoes vigorous tactical training in Battle School. There, children are taught advanced studies of trigonometry and science, preparing them for the ultimate attack on the Buggers. But the most compelling part of Battle School, both for the students and for readers, is the mock battle system run by the school's instructors. Students are organized into armies of 40, with one student as the commander, and pitted against each other in a weightless environment. If a combatant is shot by one of the game's rifles, the suit around him freezes, effectively taking him out of the game. It's like a futuristic paintball game.

I read Ender's Game in 1997, when I was in college. My roommate, amazed that I hadn't yet read such a masterpiece, wouldn't let me leave the room until I agreed to his inhumane demands to consume Card's genius. As I flipped through the pages, I realized how much of Ender's tribulations in the mock battles were mirrored in the games I was playing at the time. Command and Conquer, Warcraft, even Dune II, which I played in high school; they were all derivative of the ultimate real-time strategy game Card described.

William Gibson romanticized computing in a way never seen before in his 1984 classic, Neuromancer. Sure, Time named the PC as Person of the Year in 1982, and Apple announced its new Macintosh computer with an infamous commercial during Super Bowl XVIII, but using computers on a regular basis was still for the very rich or the very nerdy.

Neuromancer depicts a dystopian view of our world in the near future, in which technology is completely integrated into almost every facet of human life, not always to humanity's benefit. Characters jack into the "matrix," cybernetically enhance themselves and obsessively watch "stimsims," VR representations of soap operas. All of these advances, which once seemed great and magical in the sci-fi of the '50s, somehow seem dangerous and dehumanizing rather than luxurious.

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