Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

17 October, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Science Fiction
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:05 AM

A few years ago, the Austin game conference got Vernor Vinge to give a keynote. I loved it, because here was a smart guy that could look into the future and tell us something we might not already know. His book Rainbows End was an entertaining read because it showed some interesting technology and how it would be used for games. I thought that was really cool, because many times science fiction writers ignore that almost any technology eventually gets used for games (and/or pornography).

This week, let’s take a look at Science Fiction as it applies to games that you might have to design.

Science Fiction tends to be the second most abused setting (after Fantasy) in games. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and game developer are mostly just rehashing Fantasy type games even in Science Fiction settings. Unfortunately, I think this means that developers doing Science Fiction games are missing some of the great literary strengths of Science Fiction when they make games that are just Fantasy with laser weapons. Rainbows End was a great story because it gave us a glimpse into a possible future. Will everything turn out exactly as predicted? No, but some of the little glimpses may come to pass. What will someone cured of Alzheimer’s experience? Which technologies will help us, which will hurt us, and which will we use anyway despite the cost?

But, predicting the future is even harder than you might first thing, mostly because of something that Vernor Vinge has written about: the Singularity. In a nutshell, the Singularity is the point at which the rate of change of technology advances beyond our understanding of it. Perhaps it’s a self-improving A.I., or a nanomanufacturing process that allows low-cost duplication and thus self-improvement; something that makes the pace of change extremely rapid. Since technology will advance beyond our ability to understand it, it becomes nearly impossible to predict what the future will be like beyond that point.

So, now it’s your turn. What do you think of games with a Science Fiction setting? Can we capture some of the literary merits of the genre in our games? Can games give us a useful glimpse of the future? Or, is Space Invaders the standard for what our games will achieve?


  1. I think it’d be possible, but fairly hard to do.

    I think the core of every sci-fi novel that goes beyond fantasy with lasers is something like a mild form of such a singularity that you describe above. By that I don’t necessarily mean a point at which our understanding of technology fails, but a point a disruptive technology emerges.

    Immortality, faster-than-light travel, they’re all such disruptive technologies. If your plot focus lies on the effects of such a disruptive technology rather than take it for granted, then I think you’ve got a good chance of capturing the literary merits of the sci-fi genre.

    I think in game design terms, it’d be most effective to lead the player to cause or experience this disruptive event, and then change the game mechanics to reflect the change in setting.

    Just to throw out a half-baked idea, have a point-and-click adventure style game where you play a detective, and have puzzles revolve around gathering evidence. Have him discover some form of mind-reading device. Don’t focus too hard on the way to discovering it, but on what happens as a result: first his job becomes a lot easier as he just uses the device on subjects, but then the ramifications of his frivolous infringement of other people’s privacy becomes apparent when he uncovers some major plot he didn’t look for and/or he becomes aware that he’s being spied on by the same methods. The game then turns into a game of avoiding detection, covering your own tracks, and trying to reverse this singularity. If you want to make things a bit more interesting, assume that creating a mind-shielding device fails for some deus ex machina reason, and instead place the protagonist in a position where he becomes instrumental to developing government policies for handling such devices. Shift the game mechanics to exactly this: putting together such a policy from pre-defined building blocks with a number of “winning” combinations, which enable humanity to continue existing safely. Maybe throw in a bit of winning political allies to enable the protagonist to enforce his policy.

    This plot outline has two turning points: the discovery of a disruptive technology and the associated change in setting. And just to make the whole thing slightly more palatable, end the game on restoring the previous balance somewhat – just don’t wrap things up too neatly (i.e. mind-shield), or else the technological advancement isn’t really disruptive any longer. It needs to be a game changer, quite literally.

    Hope that makes sense. The upshot is, I think it’d be quite possible to explore more far-out sci-fi ideas than games tend to do nowadays. But it’ll likely require some breaks in the game flow that I’m not sure everyone would appreciate.

    Comment by unwesen — 17 October, 2008 @ 9:17 AM

  2. I really like the example unwesen uses in that the player is might be surprised by the adverse effects of his own actions. That rarely occurs in games. Of course, that only adds significant depth to the game if those actions are chosen by the player, and not forced onto him.

