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Tuesday 21 December 2004

Gaming the Genre

by Lucius Cook

At the moment, the biggest science fiction blockbuster is neither to be found at the movies, on the bookshelves, or on television. It's Halo 2, a video game designed by Bungie Software for Microsoft's Xbox that took in $125 million within twenty-four hours of its worldwide launch, and has since gone on to sell five million copies. (By comparison, The Incredibles earned $70 million in its opening weekend, while the Star Wars DVD box earned $115 million on its first day of release.) These are impressive numbers, but what's all the more impressive is the fact that Halo 2 works very well as SF.

A sequel to the original Halo, which Microsoft used to launch the Xbox in 2001, Halo 2 places gamers in the role of the Master Chief, a soft-spoken cyborg solider assigned to protect humanity from the Covenant, a coalition of fanatical alien races united by the apocalyptic prophecies of its ruling class. In the first game, human and Covenant forces stumble across the titular Halo, a ring-shaped habitat of ancient and mysterious provenance (though not entirely mysterious to SF readers; the structure alludes to both Niven's Ringworld and the Orbitals of Iain M. Banks' Culture series). The action follows the Chief, his AI Girl Friday Cortana, and a ragtag crew of Marines as they contend with the Covenant for control of the ring, only to uncover the shocking truth about Halo's origin and function. In Halo 2, our heroes return home in triumph, only to be faced with a Covenant invasion of Earth and the revelation of another Halo artifact, as well as a revolution within the Covenant itself.

The core of the Halo series is first-person action, but the gameplay is integrated into a world that feels vast, complex, and dynamic; settings range from the Halo rings to a pitched battle on the umbilicus of an orbiting Earth station to a doomed Covenant outpost plunging through the outer atmosphere of a gas giant. There are subtle perceptual shifts; in the first Halo, a valued ally turns out to be a deadly foe, while in Halo 2 the POV occasionally shifts from the Master Chief to that of a disgraced Covenant commando seeking to regain his honor, giving players the opportunity to see the conflict from the other side. As SF goes, Halo 2 isn't as rewarding as a complex multilayered novel like Gateway or Hyperion, but it demonstrates a familiarity and facility with literary SF devices and imagery that easily exceeds that of the average summer movie blockbuster, and as a storytelling experience, it's a lot more engaging than the average military SF novel. (There have been a number of best-selling Halo novelizations by the likes of Eric Nylund and William Dietz, but so far the most interesting spinoff is, an online radio drama created by Sean Stewart and other genre writers as part of Halo 2's "viral" marketing campaign, the making of which is discussed at length in the December 2004 issue of the print version of Locus.)

Science fiction in electronic games is nothing new; many of the arcade games of the medium's "Golden Age" (1977-84), such as Space Invaders, Asteroids, Defender, and Missile Command, utilize familiar scenarios such as alien invasions or global thermonuclear war as a backdrop. However, the SF community's relationship with video and computer games, as with movies and television, has often been contentious. Writing in the early '80s, Harlan Ellison compared video game players to Sisyphus; more recently, Ray Bradbury derided the medium as "male ego crap." Baby Boom authors like William Gibson and Orson Scott Card have been more accepting, using the iconic visual language of arcade games to convey the vastness of spaces both real and virtual. And many noteworthy genre writers have lent their talents to game-related novelizations, in addition to collaborating on games based on their works. This symbiotic relationship is significant, since the medium's genre roots, like those of computer games, its elder, and traditionally more cerebral sibling, go deep. In fact, literary SF has had a tremendous, even seminal influence on the industry.

As MIT programmer J.M. Graetz said, "Blame Kimball Kinnison." He was referring to Spacewar! (1962), the brainchild of his colleague and fellow MIT hacker Steve "Slug" Russell, though he could have just as easily laid the medium's birth at E.E. "Doc" Smith's feet. Spacewar! grew out of Russell and his friends' shared affections for Smith's novels, particularly The Skylark of Space and the Lensmen series. In the game, two 1930s-style spaceships, both controlled by human players, vie for mastery of a screen-sized sector of deep space. Spacewar! wasn't the very first video game ever; that honor goes to Cambridge computer scientist Henry Higginbottom and his 1955 sports simulation, Tennis For Two. But Spacewar! was the first video game to capture widespread attention within the burgeoning programmer community of the mid-1960s. Released to the public domain, Spacewar! spread to universities across the country, inspiring many programmers and engineers who would shape the home computer revolution of the 1970s and '80s. Among them was Nolan Bushnell, who practically invented the coin-operated video game industry with Computer Space (1971), a revamped version of Spacewar! that utilized cutting-edge 1970's technology to fit within a sleek stand-up cabinet. The game was a flop, but Bushnell would have better luck with the company he founded the next year, Atari. (Computer Space went on to attain sci-fi immortality of its own with a cameo in 1972's Soylent Green.)

