[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Usually when we talk about SF/F on SF Signal we cover books, TV shows and movies. But there is another medium where SF/F resides that many people probably aren’t too familiar with: games. By games I mean both video games and board/card games. We asked our panelists this week the following question:
The easiest answer–and the most obvious, for anyone who knows my career to date–is Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve been playing since I was nine, and it’s not at all a stretch to say that without D&D, I wouldn’t be a writer today. (And it’s a good thing I was able to make a career out of it, since that’s basically all I studied throughout much of my school years.)
It was through playing the game that I learned some of the basics of how to craft a story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not remotely saying that running a D&D game is the same skill as writing a novel or short story or script; it’s not, by a long shot. (If you’ve ever read fiction based directly on a D&D game–I don’t mean D&D tie-in fiction, some of which is quite good, but I mean *directly* based on a specific group’s campaign–you already know this.) But there are certain skills that overlap, certain rules of plot or character creation that can be applied from one to the other–and these I first figured out thanks to the game.
And I think, at the risk of coming across as an old fogy, that it helps develop the imagination in ways that computer games can’t. I’m not saying computer games are “inferior” or anything like that; they absolutely have
their strengths. But in this particular aspect–the development of an active imagination and the urge to create stories–D&D and other tabletop RPGs do come out on top.
(Now get off my lawn!)
Having mentioned computer games, I should also point out that my absolute favorite computer game–bar none; the competition’s not even close–isn’t an MMORPG. It’s not a modern game at all. It is, in fact, a game from the early 90s called Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father. (There are two more games in the series, and they’re both a lot of fun, but not as good as the first.) The graphics are crap, of course, but the gameplay–and more importantly, the amount of research and fealty to the actual areas and religions portrayed–was utterly astounding. In fact, Gabriel Knight is no less responsible for my career than D&D. It was an idea inspired in part by the game, and in part by my honeymoon in New Orleans, that I submitted to White Wolf, and thus got me my first freelancing gig.
But it’s worth digging up the game just for Tim Curry’s performance as a Cajun.
Where to start? If you are a SF/F fan, only books rival video games for offering up diverse ways of experiencing science-fiction and fantasy. There are many video games with really outstanding science-fiction or fantasy ideas – from the world of myth presented in God of War to the childlike fantasy of the Legend of Zelda to the hardcore science in Halo or Starcraft. And let’s not forget the continuously updated online universes provided by games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online. There are many great games to choose from, but here are my favorites.
#1 – Baldur’s Gate 2 – Absolutely stunning D&D game that really delivered on all levels. There was intrigue, betrayal, comedy, awesome heroes and horrendous villains. The storytelling here is what made this for me. Sure, you get to fight all kinds of classic D&D monsters with meaningful quests. And yes, you get a stronghold that you have to rebuild up and turn into a base of operations. But most importantly the story sucked you in and made you feel a part of it unlike any game I’ve ever played. I really cared about the plight of Yoshimo, your character’s demon heritage, the feelings of Imoen, and much more. I must have played that game all the way through 3 times with different character types just to enjoy all the myriad of choices the game provided throughout and I replayed many sections several times just to see all the story and plot twist options. This game has been surpassed by games with better graphics and better gameplay features but none have come close to the story this game provides. If you want a game brimming over with epic fantasy this is it.
#2 – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – Almost my number 1 for rebooting a franchise that I felt had lost its way. The Old Republic universe that Lucasarts and Bioware put together is better than the one envisioned by the second trilogy of films. Another Bioware title, so no surprise that the plotline was fantastic. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but the game had more than one jaw-dropping moment of plot twist. I remember pausing at one point and simply thinking about what I just heard a character say to make sure I absorbed the shocking news. Very cool. Oh, and the RPG gameplay worked great as well.
#3 – Diablo 2 – Sure, the first Diablo was a ripping good time, but Diablo 2 added a plot and unique environments and took this game to a new level in terms of advancing an interesting fantasy storyline.
#4 – Half-Life – Damn helicopter! But overall what a fantastic story and some great gameplay even if the sci-fi ideas are a bit of a trope. That’s not always bad in a game like this as you’ve got to teach users the game mechanics (weapon options, puzzle approaches, etc.) and challenge them with twitch gameplay at the same time. Having to work hard to understand a complicate story isn’t always worth the hassle.
