Build A Better World, And The World Will Come To Your Door

The latest issue of Maisonneuve magazine features an article by yours truly (Can A Video Game Make You Cry?) about storytelling and emotion in video games. It was initially supposed to be about games-as-art, but that notion fell apart during the inevitable dispute over the definition of art—which was triggered by my contention that worldbuilding should be considered an art form in and of itself.

I’m happy with how the piece turned out, but I kinda regret that the worldbuilding bit got cut, and I maintain that it’s an art form all its own. I think the dispute happened because the editor in question isn’t much of an SF fan, and worldbuilding, almost by definition, doesn’t happen outside of SF. (Historical fiction recreates worlds; not the same.) Exploring a whole new imaginary world, discovering its treasures and seeing how it works, is a joy unique to SF stories, films, RPGs and video games. Especially video games, since they’re so immersive: three-dimensional, multimedia, and you can actually navigate through them. Also, they’re often untrammeled by much in the way of story and character distractions … although they do tend to be populated by aliens or monsters that need a whole lot of killin’.

Curiously, though, fantasy gameworlds are far more prevalent than science-fiction. I remember spending way too much of my wayward adolescence playing Elite, a space-merchant video game (not to be confused with The Space Merchants.) But it was fantasy that ultimately conquered the PC and console, from Myst to Oblivion to World of Warcraft. Why is that?

I don’t want to get into the eternal fantasy-vs-science-fiction debate (I just escaped the what-is-art debate!)—but that said, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of extrapolative science fiction in video games. Bioshock is fantasy with a gorgeous Artdecopunk setting. Doom, Quake, Halo and their ilk are just shoot-em-ups with SF trappings. There’s the MMORPG EVE Online (best known, outside its players, for its legendary Ponzi scheme) and I hear good things about Mass Effect—but from what I gather those are basically space operas with rayguns and Star-Trek-esque latex aliens. (Stop me if I’m wrong.)

I can name any number of classic science-fiction novels with terrific worldbuilding: Jack Vance’s intricate Fabergé-egg societies, hard science like Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Clarke’s Rama, Card’s Ender’s Game. SF readers talk about worldbuilding like we talk about story and character, and often as if it has equal importance. (This is one of the several reasons that writers who tackle SF have a much harder job than those who stick with the real world; there are so many more ways to screw up.) But why hasn’t all this history of terrific worldbuilding made its way into video games?

Or am I wrong? Are there genuinely extrapolative science-fiction gameworlds out there? I’m not demanding hard Newtonian mechanics, silence in space, and a realistic depiction of how long it takes to travel between planets, but are there games out there with, say, truly alien aliens, or relativistic effects, or cyberpunk transhumanism, or swarms of networked entities a la Vinge’s Rainbows End, or…?

Portal comes close, although it’s arguably that rarest of subgenres, hard science fantasy. I’m surprised I can’t offhand name any other contenders. Is this because games are the descendants of RPGs, where fantasy has always been enormously more popular? (The only science-fiction RPG I can name is Traveller, and I never knew anyone who actually played it.) Or does extrapolative science fiction work better in text and on screen than in games, for some reason? And if so, why?

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