Trig­ger Happy

In games, awk­ward ques­tions are best unasked, says Steven Poole

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­poole.net

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

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