#5 – XCOM: UFO Defense – An outstanding idea well executed. If you’re a fan of the series you’ll know that these two haven’t always been paired together, as there are some game that try the idea and execute poorly. The setup is deceptively simple – you lead a newly formed UN-funded effort to understand why the Earth is being visited regularly by UFOs. That means staffing up a team of new recruits, going out with some basic modern weapons, shooting down the unidentified flying object and then investigating the crash. You research alien technology, improve your team, and then really try to go after the buggers. It didn’t have as deep a storyline as perhaps I would like, but overall it was still cool.
#6 – Fallout 1, 2 & 3 – Not just a post-apocalyptic science fiction setting, they also chose to arrest the development in strange hybrid of 1950’s and modern era. It works and the plot of Fallout 3 (the one I can remember the best) was involved and compelling. The RPG elements are cool mainly because they were invented for the series and copied elsewhere. This is one game where the action itself wasn’t really the best part, but instead the interesting and funny dialog as well as the entire gameworld.
#7 – Deus Ex – Dystopia for the win! Warren Specter’s great envisioning of a sci-fi game universe with a great new RPG system (adding implants to yourself was cool) and really fun gameplay. The plot itself was pretty simple and a trope, but the execution made it a fun game to play. Arguably Ion Storm’s best effort and a credit to Specter’s ability to triumph over John Romero’s immature company management.
I could really go on and on. I’m leaving out Command & Conquer, Civilization, System Shock 2 (and for that matter Bioshock), Wing Commander, Battlefield 2142, Quake, and many more.
Recently? Well, obviously I love the hell out of the Halo video games, or I wouldn’t have offered to write a whole book set in the universe. What drew me to Halo in particular was the big space opera styled back story, in addition to the awesome online multiplayer features. Halo still has these Ian Banks/Larry Niven ‘big dumb objects’ sort of moments of awe. I loved that some of the time you’d be first person shooting your way through something, and then just stop to look at the massive science fictional structure you were standing in. I know I got shot up a few times in Halo 3 while on the Ark.
Dead Space is absolutely gripping and I loved playing the first few levels, but I had to send the damn game back. I have a heart issue, and playing that game was so intense I was getting irregular hearbeats from getting startled all the time by creatures popping out of the dark and I figured it was a bad idea to keep going. Nonetheless, that opening sequence where you first land on the asteroid base and you’re suddenly getting chased down the corridors by crawly spidery things had me just crawling up the back of my couch.
If you count zombies (and why shouldn’t you?), I’m also the biggest fan of the Left 4 Dead series. There’s not much to justify, other than: hitting a zombie in the face with a frying pan is viscerally a lot of fun. The zombie variations are inventive, and the humorous dialogue and interplay between the characters is always fun. There’s one scene in one of the L4Ds that is a ‘moment of awe’ when you arrive at the airport and as you’re playing through, shooting zombies, a whole frigging plane hits the runway and explodes.
And then I have to give props to Bioshock, one of the most amazing landscapes to wander through, and the Art Deco touches are so masterfully done.
Right now I’m playing Crackdown 2. Now 1 was a lot of fun, open ended cityscape with mini-missions and a semi-superhuman character that keeps getting more and more superhuman, but the company making the game changed. That’ll make a fan nervous, right? But Crackdown 2 is a solid follow up. And they tossed in zombies. Why? Just for the hell of it. And I’m okay with that.
Another game with some very fine world building and writing is Mass Effect. I was very impressed with the first title, and I have my eye on the second, but to be honest, I have twins and deadlines, and it’s been hard to remain caught up on all the really excellent titles out there. And while I did enjoy Mass Effect, it’s tougher for me to play more RPG-like games, as I only have 20 minutes here or there to play games, which is why first person shooters like Crackdown, Halo, or Left 4 Dead tend to rank higher in my personal play list than games that require me to get super-involved in them.
All time favorite? On the Xbox it was Crimson Skies. WW1, semi-steampunk, I hated that the 360 sequel never came out. I was soooo hopeful. I even purchased the collection of novellas based on it.
