Thursday, April 09, 2015

How to Sci Fi

Using "deep sci fi" elements makes your stories more powerful, more memorable, and more easy to write. I think the only reason people avoid using deep sci fi in their games and comics is because they've never really known a good way to do it. So.

Deep sci fi. By the numbers.

What is Deep Sci Fi

A huge numbers of games and comics use sci fi trappings. Robots, cybernetics, space ships. And that's fine. Those are fun.

Deep sci fi is what gave science fiction its original staying power. It's what created those sci fi trappings. And it's pretty easy to tap for your own purposes!

Fundamentally, sci fi is about people living in very unusual situations. Sometimes those situations might be completely fanciful. Other times, those situations reflect a piece of our culture, refined and amplified. Normally, the latter is considered more powerful, and sci fi trappings are built specifically to allow us to easily move our current society into a future where pieces of it can be examined individually.

For example, the concept of robots and androids are a powerful way to discuss race, immigration, economy, and the nature of work. Space ships can offer some similar discussions on other concepts, but are more about allowing us to easily compartmentalize our world - we can simply say that all the pieces of our culture we don't want to examine are someplace other than the space ship.

These tools allow us to quickly and easily put people into compelling situations.

Deep sci fi is about exploring what those lives are like. It is about exploring the limits of the human condition by putting humans in weird conditions.

Setting Up Sci Fi

At this stage, you probably have some idea about the kind of sci fi world you want to build. Is it some kind of cyborgs-in-cities adventure, like Deus Ex? Is it a tale of huge starships at war? Or a small crew of people trapped on the moon? Or engineered monsters fighting against fridge-wearing supersoldiers?

Even if you aren't thinking in terms of deep sci fi, those seeds already exist. When you choose the kind of situation you want your audience to experience, you have already chosen a deep sci fi topic. You just need to make it clear to yourself.

There's no need to be clever or unique or savvy. Just find what you're focusing on.

In a world like Deus Ex, where the people have become cyborgs and work for huge corporations, you're probably trying to focus on the nature of the daily grind and how people coexist with large corporations. This sounds like an overly simple foundation for the sprawling, epic gun-adventure you might want to build, but it provides a strong foundation for your writing.

Understanding that this is about how people coexist with large corporations allows you to easily build your key characters by simply designating them as in different kinds of relationships with the corporation and having different kinds of reactions to that.

Your main character is bound to the corporation not wholly by choice, having signed a contract that brought her in deeper than she thought. Now she finds herself a tool of the corporation in a literal sense, flesh replaced by mechanisms.

Then keep up the brainstorming.

Another character is bound in the same way, but the corporation saved their life and they are happy with the situation. Another character is seemingly bound to the corporation, but has such a high rank that it is her tool rather than the other way around. Another person is a chair on the corporate board but has no implants and is not bound to it. Another is working on implants and is bound to the corporation through high-security zones and reams of red tape rather than required maintenance. Others are not bound to corporation, and find themselves struggling to stay unfettered in a world where corporations are almost a requirement to get work, health care, money. And yet others are bound to the corporation by their need for maintenance, but do not work for the corporation - wealthy ones that can afford the best, poor ones that suffer greatly when they fail to make this month's payments, and ones that are bound up in the system and are "covered"... as long as they can keep their job, which is strongly pushing for them to turn themselves into tools and therefore be bound ever more deeply...

These simple relationships aren't hard to brainstorm. While some of the scenario is written into these assumptions - for example, we're assuming the corporation is not terribly ethical - there is no "plot" here. But you can already see how the plot might evolve as these characters and their activities bounce into each other. Each character is also written as a shadow of a character. We don't know exactly what their job is, or exactly what their feelings are. Those things, too, will evolve when things start to move.

You can easily repeat this process for every kind of setting you might be interested in.

