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What makes a game a true sci-fi experience?
What makes a game a true sci-fi experience?
August 11, 2014 | By Mike Rose

August 11, 2014 | By Mike Rose
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    17 comments
More: Console/PC, Design



As part of a GDC Europe postmortem for his game MirrorMoon EP, Santa Ragione's Pietro Righi Riva reasoned that not many games which label themselves as "sci-fi" actually fall into that genre.

When movies or books tackle the sci-fi genre, much of the entertainment is focused around the characters' quest for knowledge, and presenting abstract, futuristic settings where viewers are left to fill in the blanks.

But in many video games, these core ideas are not replicated properly. Games like Mass Effect, Halo and Dead Space bill themselves as science fiction experiences, but Riva says that these games do not focus on the core principles that sci-fi revolves around.

"The gameplay itself must be a device for telling the sci-fi," he reasons. "It's not so much a matter of context, as it is a matter for interaction."

Thus, games like The Dig, Rama and Captain Blood Damocles are truly sci-fi games in his eyes, as their whole point is the quest for knowledge, while a game like Mass Effect is really more of a role-playing shooter set in a futuristic world.

"Portal and Bioshock's beginnings are very sci-fi," he adds, "but they quickly stop being central to their games." Thus, these games cannot be truly sci-fi experiences.

"Sci-fi offers the perfect setting to put in relation human beings as explorers," Riva says, "and the human being as the ultimate territory to explore."


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Comments


Chris Book
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I've heard someone describe sci-fi from a story perspective as being defined by character vs technology. Whereas a western is usually character vs character. I thought it was an interesting way to look at genres instead of the usual face value.

Darius Drake
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Interesting. What about character vs. nature or character vs. self?

Kailas Dierk
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Character vs. nature could be adventure or fantasy.

Michael Joseph
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Trying to get people to agree on definitions for what constitutes "real" anything is hopeless.

It's probably more helpful to try and make a case for why empty sci-fi that is mostly used as a backdrop for blowing stuff up (eg. Michael Bay's Transformers) is actually bad for you. There are young people who cannot even watch Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey now because they find it too slow, boring and confusing.

Andy Lundell
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Who said sci-fi as a backdrop for action was bad for you? It's not really any different than the old-west as a backdrop for action. Or WW2.

Kubrick's 2001 was criticized at the time it came out for being too slow and moody. By both movie-goers and respected critics. It's not the case that people used to love it, and now the "young people" don't like it. There have ALWAYS been a lot people who don't have the patience for it.

It's an excellent film, but it's not a yardstick against which you can measure humanity.

Michael Joseph
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"Who said sci-fi as a backdrop for action was bad for you? "

I AM suggesting it might be. I use 2001 the film as an example because it contrasts well with something like Bay's Transformers on the sci-fi spectrum. The specific titles I use for the example is otherwise not important.

Does what I subjectively regard as bad sci-fi lower one's attention span or make them develop a bad sense of taste & aesthetics? I don't know.

What I do know is that what I subjectively regard as good people (people who are living up to their potential for their sake and for the sake of humanity) were inspired by the works of people who were also living up to their potential... and not by the deluded, overrated, mediocre, underachievers cranking out junk.

David Navarro
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Real Science Fiction games are what the Real Scotsmen develop, obviously.

Andy Lundell
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Michael Joseph, You're basically just saying that you like people who like the things that you like.

That's normal.

Michael Joseph
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Fantastic reduction Andy Lundell. Still I can't help shake the feeling that I said something completely different. But well done all the same.

Darius Drake
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"When movies or books tackle the sci-fi genre, much of the entertainment is focused around the characters' quest for knowledge, and presenting abstract, futuristic settings where viewers are left to fill in the blanks."

"The gameplay itself must be a device for telling the sci-fi," he reasons. "It's not so much a matter of context, as it is a matter for interaction."

I haven't ever known what the actual definition of Sci-fi was. I just assigned it as a label to alien/futuristic science related media for all my life. I didn't ever decide in my mind, "This is what Science Fiction is..." But if these quotes really outline the definition of sci-fi, then this is what I am aiming for in my game design. Not all my games. But I have conceived a few ideas that are about a player wandering in a mysterious environment with abstract meaning.

I like outer space. Maybe I like sci-fi, too.