Smith wasn't the only genre writer influencing the imaginations of hackers in the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Heinlein influenced home computing pioneers like the Bay Area-based Homebrew Computing Club, whose members saw computing not as a hobby or profession, but a self-empowering lifestyle, and Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with its vision of a libertarian society unfettered by restraints on the free flow of information, was a key text of the movement. Among the Club's founding members were Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, the future founders of Apple Computer, which would provide amateur game designers with a machine to develop games on and a market in which to sell them. Another huge influence was J.R.R.. Tolkien, despite his anti-technology bias; Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) had lab rooms named for Lothlorien and Rivendell, printers equipped with Tengwar fonts, and a snack machine dubbed The Prancing Pony, so it's not surprising that the university's Shire-like environs was the home for gaming's next major milestone. Adventure was a text-based game in which players read descriptions of places, objects, and events, and interacted with them by typing in simple two-word commands like >GO WEST or >TAKE KEY. The game was created by Stanford programmer William Crowther, an amateur spelunker and an enthusiastic player of Dungeons & Dragons, a pen-and-paper 'role-playing game' in which players created fantasy characters and engaged in elaborate quests with the aid of a Dungeon Master, a player who served as an administrator, referee, and narrator, keeping track of the participants' activities through an elaborate set of mathematically-determined rules. Adventure was expanded upon by Crowther's colleague Don Woods, a Lord of the Rings fan who changed Crowther's modest treasure cave setting into a vast, Mines of Moria-like environment. Like Spacewar!, Adventure spread from campus to campus, this time even faster thanks to the ARPAnet (which Crowther himself had helped build as an engineer at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman), the precursor of the modern Internet.

For many Adventure players, finishing the game was only part of the fun, as many programmers built on to the existing game, adding puzzles and locations of their own invention. Some, like MIT's Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, sought to improve on the original. In 1977, they began work on a text adventure of their own, boasting a much more sophisticated vocabulary incorporating adjectives and prepositions and a larger, more fully realized setting. Originally called Dungeon, the game came to be known by a name that has become familiar to millions of computer users: Zork. Zork takes place in the Great Underground Empire, a vast subterranean realm built by a vanished civilization. In this baroque setting, fantasy creatures like trolls and unicorns coexist with abandoned technological marvels, including a time machine and the titanic Flood Control Dam #3. Lebling's chief literary inspiration was Jack Vance's Dying Earth, from whom he also borrowed one of Zork's most memorable creatures, the sinister lurking Grue. As in Vance's stories, a sense of apocalyptic dread is leavened by a picaresque tone and zany touches, like Frobozzco, a magical conglomerate with a seemingly infinite number of subsidiaries. Zork's juxtaposition of SF and fantasy themes wasn't uncommon in the early days of computer games. Richard Garriott's Ultima (1980) began in a generic fantasy setting with orcs and dragons, but as players progressed further into the game, futuristic elements like air cars and laser pistols appeared, along with sidetrips into space and the distant past.

Ultima, along with Zork and Adventure, was one of the first games to be commercially released on home computers in the early '80s. As with home video games, SF was used as a selling point, mostly in games like Atari's Star Raiders (1980) or Sierra On-Line's massive Time Quest (1981), a time-travel epic incorporating text and graphics. More impressive were the text-only games from Infocom, a company founded in part by Zork's creators. Released as a trilogy for technical reasons, Zork was followed by SF games like Planetfall, Starcross, and SF writer Michael Berlyn's Suspended, all set in ambitiously realized future settings. Infocom's writerly approach to game design drew attention from non-industry sources like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times; one of the company's biggest fans was Douglas Adams who helped adapt his The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy as a hugely successful text adventure in 1984. The Hitchhiker game appeared as national bookstore chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were beginning to sell computer software. A number of publishers saw this as an opportunity to sell games based on popular genre novels like Telarium's Nine Princes in Amber or Avalon Hill's The Hobbit. Around the same time, SF writers began to collaborate directly with designers; William Gibson provided creative input on Interplay's 1988 Neuromancer adaptation (with assistance from Timothy Leary!), Thomas M. Disch plotted and scripted Electronic Arts' existential mystery Amnesia (1986), and George Alec Effinger co-designed Circuit's Edge (1990), based on When Gravity Fails and its sequels. Years later, even Harlan Ellison would authorize and co-design a game based on his short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," with Ellison providing the voice of the megalomaniacal supercomputer, AM.

As the 1980s wore on, computer games became larger and more sophisticated, thanks to the increased processing power of the IBM PC and its abundant and inexpensive clones. Action-based titles fell out of favor following the crash of the console market in 1984; designers focused on more ambitious subject matter, often turning to SF and fantasy for inspiration. Electronic Arts' M.U.L.E. (1983) was inspired by an episode in Heinlein's Time Enough For Love in which colonists settled a barren world with only the help of genetically altered mules. Starflight (1986), also from EA, took place in a densely populated galaxy filled with aliens reminiscent of Niven's Known Space or Brin's Uplift series; in seeking to unravel an ancient mystery, players could rely on guns or diplomacy. In a similar vein, but with considerably more humor, was Star Control (1990), which alternated between exploration and old-fashioned Spacewar!-style combat. Sid Meier's Civilization (1991), while not expressly SF, served as an alternate history simulator; by tinkering with human development, players could create worlds in which Rome never fell, or the Mayans conquered Europe. The first nation to send a generation starship to Alpha Centauri was the winner.

