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.
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.
The first Otherland novel was published in 1996, right about when graphical MMOGs emerged. Although MMOGs grew out of text-based MUDs and were already in development before Otherland hit the shelves, I can’t help but wonder if Williams’ vivid descriptions of a fictional game called Middle Country didn’t spark a few designers’ imaginations. In the novel, Orlando Gardiner is suffering from a debilitating, fast-acting, terminal disease. He escapes from his reality by spending most of his time as Thargor, the svelte barbarian hero famous throughout Middle Country for his amazing feats of strength and courage. Orlando inhabits his avatar and ranges across the realistically-detailed countryside, fights evil creatures, meets people in roadside inns and avoids his parents in real life. When I read Otherland, I yearned to play a game like that, but like the monster-infested chess game played by R2-D2 and Chewbacca in Star Wars (Dejarik Holochess for you purists) and the 3-D hologram airplane battle from the bar in Star Trek III, this game would remain a figment of a shared imagination until someone with the programming chops to bring it to a sort of reality came along. Enter: Commodore 64 classic Archon, a slew of fighter plane simulators and World of Warcraft, for lack of a more ubiquitous MMOG.
True creativity flows not from the mind of one man, but from a wellspring of dreams and ideas fed by the consciousness of an entire civilization. As science fiction inevitably becomes science fact, so, too, does it feed the stream of gaming’s creativity. For years, games have struggled to receive mainstream recognition as an artistic medium. Some day we’ll see the stream reverse itself; when the well begins to be fed by the games, and creations from the minds of our industry brightest and best take their places beside Ender, The Metaverse and Otherland. When that day comes, widespread recognition will not be far behind. Games will have finally become firmly ensconced as a vital cultural institution.
Greg Tito is a playwright and standup comic residing in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently splitting time between World of Warcraft, a new D&D 3rd edition campaign and finishing one of his many uncompleted writing projects. He also blogs semi-regularly at http://onlyzuul.blogspot.com/.