The most visually amazing game I ever played was Shadow of Colossus on the PS2. That was a ‘sense of wonder’ styled game, and had a storyline that was just heart-rending. Someone should port it, I think it would still hold up. The things it did with scale were stunning.
And my all time favorite, favorite? Civilization. It was the first turn-based strategy game I ever played on my old 286 processor computer (my first computer). I loved kicking ass with the Aztec Empire, and I lost 2 weeks of my junior year of high school doing that every night. I had to run the generator on the boat we lived on to run the computer to do it. Worth every gallon of gas. I see there’s a new Civilization out, but I’m refusing to buy it until I’m way more caught up on projects, because I know, I just freaking now, it’s going to eat me alive.
Uh, yeah, so my name is Tobias Buckell and I’m an SF Writer and I really, really like videogames!
You might dismiss Descent as ‘just another dungeon crawl’, but the scenarios are varied and fun, and of course the game bits are second to none. There are quality plastic minis for every player and monster in the game. And there are a lot of them. The addition of campaign mode adds a new level of strategy and allows players to keep characters between missions.
Magic: The Gathering is only loosely fantasy themed, and quite honestly the theme is irrelevant to the game (unless you’re one of those that actually reads the fiction behind the game). I’ve been a fan of the game since it first came out – no other game has had that much staying power with me. They’re contsantly keeping the game fresh with new rules and expansions. This is the game that launched a genre, and gave players whole new ways to think about games.
Arkham Horror is on my list because I enjoy co-operative play. Ghost Stories might also make my list for the same reason – but I find that game to be too difficult (so forget you saw it here). For me, Arkham Horror perfectly captures the spirit of Cthulhu. Like most Fantasy Flight games, the production value of Arkham Horror is second to none, and the volumes of art in the game are some of the best in the industry. The Call of Cthulhu LCG might have also made my list, except there aren’t a lot of people around for me to play the game with.
Games a “medium many people probably aren’t too familiar with?” Dude, are you high? The video game market in the United States generated $10.5 billion in sales in 2009, according to the Entertainment Software Association, which is the same amount as the movie box office haul for 2009. This is not a tiny entertainment backwater. Indeed, your average science fiction fan under the age of 30 is probably more familiar with Master Chief, Gordon Freeman, Sarah Kerrigan or Commander Shepard than they are with any literary science fiction character created over the last decade. And that’s just covering science fiction video games; fantasy video games are an entire other very long conversation.
Suffice to say I am very deeply skeptical that any science fiction or fantasy fan under the age of, oh, 50 — the upper age limit of people who were kids and adolescents when home video game consoles first appeared in the 70s — is unfamiliar with the the medium of video games as a carrier of science fiction and fantasy. Which is to say I think your opening assertion is wrong wrong wrongy wrong wrong.
That said, a personal Top Ten of science fiction-themed video games, in rough chronological order (assume the titles include their sequels if any):
1. Missile Command: Did more to argue the futility of nuclear war than ten thousand protest marches;
2. Tempest: Arguably the best “twitch” arcade game of all time;
3. Star Wars: The original arcade game, which let everyone race down the trench;
4. Descent: Freespace: Six axes of freedom, designed to make you lose your lunch while battling robots;
5. Marathon: My first induction into the joys of the first-person shooter;
6. Unreal Tournament: Still the best AI bots in the business;
7. Half-Life: My vote for the best science-fiction themed video game ever;
8. Homeworld: The only RTS game that didn’t bore the crap out of me;
9. Portal: So clever it didn’t make me hate puzzles, plus GLADoS the best computer villain since HAL;
10. Left 4 Dead: Because the zombies won’t kill themselves.
Speaking of which, now I’m in the mood to clear the French Quarter of its undead. Excuse me.
Before getting into the list, I will say that my list is exclusively computer or console based. I cannot say that I have not played SF boardgames, but I just have more memories for the electronic titles I have played.
