In games, awkward questions are best unasked, says Steven Poole
My co-op partner and I are piloting a spaceship through hostile star systems. It’s a pretty good spaceship: it has an engine that lays mines, four guns (one of which has lately become a giant flail), a shield resembling giant shark’s teeth, and a massive cannon that shoots out multiple homing missiles. The only problem, really, is that there are just two of us, and in order to switch from operating the top gun to, say, the shields, one of us has to physically move from one end of the ship to another, by means of platforming and ladders. And quite often we don’t communicate fast enough and we both rush to the engine, leaving the guns unmanned. Cue hilarious recriminations. Such are the delights of the excellent
Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime, which is such fun that it wasn’t until the next day that I asked myself the obvious question. Wait, this takes place in a future of high-tech spacefaring. And our ship doesn’t have integrated command and control of all its systems from one place – like any modernday car driver’s seat or airplane cockpit? That, of course, is ridiculous. No more ridiculous, you might say, than the fact that the aim of the game is to restore love to the universe by rescuing adorable space bunnies. But the problem is that, once you start asking awkward questions like these, it becomes difficult to stop. Why, for instance, does your spacesuit in
No Man’s Sky not even have the battery life of an iPhone, when one would reasonably expect that in this glorious future of fasterthan-light interstellar travel, scientists would have figured out pretty decent energy-storage solutions? ( Not to mention that, by that time, game designers would have figured out less insanely tedious inventory systems.) Why, in so many games, do ‘lasers’ still move as lazily travelling bolts, rather than operating at the speed of light? (So you can dodge them, of course. The alternative is to simulate the complications of space battle at relativistic speeds, as is done splendidly in prose by Jack Lynch in his Lost Fleet novels.)
For that matter, why do aliens in videogames wear clothes? As Mass Effect:
Andromeda’s art director Joel MacMillan said in a recent interview, it’s quite possible that aliens would be so alien in culture and mores that they wouldn’t wear clothes in any sense we recognise. So the developers originally made them naked aliens. And then they realised that would be a bit weird for the player. “There’s a really odd disconnect with trying to associate with an alien that’s completely naked in front of you,” MacMillan said, almost as though speaking from personal experience. “You’re standing there and, ‘Hey, I’m in clothes – why aren’t you in clothes?’” Well, quite. Still unanswered is the supplementary question: why do aliens in videogames wear clothes that so closely resemble the sci-fi/fantasy armour outfits developed by artists on Earth in the mid20th century and endlessly recycled in under-imaginative popular media ever since? (High collars, codpieces, kneepads – you know the sort of thing.)
The underlying issue, perhaps, is that, as Arthur C Clarke once declared: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And too much magic is bad for speculative fiction, where some laws must still apply for the magic to work against. (This is as true of Harry Potter as it is for Star Wars.) If your future-tech scenario is one where virtually anything is possible, then there will be little opportunity for dramatic or ludic friction.
So we can infer that one way of creating a futuristic scenario in which interestingly dramatic or playful things can happen is to think of a bunch of really cool futuristic things, and then subtract some critical ones. Thus, the crew of the USS Enterprise do not all have personal forcefields that make them immune from violent attack. Thus, too, the crew of Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime do not have networked ship systems. Given what we already know about computers, in any case, it’s a safe bet that, even looking ahead as far as you like in the future, they will still periodically crash and fail. And then humans, or naked aliens, will be left to fall back on their own resources of ingenuity and pluck. What games are slowly teaching us is that we will never have a completely failsafe set of tools to insulate us from the buffeting of a hostile universe – which is perhaps, in the age of Brexit and president-elect Trump, a more important lesson than ever.
The problem is that, once you start asking awkward questions, it becomes difficult to stop