Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Weakness of Sci Fi Settings

I wrote a long post about the difficulty I was having translating the feel I want for my sci fi games into gameplay. In the end, it can be summed up like this:

Sci fi settings have poor feel.

Here's a basic example: what does it feel like to live on a space station?

That's a pretty core part of many sci fi settings, but if you think about all the movies and shows you've watched, all the books you've read, all the games you've played... there's no strong feeling about it. The feel of living on a space station is glossed over in favor of the feel of fighting aliens or whatever.

Here's another question: what does it feel like to walk the surface of a faraway world in a space suit?

This is a much more concrete feeling, one that has been shown to us many times. We can sort of feel the bulk of the suit, the low gravity, the sound of breath in our ears, the beep-garble-garble-garble-beep of conversation. We even allow for things like oxygen running out, damage to the suit, the "pssh psshh" of maneuvering jets, even the taste of the water in the sippy straw thing in your helmet. It depends on how hard core a fan of space travel we are: the more geeky, the more reality the experience has.

However, the suit has an advantage over the space station: it was hugely popular. Everyone can "feel" what is like to be in a space suit because there are hundreds of movies featuring space suits. Even if most of the feel is inherited from what it feels like to be in a diving suit rather than a space suit, there's still a tangible feel to it.

And the reason the suits were so popular? Because we landed on the moon and got actual footage of it. It inspired everyone.

We've also got a space station, but to be frank it really hasn't inspired anyone outside of true nerds. Instead, space stations and life in deep space inherit from other popular settings. We get grimy bars, even though bars on a space station wouldn't look anything like bars. We get streets, even though there would never be vehicles on a space station. We get full gravity, even though even if we could generate gravity we wouldn't generate it at 1g. We get showers, beds with sheets... it's all stuff inherited from more familiar settings. And, of course, the mood is inherited. We get noir science fiction, operatic science fiction, fantastical science fiction, postmodern science fiction...

Because the setting has no feel of its own, it ends up not packing much punch.

Think about a movie with a strong sense of place. For example, Lost in Translation. Whether you like or hate the movie, the feel of the movie is undeniable, a fantastic mix of what it feels like to be in Japan, traveling while tired and alone, and being stuck in a very foreign land. Each of these feelings grows from the setting as much as the actors, and much of the movie is simply moving the actors from one set to another so they can experience it for the audience.

Let's think about another movie with a strong sense of place. How about Alice in Wonderland? Any version. The places Alice goes are each engineered specifically to give a certain feeling. From the Cheshire Cat's phantasmal laughter to the Queen's mad courts, they exist to give you a feeling. I would argue that the sense and feel of the place is not as strong as in a good movie set in a real location, but that could simply be that directors who specialize in the sense and feel of a place tend to film in real places.

Now, there are very few science fiction movies that give you a good sense of place. Let's talk about a few of them.

One is the original Star Wars movie. The moisture farm scenes were especially strong, mixing a very good sense of place with just enough science fiction elements to make the world seem fantastical. But after that, the sense of place in the Star Wars movies decayed rapidly. The sets themselves actually got stronger, but the feel of the places grew weaker. When Kenobi is lurking around trying to find the tractor beam control mechanism, the sets are fantastic. But tell me: what did it feel like?

The same exact sequence could have been set anywhere, anywhen and it would have had the exact same feel. The feel was inherited mostly from the sequence, not the setting. Kenobi could have easily been wandering through an oldschool Japanese paper-walled castle, or a forest, or a cave, or a mansion, or even a boat. Except all of those places would have actually had more feel! If Kenobi was wandering around a ship, you'd have the wet, the rocking, the tight spaces, the bulkheady doors... it would have felt like a place.

The moisture farm itself is just inherited feel, a slightly Frankensteiny mix of subsistence farm feel and 'stuck in a tiny town in 1978' feel. It was good. The rest? Not so much. The feel of the places was dropped in favor of the feel of the characters and the plot.

To give you a hint of where I'm headed: this is why games all use the same damn gameplay, and generative-story games need to be reconsidered.

Let's consider another science fiction movie - or, more accurately, series. Firefly had a very strong feel to it. However, if you actually watch the series, the feel is inherited from the Western roots rather than the science fiction, to the point where exclusively Western elements are used when they want to have a sense of place. The ship itself was an amazing contiguous set, but it had little sense of place. It was only because the characters could fill it with their presence that it felt like a place.

Unlike the first few scenes of Star Wars, Firefly's attempt to mix feels was pretty awkward. The austere science fiction setting of the hospitals and government ships never really felt like a place, just like danger. It never felt like people lived in those places, or time ever passed in those places. They were just sets to challenge our heroes. To Firefly's credit, the Western elements continued strongly throughout, instead of abandoning the feel completely after a few scenes like in Star Wars. This could be because Firefly was much more character-centric rather than plot-centric.

Perhaps the grand poobah of all science fiction films in terms of feel is 2001. This is one of the few films where living in space felt like living in space. The feel of the place was overwhelming, magnified by the many unsettling perspective shots. This meant that when HAL became a threat, you felt like this was an excessively serious threat because the space ship was so fragile and weird. For once, the feel of the place was used to help drive the plot - a very different thing than the mechanics of the place driving the plot!

Anyway, there are a lot of movies to talk about. We could talk about Alien, how it started with a strong science fiction feel that faded as the danger rose. We could talk about The Matrix, which had spikes of place-feel and vast gulfs of nothing. But we've already talked enough about specific examples.

I'd like to talk about what it means for games.

All video games are set in fictional places, unless you're doing some kind of crazy augmented reality thing. This means that every game has a 'fake' setting that inherits its feel from something. Games with a good feel for their place tend to carefully inherit from real places or things. For example, the various GTA games carefully inherit the "feel" of the real city their fake city is based on, even though they don't exactly clone the map or anything. In fact, they can even amplify the aspects they want to highlight. In GTA this tends to take the form of extremely stupid insult humor from the 80s, but that's the feel they are going for so it makes sense.

You don't have to directly copy reality. Katamari Damacy has a very powerful sense of place, but it is not based directly on any real place. Instead, it attempts to create the feel of a child playing with toys, down to the assisting bits where his father is weird, all-powerful, judgmental, and makes him clean up things that aren't the kid's fault. It's a very strong mirror of what it feels like to be a child in that particular situation, amplified and twisted in its own unique ways.

I know that I have been very obsessed with mechanics over all else, but I know that the feel you are aiming for can strongly affect mechanics. In college I built dozens of tabletop systems, each aiming for a particular feel. The rules emerged from the dynamic I needed to create in order to get the feel.

Right now, even indie video games are built like summer blockbusters. The place doesn't matter, even though it's often the most expensive and expansive part of the game. The plot sequence drives the feel.

But there's only a few plot sequences, especially if we limit it to those suitable for gameplay.

We usually leave out the feel of the place and the feel of intercharacter interaction, two other great sources that could draw the players in. When we do try to include those feelings, we tend to copy them from other games or fiction, which is a bit like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.

We should either copy from the source (something a lot of people have actually experienced) or we should carefully craft completely new feelings. Copying from copies is just a bad call.

And if we want to make a generative game, where the players move through random or player-created content?

Well, it's time to start thinking about whether we can make that content reflect place-feel and interpersonal-feel instead of just sequence-feel.

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