Freespace and Freespace 2 – I could have put in the Tie Fighter series of games here, but I always liked the Freespace titles a little more. They had a great feel and felt very space opera like with the role your character plays in the two games. I can remember jumping in during a battle between the capitol ships and being awed by the scale. The other fact that made this game so enjoyable was that it was free from some of the issues of being attached to a license. The other great thing is that the source code is available via the Freespace 2 Source Code Project which has allowed other developers to create games in the Babylon 5 universe and Battlestar Galactica universe.
Half Life – One of the best first person shooter titles I have ever played, and one game that changed how I looked at these types of games. The marines who used cover and threw grenades to them freaking head crabs demonstrated some fantastic AI. Plus this game had one of the best opening sequences I have seen.
System Shock 2 – There are so many elements that make this one great. The sound alone with a pair of headphones is enough to set your nerves on end. Unlike Dead Space which has enemies jumping out of every corridor, this game really evokes the fear that something is not right on the ship. You start with a pistol and 5 shots and its just not enough. I can remember playing this game and having my son wake up from a nap and actually jumping out of my chair when he came up behind me. Scared the two of us and the game was that engrossing.
Knights of the Old Republic – I had to put one Star Wars title on the list, and this would be it. First, it is a role playing game but then Bioware manages to set it a completely different era of the Star Wars universe. This is brilliant in that it allows for what folks always want- more Jedi. Combine that with the assassin droid and I just love this game. Did I mention Star Wars fanboy?
Homeworld – A gorgeous title that is amazing to look at and to play. This game had an amazing soundtrack that felt like I was watching a movie unfold as the game played out. It was real-time strategy title that had the creation of a fleet as the game progressed. Another game that impressed me with the scale that was presented from the smallest fighter to capitol ships.
Nexus: The Jupiter Incident – My final selection is a relatively unknown title for many folks. In this game, you start controlling a capitol ship but wind up adding to your fleet as the game progresses. I like this one since it really does a great job of putting a fleet of capitol ships at your control. They are loaded to the gills with firepower and it is another beautiful game to watch.
I am sure that I could have listed about 10 more titles (Deus Ex, X-Wing, Wing Commander, X-Com) but these are the top of my list…
This is a tough question in that I’m afraid I’m going to forget to mention a bunch of different ones. But if I fess up right at the start that my list will be woefully incomplete, that kind of lets me off the hook, right?
The first game that comes to mind when I’m pondering this question is the post-apocalyptic RPG Fallout. Fallout–and its spiritual precursor, Wasteland–captured my imagination like few games have done. It was one of my earliest encounters with post-apocalyptic fiction (I’m sure Wasteland must have been the first), and set me off on a life-long love of the sub-genre. But it was the incredibly rich world-building that really made the game stand out to me. I mean, sure, it also had great graphics for its time and it was gloriously, gloriously violent, both of which greatly appealed to a teenage me. (Okay, that still appeals to me.) Having grown up with Dungeons & Dragons, roleplaying video games always appealed to me, but I found that good science fiction RPGs–as opposed to fantasy ones–were very hard to come by, so that probably helped make Fallout stand out in my mind. I also loved Fallout 2 and much more recently Fallout 3. I haven’t played Fallout 3: New Vegas yet because I have deadlines, and if I started playing it now I expect I would have great difficulty meeting those.
Around the same era that Fallout came out, there was Sid Meier’s Civilization, to which I’ve possibly devoted more time than any other game. Perhaps it’s not strictly a genre game, but you can win the game by sending a manned mission to Alpha Centauri, and you play an immortal ruler who has been controlling his/her civilization from the dawn of time, so I think it counts. I’m not big on strategy games in general, so it was kind of a surprise to me that I took to Civilization so keenly. Perhaps it’s because it was about so much more than just warfare (as most strategy games seem to be); it really was, as the name implies, about building and running a Civilization, and all that goes into it. Warfare was a part of it, sure, but also building roads and discovering new scientific advances and trading with your neighbors and exploring the wild frontier… In a lot of ways, although it’s not explicitly SFnal, it’s got all the elements that SF readers look for in fiction. One of the other great things about it was just how vast and epic its scope was; you could create a civilization that could span the entire globe. I remember managing a civilization once that was so vast (as were those of my opponents) that as I sat there playing the game one day, in between turns, and bit by bit, I was able to read an entire novel.
