In Search Of Serious Science Fiction Gaming Epics

In the first installment of the daily Speak-Up on Kotaku for the year 2011, commenter Murkurial wonders why game developers aren't spending more time exploring the deeply detailed worlds created by science fiction's greatest authors.

What has anyone heard (or what are your thoughts) about a company like Bethesda making a game in the mold of Fallout 3, but set in a more dystopian or cyberpunk, futuristic setting? Not the "burning cars lining the streets and everyone is dressed like someone out of Mad Max" dystopian aesthetic, but something more along the lines of a Mass Effect or Deus Ex.

Something with the scope of Fallout 3/Oblivion, but set in that city that you can see off in the distance when you're watching cut-scenes of Mass Effect on the Citadel. I never really felt like the city beyond the Citadel was alive and I know that it's due in part to the developers looking to give the game a larger scope, focusing on a story that encompassed more of the galaxy as a whole, but I think it'd be great to see a game set in a futuristic city, but approached in a way that would suggest that it's got just as much history as D.C. does in Fallout 3. I feel like someone needs to craft a story set in that world much in the same way that I wish directors would take some cues from the more imaginative Sci-fi novels of the 70s and 80s (and more recently novels like "Altered Carbon" by Richard K. Morgan) and craft a story that doesn't so much attempt to relate the more fantastical concepts of Sci-fi to the world that we know today, and instead looks to wildly speculate on what things might be like for us (if we're still around) some 3,000 years in the future.

I love Mass Effect, but something about playing a game set in that world with the freedom to explore and the subtleties (ME 1 was closer to this feeling — ME 2 seemed to ditch the RPG elements and go for the big-budget blockbuster feel) that you'll find in a game like Oblivion sounds really intriguing.

I point to a Sci-fi game chiefly because that's my favourite genre, but it could work in the form of some sort of government conspiracy storyline set in present day NY or Chicago with or without Sci-fi undertones (X-Files RPG?), or a story that begins here in the present day but ends some thousand years in the future on another planet. Or perhaps it shifts between the two...or many different planets (I suggest the gov't conspiracy angle mainly because I'd imagine that some developers might see it as a more palatable subject for audiences).

Personally, I've always found it to be an awesome idea but it wasn't until I played the Mothership Zeta DLC and Bioshock that I wondered what could come of a game that combined the depth of the former with the latter game's storytelling, but took things in a direction that would elicit the feelings of wonder that I'd imagine people got from watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time.

Lately I've found myself really admiring the retro Sci-fi book covers of guys like Dean Ellis and looking at something like the cover I've attached to this post always makes me wonder what the world depicted there (of which we only get a glimpse) would be like. It just seems like writers, directors, and illustrators were all capable of conveying a much stronger sense of wonder in their work than I've seen in recent years. And I say this as a 24 year-old so it's not like I was there to experience these things when they were new and fresh. It just so happens that those images seem to resonate more with me than a lot of what comes out today. And when I hear things like J.J. Abrams looking to pay tribute to Spielberg and emulate his Close Encounters of the Third Kind with his new film Super 8, that fact seems to be hammered home even more.

More importantly, why hasn't some ambitious developer looked to make this move? Surely there are fans of films like Fantastic Planet making games today? Or perhaps I'll have to get into the business and try and do it myself. :)

If you consider the likes of Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and the more spectacular set pieces from the CoD games (among others), the push towards more cinematic games is evident. It's also clear that remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings are all the rage nowadays, but why not take a look at the more obscure (relatively speaking) Sci-fi classics as something to draw inspiration from? Something to play on our inquisitive minds and fascination (and sometimes fear) of the unknown. Perhaps the question of whether or not video games really are art can be answered that way.

This medium affords artists, developers, writers, etc., near limitless possibilities in terms of what sorts of stories they want to tell. What sort of world they want to construct.

Let's go somewhere we've never been before.

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    I've wanted something like this for as long as I can remember. The idea of being able to freely explore a science fiction universe that was incredibly detailed and well thought out was the reason I got so excited by the idea of Mass Effect before it came out and why I loved the game from the moment I first played it (even though I had managed to slightly overhype it to myself).

    ME2 on the other hand was a severe disappointment to me as although I did enjoy playing it I agree with the article in that it had been dumbed down and was missing the scope of the previous game. To me it seemed as if the focus shifted away from a well thought out storyline to what felt like a string of side missions with 3 or four main missions strung in between. Don't get me wrong I did like the cast of characters (in some cases more than those from the first game), but I’ve always felt that missions that explore party members backgrounds should be kept as actual side missions - so that discovering reflects how your character relates to his/ her companions (i.e. does he/she give a crap about them or not) and so that details about them are a reward that one can achieve by getting off the beaten path (Kotor especially springs to mind and so do old iso-metric rpgs - esp. planescape torment, just because it was so good-).