Are you making an epic space military game, something like Homeworld or Mechwarrior? You're probably exploring the nature of war, or examining pieces of our current militaries. There's a lot of easy characters there, as well. Simply defining someone as "an admiral" is already more meaningful than before, because you know this is an admiral that exists to help explore the nature of war. So you know that, in the end, he's going to weigh in on topics like civilian casualties, the weight of soldier's lives, and how politics/money enters the equation. He's not simply going to be "good" or "bad". He's not simply going to come up with masterful strategies. He has more important things to talk about as well.

All of these kinds of thoughts do come with a price tag.

They make your writing easier, more compelling, and more memorable... but they do require you to show some opinions. You don't need to try to hammer your opinions home - that'd be counterproductive - but your opinions will naturally shine through. You might think this is problematic, but take a look at the best selling big games. They tend to have opinions. It's okay. You're allowed to reveal some part of yourself through your art. It's kind of what makes it art.

Building With Sci Fi

Well, you're brainstorming your setting. You're thinking about writing standards. What's your first act? Your second? What's the twist? What's the arc? What's the-


The thing about formulas is that they exist for the same reason we're developing right now. Formulas and scaffolds allow you to direct your efforts effectively, and write efficiently. It's hard to follow two formulas at once, so let's talk about a sci fi formula in specific.

The point is to give your story enough structure to make it compelling. We're not about ticking checkboxes - this won't make your story formulaic.

Finding Peace

Deep sci fi starts when someone is not at peace, and ends when they are. It doesn't matter whether it's a 1000-page book or a half-hour episode of an endless series. The easiest way to show how someone lives in a strange situation is to show them struggling to live in a strange situation. This is structurally similar to a heroes' journey, but it's easier to think of it in this way.

In Blade Runner, Deckard is called back to work for his old bosses. His peace is disturbed and he is sent out to do something dangerous and annoying. At the end of the movie, Deckard runs off with a beautiful robot, at peace with his choice and with the short time they will have together.

It's an extremely simple arc. Does Deckard "learn" anything? Does he change? Does he grow?

Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn't really matter: sci fi is not about the people growing or changing. It's about them living.

In Star Trek, every episode is about something disturbing the peace of the Enterprise - an SOS, a space wedgie, a sudden vacation, a nightmare, a warship. At the end of the episode, peace is achieved. In most episodes, twin arcs are used - an "A" and "B" plot, each of which is about striving for resolution in its own way.

In a cyborg game like Deus Ex, your peace is disturbed when you find yourself beholden to the corporation. What are some potential resolutions?

This is the easy part. Because sci fi is about exploring the human condition, "peace" is all about the kinds of peace people actually find. And there's not many options.

Death, falling, passing the torch, gaining a family, taking on an important job, or returning to old habits are the most common options.

In our cyborg game, death would mean the main character sacrifices herself or decides to leave the corporation even though she will die without its maintenance. Falling would be continuing to work for the corporation, or getting promoted. Passing the torch might be if she retires but a child she saved takes over. Gaining a family would be if she finds someone to love, adopts a kid, or remembers who her family was before the operation. Taking on an important job would be if she decides to fight to fix the system, or is promoted and decides to reform the company, or becomes a doctor, etc. Returning to old habits would require we establish old habits in the first place, but it's pretty straightforward.

Not all characters have to find peace. Only the main character. Others can take it or leave it, it really doesn't matter from a structural perspective. Similarly, they don't have to find a peace that somehow matches up to how they lost it: Deckard found peace in love, but his lost peace is contract work. You really have to squint to relate those.

So, when you are developing your story, figure out how their peace is lost, and figure out how they attain peace in the end.

The Engine

You have one or more main characters worked out, with their lost and found peace jotted down in pencil. Now you need something to give your story mass and shape.

The twist?

Thinking of a good twist is hard, and it's probably not worth it, because it'll be spoiled by the box art and the headline of the first review. Nope!

The engine.

What we need is an in-world conceit that shapes all our interactions. The key here is that the engine is not something which grants physical powers. It's something which grants specific relationships.

