Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Science Fiction Makes Great Games

Greg Tito | 24 Oct 2006 12:04
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Neuromancer and the sub-genre it epitomized, cyberpunk, did something else, though. Its negative worldview, film noir-ish anti-heroes and hacker chic accomplished what no game designer, marketer or computer maker had yet to do: It made computers cool. Suddenly, the 14-year-old kid with a Commodore 64 posting on a Star Trek BBS in Holland or programming minigames in Basic had something to point to when his parents or teachers or The Man asked what the hell he was doing. William Gibson not only invented the term cyberspace, Neuromancer brought the idea of an interconnected network of computers to the forefront of every conversation about the future of computing.

It's hard to point to any science fiction game made now that doesn't owe something to Gibson's bleak view of the future. Shadowrun and Anarchy Online come to mind as the most derivative, but even Halo and StarCraft exhibit tinges of cyberpunk. Games also get a nod from Gibson as the progenitor of the computer network in this oft-quoted snippet, "The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games."

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, is sometimes referred to as a post-cyberpunk novel. It contributed a lot of the same ideas Neuromancer did, but it did so just as the internet was entering the public consciousness. Published in 1992, Snow Crash is recognized as popularizing the term avatar to describe an individual's online persona. Stephenson refers to the advanced computer network which supplants the internet as the Metaverse, a virtual alternate reality of sorts in which people and corporations can purchase real estate, just as on Earth. Many real-world projects, such as Active Worlds, a 3-D browser, and Second Life, have tried to replicate Stephenson's ideas by creating their own Metaverse. While still mostly the domain of hobbyists and programmers, there is a very real possibility that the internet's successor will be three-dimensional and that it will mirror Stephenson's vision.

But there already exist absorbing worlds in which you can choose how your avatar looks, travel to exotic places, meet and socialize with people from all over the Earth, and even fight one or two of them. One can argue that modern day MMOGs are little Metaverses scattered across the internet landscape. The way Stephenson describes action and combat in the Metaverse between Hiro and Raven is not unlike how Orcs and Humans battle now in World of Warcraft. These games are not as viral or user-created as the Metaverse, but it's possible that MMOGs will become much more integrated into our internet experience. You'll soon be able to shop at the Amazon Superstore dressed as your in-game avatar, browsing past shelves of beautifully rendered Blu-Ray packages. Reach out and pick one up, and the trailer will play in front of your dazzled digital eyes. You might even meet a few of your guild mates in the virtual mall courtyard where you can try to recruit a few hotties to group with you the next time you feel like dragon hunting.

Both in Neuromancer and Snow Crash, a user neurally connects to the networks directly, giving over all sensory input from his mundane eyes, ears and mouth. The same is true in Tad Williams' Otherland series when characters connect to the net. But Williams goes one step further and portrays a new advanced network, Otherland, in which the sensory substitution is so acute that it is indistinguishable from real life. The characters soon discover that if they are virtually killed while in Otherland, their bodies expire in real life. Talk about spending too much time on the computer.

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