Games do a lot of things well: running, jumping, shooting stuff – but the genre’s Achilles heel has always been story telling. Most games have stories that sound like they were scribbled down on the back of a fag packet, and even the few that are celebrated for their narratives rarely rise above the level of bargain-bin fiction.
A good story is something to be celebrated, but with the bar set so low gamers and up holding up as good storytelling anything that’s even vaguely above par. One of those celebrated games is Mass Effect 3, an action-RPG space opera that tells a story of civilisation-ending cosmic horrors, titanic fleet battles and ethical quandaries on alien worlds.
It sounds pretty epic, in theory. But gameplay-wise, it sticks pretty closely to the tried and tested ME formula of walking, talking, shooting and shopping your way around the universe. Your mission is to gather a plucky band of ragtag adventurers to defend Earth and see off the cosmic horror that’s coming to eat everyone. You are all that stands between galactic civilisation and utter destruction. Or, you know, whatever. It’s not exactly space Shakespeare.
There’s space and shiny stuff and aliens with funny foreheads, but I can’t help but feel there’s a real lack of imagination in Mass Effect’s setting. The best of sci-fi tells a great story but also challenges you, and the joy of the genre is that you’re not constrained by the real world. When you can invent tales of virtual super-dimensional hermaphrodites salsa-dancing in a black hole (probably) why settle for your average mundane story but IN SPACE?
In ME, the aliens speak English, everything happens at the usual pace, you spend half the game collecting credits to buy new guns from a shop, and so on and so on; AIs are banned, guns still go bang and people seem to communicate via shiny holographic arm-sleeve cum digital watches.
Where’s the inventiveness? Where’s the interesting technology, beyond “shields” and “sensors”? Where are the alien aliens, rather than ones that are a slightly funny shape or have a deep voice or an eastern European accent? Mass Effect settles for a proud warrior race, a sneaky fast-talking race, some guys with big teeth, an ancient race who have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a smattering of mysterious technology… It’s pretty standard sci-fi tropes all round.
I would love to see more challenging sci-fi games. So by way of example, here’s a few sci-fi settings that I think kick the crap out of Mass Effect’s mass-market Saturday afternoon telly soap story.
The Culture novels by Iain M Banks.
This series really is epic. The setting is a galaxy-spanning culture run by benevolent (we hope) and god-like (with all the capriciousness that implies) AIs; a post-scarcity, post-money, society where humans are left with little to do but twiddle their thumbs and try to retain a totally-unjustified sense of self-importance.
The physical world is just another inconvenience: gender is nothing but a phase, sexuality is basically “cool, whatever”, when you’ve lived as long as you like you can upload yourself and dilly dally around the cosmos or hang out in a psychedelic virtual world for as long as you like.
One book of the series is mostly dialogue between the AIs controlling kilometres-long ships. Another is about the struggle to escape a virtual reality hell created by fundamentalist societies to punish the dead. There sheer variety in the series means there’s some variation in quality (Look to Windward is sheer poetry; Matter is interesting but a bit over-long) but they’re all far more paced and nuanced than Mass Effect.
The Uplift series by David Brin.
The Uplift series follows the bewildered human race as we stumble, blinking, into a galaxy-spanning alien civilisation that’s been doing its thing for billions of years already. “Uplift” refers to the cyclical process of sentient species raising other species to sentience, creating a chain of Client and Patron races, so the idea of a “wolfling” species who evolved independently causes trouble – a lot of it.
There’s a bewildering range of aliens, from bipedal tiger-like empaths to sentient crabs with five mouths and gestalt beings made of towers of waxy rings. Each species is described with gorgeous detail about their lives and ways of seeing the world, and Brin does an incredible job of creating a weird and wonderful - and alien - world in which humans are just one insignificant part.
The technology can feel a little dated after reading Banks’ all-powerful AIs with their ability to read (and write) every bit of data in your brain from halfway across the solar system, but it’s still a fantastic setting.
The first book is a nice introduction to the universe, then it really kicks off with the loosely related Uplift War series, building to a galaxy-shattering climax that pushes the cast to breaking point. Just a few of the high points are a ship crewed mostly by uplifted dolphins and a sentient chimp who patrols a dimension made entirely of ideas. It all sounds a little bit Mighty Boosh when you put it like that, but then that’s the point of sci-fi, I suppose.
Blindsight by Peter Watts:
A first-contact tale that depicts the most alien aliens I’ve ever read – I won’t say too much because it’d spoil the plot, but the sheer mind-fucking weirdness of it all is equalled only by the amazement when you realise that everything he’s saying makes sense, and you start to wonder just how much we’re the odd-ones-out…
The cast of damaged, modified and just plain weird characters are fascinating – Watts takes characters with multiple personality syndrome and hemispherical lobotomies and turns their problems into gifts, of a sort.
It’s uncompromising in its vision and language, and it’s probably not for everyone, but I think that games (to get back to my original point) could do with a dose of Watts’ spirit of adventure and willingness to do something that challenges the audience.
Any and all of these books are well worth a read, especially if you’re bored of the tyranny of games written for mainstream audiences who spit their dummies out whenever there’s an ending they deem unworthy. I’ve never heard of an author changing an ending because the readership got all sulky, and frankly I think that’s a good thing.