In our Deus-Exlike, the engine is the maintenance drug that only the corporation can provide. It binds everyone to the corporation, and instantly creates a ton of relationships. But - here's the kicker - it's a standin for ordinary corporate dependence.

The maintenance drug is a way to purify and amplify our real relationship to corporations. Our inability to choose another ISP or power provider. Our inability to leave our day job. Our inability to get away from our landlord. Our willingness to buy the next Apple product. Being forced to use Microsoft Word. Or, more darkly, being forced to obey increasingly aggressive policing, both physical and digital. Being forced to stay quiet despite the exploitation and destruction corporations cause. Otherwise, the company will take you to court and crucify you.

In Star Wars, the engine is the Force. It's basically magic, but the exact way it manifests forms the beating heart of the Star Wars universe. You can certainly argue that Star Wars isn't "proper sci fi", but it does have a good engine inside it. Like a moped with a rocket on the back. The Force allows us to amplify the concept of good and evil, of duty and personal responsibility.

In Star Trek, the engine is the starship itself. Starships occupy a very unusual place in that universe, because they are all large and owned by benevolent (or disinterested) governments. The Enterprise has a hilarious amount of freedom to do absolutely anything, and it's backed by the almost endless resources of the Federation. This allows us to build a setting in which benevolence can shine: good people are empowered as a default. Therefore, a lot of Star Trek is about exploring different definitions of "good".

The engine cannot be easily escaped. It forces people to do things, it gives some people power over others.

You may already have an idea for what your engine is. It can be anything that pushes people into new relationships. Anything that makes people band together and split apart. This will give you your cement, because it will guide your characters together and also tell you what kind of friction they will create.

... You can still put in a twist if you like, but it's just not as important.

Filling in the Stones

With an engine and a list of characters, we can start to see shapes form between the characters. "The corporation" never does anything. One of the characters with leverage over the corporation uses it as a tool. "An asteroid on route to earth" never does anything. Instead, it's the pressure and panic that causes the characters to do things.

Our main character works for the corporation, bound to it by reliance on the maintenance drug. This automatically creates friction between them and their bosses, between them and ordinary people. "Why are you doing these bad things?" some kid on the street asks her. She would stop if she could! She would stop. She tells herself.

The drug cannot be easily escaped. It gives your bosses power over you. And, in a way, it gives you power over everyone else - your advanced cyberware is only possible due to that drug.

In Star Trek, our space ships empower us. They give us the strength to push our concepts of "good", to resist or protect other people pushing their own versions. The Klingons think it is good for the strong to rule. The Vulcans think it is good for pure logic to win out. The Ferengi think that the greatest good is profit. Everyone is trying to be good, and our engine (ships/benevolent bureaucracy) give us all the power to push and shove and fight.

So, if we want to do an episode of Star Trek, we simply start with an A plot and a B plot. Let's say... Data's peace is lost when he installs an emotion chip. It is regained when he uninstalls it. The peace of the ship itself is lost when we fall for an ambush and find ourselves floating powerless in a nebula. It is restored when we defeat the Klingon and sail away. Very simple plot!

The stepping stones. Data's exploring the idea of "good" as an emotional response. This conflicts with the more nuanced and stable ideas of "good" put forth by the other members of the crew, but their concept of "good" does include the freedom to explore your own ideals. So Data moves through the episode conflicting with each character in turn, and each getting slightly more annoyed in turn. Each one gets to explain their idea of good, and how it conflicts with Data's idea.

So to do this, we just look at every combination and we write everything that comes to mind. Data's lower efficiency annoys Geordi, whose idea of "good" involves functioning well. Data's fear annoys Riker, whose idea of "good" involves bravery. Data's rage annoys the captain - no, wait, that's one option, but perhaps a better idea is if the captain represents the "good" of exploring your own ideals. So Data would attempt to remove the chip, and that would annoy the captain. Data's new emotions confuse him, so he sees Deanna, and she tries to cheer him up...

