That’s not to condemn science fiction and fantasy. Both traditions have a long and proud history of great works that wrestled with profound points. “Starship Troopers,” for example, was a novel that featured men in powered combat armor, but what it was about was exploring Robert Heinlein’s views on war, patriotism and government. “The Lord of the Rings” makes some pretty significant statements about the nature of good, evil, ecology, industry and heroism. TV’s “Battlestar Galactica” is an extraordinary take on the global War on Terror and there have certainly been games set in fantastic worlds such as the Metal Gear series, Planescape: Torment and BioShock, that are about far more than shooting and looting (though they have that too).
The real issue is that all too often we as gamers take the biggest and most spectacular elements of the worlds we love and try to build games out of them and then wonder why they ultimately end up feeling hollow. It’s because fireworks and spectacle aren’t enough. And honestly, I believe on some level we actually understand this. We even hunger for it. Those Warhammer 40,000 fans who are already taking poison pen in hand to direct me to examples from the Black Library and condemn me to the maw of Slaanesh are missing my point. Even Warhammer 40,000, which is brilliantly constructed as a kind of tongue in-cheek parody of… well, everything nerdy, has its obsessive fans who pore over every detail of every aspect of the universe, produce annotated timelines, and look for consistency and meaning among the worlds of the Imperium. What they’re looking for isn’t consistency, it’s some skein of meaning that can’t be found in what is ultimately a totally self-referential parody.
In fact, this happens for game worlds that are much less intricately constructed than Warhammer 40,000. Never mind World of Warcraft, where the game lore gets twisted around by Blizzard to fit the latest content patch in ways that make many Warcraft fans nauseous. There are those fans that try to make sense out of the mythology of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter! We’re turning “Dante’s Inferno” into a God of War knock-off and patting ourselves on the back for our ingenuity. This makes me profoundly sad on a number of levels when you consider what we could be doing. We need to stop creating worlds that are merely references to other worlds. That way lies creative bankruptcy (though sadly, to judge from Hollywood’s most recent output, not financial bankruptcy).
As I pointed out in my last column, one of the things that make videogames stand out from other art forms is that they let us truly become another character and explore the limits of another world. Given that, don’t we have a responsibility to make those worlds more interesting than we have been? I have a very long drive to get to work here at GameSpy. One of the few benefits of that drive is I listen to a lot of books on CD. Just recently I listened to a novel about a serial killer who haunts a small southern town in the world of the pre-Civil Rights south, a place far more alien to me than Azeroth. Could it be made into a game? Maybe, maybe not. But the richness of the setting made me realize that there are more worlds to explore than ones in which yet another over-muscled action hero shoots aliens.
Games are very good at imitating the forms of a fictional world. We’ll go all out to get breast physics, lens flare and blood spray just right. What they’re not so hot at imparting are the underlying ideas and metaphors these worlds are constructed from. We can reproduce the experience of flying in a Colonial Viper against a Cylon Raider but — to paraphrase President Joe Bowers — wouldn’t it be better if you knew why you were in that cockpit and why you were fighting that Cylon?