Shea Rutsatz
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While figuring this out seems somewhat hopeless (as Michael said), I would really think Sci-fi somewhat describes itself - fictitious science.

Technology, settings, creatures, etc., that are seemingly beyond what we currently have and know. Something like a FPS set in 2030 might have some cool made-up tech, its still reasonable and within reach. While one set somewhere with planet-destroying lazers, talking aliens, giant robots, etc. would fit the mold better.

Talking about character vs. something seems like it wouldn't have anything to do with sci-fi.. I could have a story set in 1800 that's vs. nature, vs. another person, vs. technology...

But really, does it matter at all?

Luis Guimaraes
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According to Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction is a theme that can be applied to any genre. That's the whole promise behind The Caves Of Steel.

Sci-fi is not about technology alone though, it's just one perk, but there are more, like how it's also a good medium for commentary on Society, Phylosophy, Ethics and other social themes.

Talking about interaction, basically the games we have to day are dystopian worlds where everything that happens is dictated by an evil dictator called The Writer.

But you can teleport around the World almost instantly.

You can stop time and even time travel back to before you died/failed to fix it, or simply to see how different actions take your (pre-written) fate into different paths.

You can carry multiple times your weight and an almost infinite volume of mass without a sweat or inconvenience.

You can see an exact number of how much close to dead you are at any time, instantly cure anything by walking on devices on the ground or even passively regenerate your body.

You can comunicate with other versions of you from other dimensions and share experiences or ways to solve your problems, and even broadcast your life for them too see (as long as you don't use copyrighted music, it is)...

But please, everybody, don't go make an uninspired "meta commentary" game based on what I just said. You're more creative than that.

While I agree that everything should be more about the interaction, I disagree with the notion that Sci-fi should be bound by any kind of made-up rules. If anything, technology can grant a good narrative base for interesting and creative gameplay, without resorting to be completely abstract in the pursuit of said innovation.

PS: since we're talking Sci-fi, I'll use this space to suggest that every Game Developer should read The Player Of Games.

Randall Stevens
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Science fiction is most aptly described as fiction about science. It looks at how science will change the experience of man.

Star Wars is the reason we see so many works being called sci-fi without having any of the characteristics. Star Wars is part western, part fantasy, and part samurai film (hidden fortress being an admitted influence). It happens to take place in space. A lot of sci-fi video games (especially big budget ones) are closer to Star Wars than they are the ideas found in the early writers of science fiction.

Science fiction would take the idea of interstellar space craft and use it to examine how traveling such great distances and living around different stars would impact the human experience. It doesn't just use that space craft to blow up the fortress of an evil wizard.

I wanted to reference a small game that is an interesting positive example, but the name escapes me at the moment. I recall the game is on a space station and every worker is a clone, and they will freak out of they spot one another, so you need them doing tasks that contribute to the same goal, without ever seeing one another and realizing they are a clone.

Kevin Fishburne
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I don't know the name of that game either, but it sounds very much like the movie "Moon": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_(film) If you haven't seen it, it's sci-fi at its best. Don't read the "plot" section until watching it or you'll be sad you did.

Michael Pianta
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It's interesting take. Since everyone else is throwing out their personal "What is Sci-Fi" theory, I may as well offer mine - Sci-Fi is fiction in which plausible not yet existent technology plays a central role in the themes and plot of the story. In order to be Sci-Fi, the technology in question must be theoretically possible - or at least comprehensible. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (elsewhere known as Blade Runner) and also Ghost in the Shell are paradigmatic examples. In each of those works plausible technology such as robots, artificial intelligence, space travel, etc. is dealt with in a serious way. I wouldn't say that the characters have to relate to that technology in any particular way - i.e. using the technology to pursue knowledge, or what have you - but the technology itself, and its effect on humanity is central to the story (rather than being merely there for aesthetic purposes). A work in which the technology is not seriously explored or dealt with, but which still has a futuristic setting (such as Star Wars) is what I call Science-Fantasy.

David Navarro
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I think Sci-Fi is the genre that deals with technology-driven change, whether the technology exists or not or is plausible or not s irrelevant. That's why Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, or William Gibson's Bigend Trilogy are SF, even though one is set in the past and the other in the present.

Chris Dias
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Pointless arguing of semantics.


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