By the early 1990s, computer and video games had become big business, increasingly driven by Hollywood-like spectacles. Origin's Wing Commander (1990), a space opera that cast players as a human space pilot fighting against the catlike Kilrathi (shades of Niven's Kzin). It was tremendously successful, compelling gamers to spend hundreds of dollars to upgrade their hardware in order to match the game's requirements. A few years later came Doom (1993). Designed by John Carmack and John Romero, Doom boasted fast, smooth graphics geared towards relentless action. The storyline, such as it was, involved a Marine fighting zombies and demons in a base on Mars; by the end of the game, the battle shifted to Hell itself, visualized as Giger-ish pulsating fleshscapes and lava flows. Released first as shareware, Doom became a huge hit on campuses, but where Adventure and Spacewar! had appealed primarily to hackers, Doom was a mainstream phenomenon and object of controversy from its first day of release. Computer games had arrived at last, but in the process had lost their genre roots; Doom's forebears weren't Smith or Tolkien, but Aliens and Evil Dead, and the games that followed in its wake, like Duke Nukem, Quake, and Unreal, were less concerned with storytelling than arresting visuals. Wing Commander III (1994), one of the first games released only on CD-ROM, confirmed the imminent Hollywoodization of the medium; it starred Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, in the movie-like interludes between action sequences.

Not all SF-themed games succumbed to spectacle. Myst (1993) also used groundbreaking CD-ROM graphics and ambient sounds, but at heart was an old-fashioned adventure in the tradition of Adventure or Zork, using an elegant 3-D graphical interface. Created by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, Myst was inspired by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, particularly in regard to the latter's concept of "subcreation"; the game's deep and subtle storyline, dealing with the struggle between the demiurge Atrus and his rebellious sons, reflected the brothers' unobtrusive Christian philosophy. System Shock (1994) was an atmospheric adventure from master gaming theorist Warren Spector set aboard a doomed space station; Spector's later work included the steampunk Thief and the cyberpunk conspiracy thriller Deus Ex. Starcraft (1998) reinvented Blizzard's popular orcs-versus-humans strategy game Warcraft in a well-realized SF setting, with tight gameplay, nicely balanced alien races, and gorgeous cinematic cutscenes. Half-Life (1998) suggested a happy medium between twitch-based action of and cinematic storytelling. Set in a secret government high physics facility overrun by extradimensional invaders, Half-Life favors suspense over endless action, combining excellent level design with deliberate pacing. The script, by SF/horror veteran Marc Laidlaw, conveys an impending sense of menace and escalating paranoia. It's so well-designed that it's enough to forgive the cheesy endgame, which combines the worst excesses of the Die Hard sequels with Super Mario Bros. As with every other popular game, it was followed by a sequel, Half-Life 2 (2004).

As it has grown larger, the video game industry has become more conservative, with fewer major studios and narrower profit margins. As a result, studios, like their Hollywood equivalents, prefer simple, recognizable properties over ambitious new ideas; hence the prevalence of sequels or games based on other media, like Star Wars, Spider-Man, or LotR. Increasingly, games with original fantasy or SF settings tend to be online affairs, such as Sony's Everquest or Blizzard's World of Warcraft, emphasizing social interaction over immersive narratives. (Gibson's cyberspace has arrived, and it's full of elves.) And SF is not the only game in town. In the ten years since Sony's PlayStation made video games safe for adults, the industry has gone mainstream, with sports franchises and more "realistic" titles like EA's The Sims or Take-Two Interactive's Grand Theft Auto series dominating sales charts. Every now and then a true genre blockbuster like Halo or Half-Life appears, but the idiosyncrasy and quirkiness of M.U.L.E. or Star Control seems to have completely disappeared. Still, it's worth remembering that the medium is still young, with plenty of creative potential, not just for industry types but fans and hobbyists as well. Tools for modifying and even creating new game content ship with many PC games, recalling the hacker ethic of the programmers who reshaped Spacewar! and Adventure to their hearts' content. At this point, it's hard to imagine a game offering the depth of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, but as the authoring software becomes more sophisticated, the range of possibilities expands. Video and computer games, like science fiction (and everything else) have to contend with Sturgeon's Law. But, for SF fans and gamers, Moore's Law may offer something of a reprieve.

Lucius Cook is a graduate of Tulane and The University of Chicago. Although he now lives within a mile of the mighty Mississippi, he still dreams of the green hills of Northern California. He wrote about Futurama earlier this year for Locus Online.

© 2004 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.