    The heart of any story, regardless of genre, is humanity. The best science fiction stories explore humanity and personal relationships with technology being the catalyst and/or guide of that questioning. Isaac Asimov used AI to explore what makes us human. Arthur C. Clarke used space exploration to theorize on our place in a vast universe, as well as to explore our natural origins. Kurt Vonnegut uses technology to explore the basis and limits of our morals and cultures.

    The popularization of the internet has greatly complicated science fiction. It has because average people now interact with distant individuals, distant cultures, distant businesses and technologies in ways unimaginable just fifty years ago. When one’s life can be so directly affected by something happening halfway around the world (such as a satellite being destroyed, or some service supplied by a foreign country being disrupted), then science fiction authors must either localize their focus to a small setting or consider a vast number of interacting technologies and events.

    The rate of innovation/discovery and its variety has exploded, partially thanks to the internet. One can literally read a dozen articles every day of new technologies and scientific discoveries occurring somewhere around the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, science has increased in scope and speed with every generation. There have always been times when innovation proceeds before the human effects are adequately considered, but I believe that’s an especially common occurrence this far down the rollercoaster.

    The challenge of the modern sci-fi author is that change occurs more rapidly than it used to and plays a greater role in life. For example of that latter claim: as often as authors like to imagine a world without oil, they never imagine a world without plastics (made from oil). We are utterly dependent on many technologies, and new necessities are added all the time (power steering, computers, cell phones, etc).

    Anyway, the focus on humanity, rather than technology, is what is most often missed by would-be sci-fi authors. But I think writing sci-fi can often be harder today than it used to be. It’s too easy to predict one technological advancement and forget so many other technologies. Why, the audience might ask, is a person whose car is flying still watching a TV set?

    Comment by Aaron — 17 October, 2008 @ 2:41 PM

  3. Ah, SciFi. I’ve long loved Asimov’s work for his tendency to make the science plausible and logical. I find that not only is the Singularity a valid concern, but as noted above, even smaller “paradigm shifts” can have huge repercussions. The ability to think through the consequences and see what they might do is the keystone to successful SciFi in my book. Since it’s speculative, I may not always agree with where authors take their ideas, but if they show that there was a logical train of thought, I can usually enjoy it.

    It’s the fantasy masquerading as SciFi under the Clarke mantle that bothers me. Sure, it can be fun, but it really isn’t far enough removed from fantasy for me to really appreciate it. To my befuddled brain, truly great SciFi is firmly rooted in science, and the fiction is just another “what if?” that the scientific method itself encourages.

    Comment by Tesh — 21 October, 2008 @ 3:07 PM

  4. unwesen wrote:
    I think the core of every sci-fi novel that goes beyond fantasy with lasers is something like a mild form of such a singularity that you describe above. By that I don’t necessarily mean a point at which our understanding of technology fails, but a point a disruptive technology emerges.

    Absolutely. I think the core element of any great Science Fiction novel is some sort of disruptive technology. That’s the reason why the story is interesting to read, because it deals with something that is radically different than what we know and are comfortable with.

    I like your idea, because it gives the player an example of the disruptive effects of technology. Think about something like the combustion engine, and how it improved life significantly. Yet, we know now that the pollution created by these engines when used on a large scale is very harmful. It’s similar to your mind reading game plot: it makes life easier at first, but then you see a lot of the potential problems down the line. One problem you need to avoid is that an unfun game is still unfun; therefore, it’s hard to effectively punish the player without frustrating them. For many people, the enjoyment of the game is more important than a lesson, so a game that makes the player feel screwed over just for going along with the general direction of the game probably won’t get high marks.

    Some interesting responses, though! Fuel for thought.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 October, 2008 @ 2:14 AM

  5. A challenge: better science fiction in games

    [...] challenge: better science fiction in games At Psychochild’s Blog, a game developer recently put out a challenge for game designers to do a better job of drawing on [...]

    Pingback by FROM A SCI-FI STANDPOINT — 1 November, 2008 @ 8:25 AM

  6. “I think the core element of any great Science Fiction novel is some sort of disruptive technology.”

    If ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, then isn’t the premise of most fantasy fiction also the ‘disruptive technology’, whether Tolkien’s rings, Jordan’s saidin and saidar, Hobbs’ Skill and Wit, Feist’s Lesser and Greater Paths, etc? (Interesting to note all the dualities there.)

    And if that is so, perhaps science fiction is essentially just rehashing fantasy, rather than the reverse?

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 4 November, 2008 @ 11:19 AM

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