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The Age of Video Games: Prometheus & Game Development

You might be hard pressed to find a link between Prometheus and game development, however, watching Ridley Scott's film I had an unusual perspective that also raised questions about our interactive medium. I'll begin by analyzing the movie, including spoilers, before I address its implications for video games.

Most film reviewers, professional and amateur, have chosen to approach Prometheus either in the context of the Alien franchise that Scott began or as a treatise on creation. I, however, cannot avoid considering it in light of the filmmaker's advancing age. When I read he was 74, it stuck with me (having seen Alien in the theater).

If the filmmakers I grew up with are approaching the end of their lifetimes, that has direct implications for me and my existence. It's a realization that was difficult to ignore when watching Prometheus. In that context, the movie is indeed imbued with meaning but it is more metaphorical than metaphysical.

Of course the story about how a race of Engineers spiked our primordial soup with their DNA and thus seeded life on Earth is compelling and invites speculation. More intriguing is why they want to destroy their creation. In fact much has been made of religious symbolism or sci-fi creativity. But that is beside the point.

The question at the heart of the movie is less "Why are we here?" than "Why are we here for a brief time?" At issue is not why the Engineers want to erase our species but why were we made mortal in the first place? Of course there is a religious explanation but this addresses a broader existential quandary.

Peter Weyland hopes an entreaty before his maker will grant him a reprieve from his impending death. This is a concept Scott visited before in his film Blade Runner, itself an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and another film he is revisiting soon. In that, replicant Roy Batty demands longer life from his maker Tyrell.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Scott is revisiting these franchises now. Another common thread is the creation of androids, an extension of ourselves that can grant their makers immortality in a sense. The problem is that in both cases they mirror us too well and prove just as destructive.

Whether Ash in Alien, David in Prometheus, or the various replicants in Blade Runner, they prove a threat to their creators. And in that way, we pose a similar threat to the Engineers. Whether you ascribe to the theory that Jesus Christ was an Engineer emissary murdered by his hosts or recognize our destructive appetite for resources (think Nostromo), we are viewed as parasites.

The irony is to what degree we resemble the Engineers. If we created androids in our image to a fault, they likewise did the same where we were concerned. Our interest in harnessing xenomorphs as biological weapons mirrors the Engineers' interest in building their own for our demise. And in the end, we face the same existential threat that they did.

Interestingly, Ash and David share our fascination with the destructive extraterrestrials. Ash admires their purity, their perfection. David recognizes their potential when he observes that big things have small beginnings. The fact that they see a kind of kinship with these ideal weapons speaks to our fascination with the cycle of creation/destruction.

Indeed, David's obsession with David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia and its main character T.E. Lawrence shows another trait he has in common with his makers. David feels adrift, caught between artificiality and humanity, just as Lawrence felt alone, caught between England and Arabia. Likewise, we feel apart, straddling existence between lower life forms and God.

And so, while David struggles to find his place, so do we. We search for answers among the heavens to questions that might not be answerable. Indeed, Prometheus is open ended, though Scott is supposedly making a second film. But sometimes the best science fiction leaves the audience to answer difficult questions.

The director himself has suggested that the movie is about the perils of our overreaching, where our reach exceeds our grasp (consider the Greek myth the title references). "Be careful what you wish for" is the implied threat. Yet one is left with the feeling that this is not Peter Weyland's journey, but Scott's. It's a film that he had to make now, and could not have made before; one that asks difficult questions.

That brings me to video game development. In my lifetime, I've witnessed games evolve from Combat to Call of Duty and Ace Combat, Pitfall! to Uncharted, Night Driver to Need for Speed and Space Invaders to Halo. A relatively youthful business has grown to become a mature industry, both in its technical and more personal aspects.

What occurred to me is the relative lack of elder statesmen or -women and the accompanying lack of perspective and wisdom that comes with having accumulated a lifetime of experiences. That is not to suggest that there aren't quality stories or complicated themes, but there is a dearth that age could otherwise fill.

To test this hypothesis I looked up the ages of industry titans. Surprisingly, more than a few don't have any published ages. However, I was able to determine the following: Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear), 48; Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War), 37; Ken Levine (BioShock), 45; Tim Schafer (The Secret of Monkey Island, Psychonauts), 44; Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy), 49.

If this admittedly small sampling is indicative, many are solidly middle aged in their mid-40s, give or take. The one notable exception is Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda), 59. All this should really come as no surprise given the relative youth of our industry. Still, it's not something I really contemplated before now.

And why would anyone? There are many examples of thoughtful narratives that address existential dilemmas. Consider how games like Shadow of the Colossus, Dante's Inferno or The Getaway, despite simplistic plots, explore the degree of sacrifice one is prepared to endure in order to save a loved one.

Similarly, The Darkness, Cold Winter and Final Fantasy VII are kinds of games that address loss and its influence. In their own way, titles that feature zombies mine our fears about the afterlife and what it holds for us and others, whether Left4Dead, Dead Rising, Dead Space or Dead Island.

Apocalyptic scenarios abound in mass media and video games are no exception. Titles like Rage and Fallout 3 view their worlds through the prism of catastrophic events that have changed not only the landscape but its inhabitants. Other doomsday scenarios represent idealism gone awry as in BioShock.

Sometimes the threat is external and comes in the guise of alien invasion. Mass Effect, Gears of War and Halo examine the challenge of surviving such an existential threat and the sacrifice necessary to do so. Then, once in awhile, we become the instrument of our destruction whether in Assassin's Creed or Hitman.

Clearly, storylines have matured as the industry's customers have grown. Sure, there have always been mature concepts, but they are becoming more standard fare given the advancing age of the gamer demographic. Likewise, developers are growing older, too, and those like me were raised on games are beginning to take the reins in greater numbers.

This can only bode well for the industry as such developers can draw on an increasing well of life experiences for their stories. More to the point, as our own mortality looms larger, the subjects of our narratives will begin to reflect this more than ever before. The complexity, poignancy and depth of plots can only benefit from such perspective.

It's with mixed emotion that I arrive at such recognition, as I'm on the leading edge of the gamer demographic. However, I'm already impressed with how far the medium has come and can't wait to see where our most senior developers will take us as our industry -- and its tales -- mature.

My expectation (and hope) is that gamers can look forward to campaigns that challenge us more profoundly than only in the area of gameplay. After all, it's the difficult questions that in many ways define us, often more than the answers do. As Weyland, or Ridley, might say (to borrow from Dylan Thomas), "Do not go gentle into that good night."

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