    Anyway before start to ramble - I completely agree with this article in that I would really really really (really) like to see more sci-fi games that are big on scope and free exploration in a well thought out universe - something that could give you the sense of awe you can get out of reading particular sci-fi novels, including those by Larry Niven (the cover attached to this article is from Protector which is a Known Space novel - personally I do prefer the first Ringworld book, though admittedly putting the cover to that up would have most likely led to people commenting "but they've already done halo")

    So yeah, hopefully this is something we see more of in the future (though I think I would prefer original properties to attempts to shoe-horn novels into games) and so my hat goes off to Murkurial for bringing it up - who knows maybe someone from a decent developer will read this article and go 'yes that's a great idea!' and run with it.


      One of the great things about the Mass Effect series which I've loved (and was to a certain extent lessened in the second game) was its retro-sci-fi feel, as well as the sense of discovery.

      ME2 didn't quite give me the same feeling, probably because everyone (even the aliens) acted and sounded like Canadian humans, and the game played a little like a epic team-building movie with a sci-fi overtone.

      Would this be solved with a bigger focus on epic-scope exploration? I'm not so sure - developers also need to shoehorn a narrative in there somewhere.

        I'm not sure if there needs to be more of a focus on exploring, but I do think that developers really need to take a look at what it is that draws you into exploring and what is done to keep you interested in exploration. In Me2 there was a lot of exploring, though there was less focus on it and I don't think it was implemented right - as the original reasons you have for wanting to explore (finding out about how the places you visited and the people you visited them with have changed while Shepard has been dead) don't really deliver for a number of reasons.

        -Owing to the story most of your time is spent in the terminus systems - meaning that you don't really get to revisit past locations much (limited stuff on the citadel was REALLY disappointing) and the scope feels smaller seeing as in ME the suggestion was that you had access to the entire galaxy. Much would have preferred more time in the citadel and visits to past places, plus perhaps some visits to the territories of other major council member species.

        - Interactions with your past companions are done better, though I did dislike how they we're mostly put into the main quest and so interactions we're often linear, limited and brief owing to the fact that in most cases you couldn't get them back on the team and the focus was on banging you over the head with the idea that you can't get them back on the team (Ashley and Kaiden spring to mind). In the cases where they we're re-recruited I think this was done well. (Really loved the Garrus quests). Would have been nice to actually have to go out of your way to go looking for one or two of them - this potentially could have been a motivating and rewarding side-quest.

        - Finally I also had an issue with what eventually became your motivation for exploration - finding resources. Scanning planets was boring and yet that was how you were kept exploring - you needed to do it to upgrade the ship and nearly everything else. Game play is important. If it's no fun then exploring isn't what it should be.

        So in a round-about way of answering your question: There should be a focus on exploring but the exploring should be done right - you should have to search for side-quests in a meaningful way (more talking, less scanning perhaps) and the side-quests should be meaningful and well written, with no cop out game play (finding the original Normandy and then having to do a fetch quest was such a waste) and should work more to expand the universe around the main story...

        As long as the main story line is strong there seems to be no need for it to be shoe-horned in - as side-quests are the perfect place to explore stories and situations that are different in theme and content to the main story and would not have suited it anyhow.

        Or at least that's just my opinion - and I know that in many cases it is just wishful thinking when one considers how much more time and effort would be added in development (makes you wish for more old style iso-metric rpgs where more could be packed in) - though when one looks at the detail present in some relatively recent games (i.e. 1st person, albeit last gen) such as Morrowind (largely similar to oblivion, but bigger and better imo) and something like bloodlines (detail for all classes and some brilliant side-quests that fleshed out the universe fantastically) then it seems that it should be possible in the current day.

        And yes I would kill for Morrowind/Oblivion style free roam rpg set in a interstellar sci-fi universe.

    well side mike... could be anything - from Ringworld to Asimov's spaceport in I, Robot (not the BS Will Smith one). A hard-SF version of L.A. Noire perhaps? That would be truely awesome.

    You've described exactly what I loved about ME, and Fallout3. KOTOR (thanks Rhombus) did this particularly well.

    The 80s 'Beneath a steel sky' novel (based on a William Gibson novel??), whilst pretty linear, is also in this direction.

    Philip K. Dick for Sci-Fi, and Terry Pratchett for Fantasy.

      I'd have to go with Frank Herbert/Heinlein for Sci-Fi and JRRT/GRRM for Fantasy. A Game Of Thrones is the best fantasy written in recent years. It's just a shame it'll NEVER be completed due to gross procrastination.

    Enders game, orson Scott card, would be an incredible game - story, brilliant characters, team based action and ability to integrate plot points as game play. They can't get a movie off the ground (would be difficult to cram the story into 2 hours) so a 8-15 hour game is perfect. Also anything in Asimovs foundation world would be super cool.

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