Why limit it to the crew? Data fights Klingons, who are impressed by his anger and prowess. Data talks to Klingons, and they are annoyed by his mechanical nature before he puts the chip in, and annoyed by his fear and weakness when he finally does put the chip in. Data gets into a fiery argument with a Klingon.

These are stones for one of the plots. Not everything is staunchly related to the engine of starships/benevolent bureaucracies. Not everything is related to the concept of "good". Those are simply underlying things which make it easy to come up with some of the stones.

There's not really an order to them, although there are some orders that make more sense than others.

You can come up with a similar set of stones for the plot about the ambush.

Enterprise tries to do its kind of good: rescuing people. Klingons try to do their kind of good: proving their strength and capturing trophies. Enterprise tries to be innovative and hold on. What are some specific encounters? Well, in this case it tends to come together rather more chronologically for me.

Enterprise tries to rescue "damaged" Klingon warbird. "Injured" Klingons beam aboard and try to take the ship. When that fails, there's a fight and the Enterprise is badly damaged. It runs into the nebula, where it loses power and drifts. Klingons try to hunt it down. Enterprise wins.

Coming up with things that can happen during the fight is kind of fun, although not very deep. Enterprise vents atmosphere to change course. Enterprise vents fuel and then blows it up. Someone - captured Klingons or crew - tries to build a radio and call for help using some other power source such as a phaser. Electrical storms cause damage to the Enterprise, but then become part of the critical final plan.

This method of brainstorming isn't anything new or impressive, but these scenarios look great tacked up on a wall.


Now it's simply a matter of putting the stones down in an order that makes sense, and linking them together. But this is also where deep sci fi shines.

Often, these mini-scenarios have an obvious order to them. The Klingons can't get annoyed by Data's cold-fish demeanor after he's put in the chip, so that has to come first. The ship can't drift into a the nebula before it gets attacked.

But frequently, the setpieces and events you come up with won't have any obvious order to them. Does it matter whether Riker or the Captain gets annoyed at Data first? Does it matter whether we suffer from a damaging electrical storm before or after Data talks to Deanna?

You can put them in some order, and it'll make sense.

But nobody will remember either event.

I'll give you three methods to link events up when there's no obvious order. This is not just a way to arbitrarily stack things: this is a way to make the themes and characters shine very brightly, because they all hold together.

Tick Tock

The first thing to do is to separate your ticking clocks. Ticking clocks are extremely powerful. Introduce them early, and resolve them late. A ticking clock adds a massive amount of tension, and every moment that happens within a ticking clock has more weight. Moreover, actions can be taken to try and resolve or extend the ticking clocking throughout its span, giving you an easy inspiration for additional events.

Our most obvious ticking clock is the electrical storm - the ship can only take so much zapping. Do we have any others?

Sure, how about when the Klingons invade the Enterprise to try and capture it? There's a struggle to find and contain them before they can damage the ship or hurt crew. Similarly, when the Enterprise takes a beating and warps into the nebula, we can make that a ticking clock to escape the weapons range of the Klingons. Whether a ticking clock is five seconds or five hours, it adds weight.

Ticking clocks are the "Dragonball charge-up scene" of sci fi.

Thematic Cause and Effect

The next thing you want to do is find the thematic links between events. For example, Data's steadily unraveling nerves are similar to the disintegrating ship. While Data's nerves are not a hard enough limit to be a good ticking clock, we can echo his mental state by using the grinding, sparking lightning storm. When Data says he's not sure how much more he can take, the ship judders and sparks fly out of a wall panel. You could even cut away to show the lightning storm from the outside, growing stronger.

Basic rule, though: don't cut away and then immediately cut back to where you were. That's a bit on-the-nose.

Echoes like this are very powerful. Cut between characters to contrast or support each. In our Deus-Exlike, our avatar is brought down by a debilitating lack of drug. We could cut away to show the loyal employee injecting himself, or we could not cut away, but instead have our avatar fall off the building and land in an alley full of discarded limbs.

