The lights are on
When it comes to video games, sci-fi fans have always been
blessed. Not only has there always been an abundance of games set in the final
frontier, but select sci-fi franchises have played an important role in the
industry. Shooters like Halo, Resistance, and Killzone have been trumpeted by Microsoft
and Sony as reasons to buy their respective consoles, and there's no shortage
of gamers who would call Mass Effect their favorite current-gen RPG series and
StarCraft II their favorite RTS. But whenever I play a game set "where no man
has gone before," I can't help feeling to the contrary, due to some key sci-fi characteristics
that haven't been fully explored by the industry. Caution: This will be the
nerdiest thing you read today.
Flexing Your Creative
Muscle:To me, the most valuable attribute that a sci-fi story affords
its creators and consumers is the unabashed creativity that the fiction can
support. When you're dealing with outer space, no sci-fi gadget is too
impractical and no alien too ridiculous. The original Star Trek television series reveled in its own absurdity, and was the
better for it, but most sci-fi games are surprisingly practical.
It's not that franchises
like Halo and Resistance lack creativity, but many of their design choices feel
like they're driven by necessity, with aliens broken down into familiar enemy
types, and weapons that conform to common gameplay mechanics. I don't just want
to play a game with creative elements -- I want a game that celebrates its
The Mass Effect series does an admirable job of striking a
Star Trek-esque vibe with its wide array of
sentient species -- you never know what kind of strange creature you'll
encounter at the next space port. Unfortunately, you only interact with most of
these creatures through a dialogue tree, and Mass Effect's gameplay is standard
Making a game that plays well will always be a developer's
top priority, so it's understandable that some concessions need to be made when
crafting an out-of-this-world adventure. However, if you really want to capture
the attention of a sci-fi nerd like me, don't be afraid to have fun with your
fiction. Seemingly impractical design choices can spark interesting histories and
politics for your aliens and worlds. It's better to be campy and interesting
than too serious and boring.
Space Is The Place:Here's the thing: a lot of science fiction may be full of ultra-powerful
weapons and exotic alien babes, but there's really only one fantasy that
defines the genre -- exploring the unknown. When Luke stares wistfully at Tatooine's
setting suns, he's not thinking about how to best conserve his ammo or what ship
upgrades he wants to invest in. He's yearning to experience something beyond the
constraints of his boring life. In a way, that's the same reason many of us
play video games, but somehow sci-fi games always seem to muck up their sense
of exploration and discovery.
Both installments of Mass Effect managed to make exploring
the galaxy a grind. The Mako sequences from the first game let you feel what it
was like to set foot on an alien world, but every planet you went to was
painfully barren. It may have been realistic from a scientific standpoint, but
if exploring a planet is so boring that it feels like a chore, you've missed
In a way, Mass Effect 2 was even worse; it forwent hands-on
exploration for a tedious mineral scanning minigame. Occasionally you could land on a planet for
an impromptu mission, but these were comprised of linear levels that
played out like any other shooter.
Virtually every sci-fi game on the market tasks players with
the same mission: Save the planet/galaxy/universe from certain doom! Compare
that to the mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise,
which most nerds probably have memorized: "To explore strange new worlds, to
seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone
before." Which sounds more fun to you? I've already saved the world more times
than I can count -- let me discover a new one instead.
Exploring Minecraft's blocky worlds is more fun than most sci-fi games
As odd as it may sound, the game that I think best captures the
excitement of discovering a strange new planet isn't a sci-fi game at all -- it's
Minecraft. Every player who starts Mojang's sandbox game is given his or her own
unique world, and gameplay strikes a perfect mix between exploration and
survival. And you can forget mineral scanning -- Minecraft makes gathering
resources fun and rewarding at the same time. Throw in some rudimentary tools
that allow you to create your own structures, and it's no wonder over a million
gamers have already bought the beta.
If a sci-fi game could translate Minecraft's
essence into discovering and colonizing alien worlds, it wouldn't need
action-packed set pieces or a plot that places the universe in peril -- the sense
of spreading humanity's reach through the galaxy would be satisfying enough. Not
that shooting some aliens every now and then would be a bad thing...
Up Next: Ships, Squads, and Space Combat...
Email the author Jeff Marchiafava, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.