Both work well - you don't have to worry about being too obvious, because too obvious is just about right.

In these situations, you have the opportunity to advance another thread during a cutaway. If we cut to the loyal guy injecting himself, then we should be advancing loyal guy's thread. On paper, whether that scene happens before or after your fall is unimportant. In the actual experience of the game, the thematic power of him advancing while you fall is very powerful. People will remember it: it's not simply that one came before the other. Thematically, your fall caused his ascent, even though the two were not related in any in-world causal way.

Ticking Callbacks

Most of your stuff should have a pretty concrete order at this point. Ticking clocks form strong bounding boxes, and within those boxes come the thematic cause-and-effect. And, of course, the fact that some things directly cause or predate others.

You may still have some floating bricks. You may be too sparse and need to come up with more detail. It's time for the Ticking Callback.

Ticking clocks are a call to action for everyone affected by them. As long as you have a ticking clock, you can show any scene of someone trying to fix it or delay it and it'll work perfectly. It's so easy, in fact, that you can also easily tie it into your themes, character progressions, and setpieces without raising the bar much.

You can embed events into the ticking clock by making them about the ticking clock. Geordi's annoyance at Data's new inefficiency is most powerful if it happens within a ticking clock, so it can be an event where Geordi is trying to reduce the damage from the lightning storm. Because there is a ticking clock, the scene fits in great, and now has a powerful explanation as to why Geordi is so annoyed.

But that's not the limit of our ticking clock integration. Oh, not even close.

See, whenever you create a scene to try and thwart the ticking clock, you have to create another scene where you use that exact same method for other purposes. This is absolutely required: a freefloating ticking clock scene is not very powerful, and sticks out badly.

If Geordi gets angry at Data as they attempt to armor the ship against lightning storms, good, that's scene one. But it's not very memorable on its own, and has no feeling of resolution. Geordi's little arc doesn't find peace.

So we come back to it. At the end of the encounter, the Klingons are getting close. How does the Enterprise defeat them? By turning the storm against them using the same technique that failed because Data was too confused and slow. Even if Data doesn't come up with the solution, it's fine: Geordi can say "hey, Data, remember when you made that storm worse?" And then the two of them can share face-splitting evil grins.

You can also set this up in the opposite order. If you think of a cool level or scene (the Enterprise vents fuel and lights it on fire!) you can set that up with a ticking clock action (someone discovers heat makes the lightning storms worse). However, keep in mind that the setup needs to be thematically linked in. In this case, we can link it in by having Data and Geordi have a spat about it.

This is just another way of setting up a Chekhov's Gun, but this method is powerful and easy.

For our Deus-Exlike example, we have a ticking clock of running out of drug. We attempt to resolve it by raiding a company warehouse, only to find that the inventory document was a lie: the warehouse is full of illegal robots that are far more dangerous and fun to shoot at. Later, we have the opportunity to unleash those robots on the corporation to create enough chaos and cause enough damage to let us accomplish a more important goal.


These approaches are built to help create a compelling story. They are flexible enough to accommodate the "cool setpieces" approach to sci fi writing, and also strong enough to let you link things together even when your boss dictates that level 2 and level 7 should be swapped.

To recap:

Figure out what aspect of today's society you are amplifying, and create characters that interact with that.

Figure out an "engine" to drive how people relate to each other, and who has power over who.

Figure out at least one main character: how do they lose their peace? What kind of peace do they attain in the end?

List a lot of cool interactions and setpieces and figure out how they interact with those ideas.

Find your ticking clocks. Start them early, end them late.

Figure out which scenes can thematically descend from or echo which scenes.

Fill out your roster with Checkov's Guns built inside the ticking clocks. Make sure the setups involve your original concerns, and the second half should be a turnaround.

Don't bother with a twist unless it's REALLY good.

Now you have a killer sci fi story that is both compelling and deep.

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