And I can’t mention Sid Meier without mention his other great game, Pirates. Again, not a genre game–even less so than Civilization, I would say–but certainly of interest to genre fans. As you may know, my first editorial gig outside of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was to guest-edit Shimmer Magazine‘s Pirate Issue. Well, I couldn’t have done it without all those hours playing Sid Meier’s Pirates. But this game was just chock-full of adventure, and chock-full of options too! You could be a pirate, sure, but you could also be a privateer/pirate-hunter, in essence serving the crown by policing the Caribbean in exchange for land and titles. It was one of the earliest games I can remember playing that felt so complex and just completely open to exploration.
I started playing Portal because while at New York Comic Con, I saw the “The Cake is a Lie” shirts and wondered what the hell that was about. Upon getting the explanation from my friend and colleague Matt London, I felt compelled to play it, and was encouraged since I was told it was a relatively short game, so it wouldn’t steal a month of my life. In the end, I was sad that it was so short–because it is–but it’s so amazing I can’t really complain. It uses the Half-Life engine–it’s even set in the same world as Half-Life (kind of)–but unlike Half-Life, which is a first-person shooter, Portal is a first-person puzzler (i.e., it’s all about figuring out things, rather than killing things). Basically, there are a series of levels you must progress through, figuring out how to get from the start to the finish. There are a number of obstacles in your way, and all you have is this gun that generates portals–shoot one on one wall, shoot another on the floor, and you can drop through one and emerge from the other. And it’s that simple…only the game isn’t simple at all. Some of the puzzles are super complex and really take a lot of trial and error to figure out. It’s just incredibly engrossing, and I can’t wait for Portal 2. (It also, by the way, features an epic final boss battle, and concludes with an awesome and hilarious song written by geek rocker Jonathan Coulton.)
Ultima: In its prime, from Ultima 4 through Ultima 7, Richard Garriott’s Ultima series reached the highest level of ambition and art that I’m aware of in video games. In Ultima you play a regular person from Earth who travels to a magical realm and attempts to be the hero that will guide this world through its darkest hours and into a new age of enlightenment. Religious wackos accused early Ultima games of promoting witchcraft and the occult. This was silly, of course, but it caused Garriott to sit down and really think about what he wanted to say with his games, and as a result in Ultima 4 he created something truly groundbreaking and important. Whereas most role-playing games are about nothing more than gathering power and wealth and killing every monster in sight, Ultima presented stories that dealt seriously with ethical dilemmas, actions and their consequences, and moral self-improvement. In Ultima 4 the player can only win the game by adhering to eight virtues such as honesty, compassion, and valor. Ultima 5 explores what happens when a tyrannical government attempts to impose those virtues by force. Ultima 6 teaches the importance of understanding your enemy and demonstrates that terrible consequences can flow from even the best of intentions. And Ultima 7 is a blistering critique of the way that greedy and cruel organizations can put forth a vacuous program of easy but empty self-improvement. Ultima created a living, breathing game world — hundreds of unique and colorful characters to talk to, books you could pick up and read, carriages you could ride, ships you could sail, musical instruments you could play, flour you could bake into bread, and reagents you could gather in swamps and caves and then mix into magic spells. Countless games from Dragon Warrior to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion have copied various aspects of Ultima, but no game has ever come close to capturing its magic. No RPG since has felt so rich, so real, and like such an obvious labor of love. (A spin-off project, Ultima Online, also headed up by Garriott, was pivotal in the development of MMOs such as World of Warcraft. For more on the development of Ultima, see the book Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland.)
Monkey Island: The adventure game genre, sadly neglected in recent years, produced a number of true classics, chief among them The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Lead designer Ron Gilbert wanted to create a fantasy game, but wanted to do something a little different from the usual wizards and dragons, which is when he hit on a fabulous idea — pirates! Inspired by Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme park ride, Gilbert wondered what it would be like to step off the ride and wander away into that world of mystery and adventure. A second inspiration, the Tim Powers novel On Stranger Tides, introduced another key element to the series — voodoo. The Secret of Monkey Island takes place in a surreal funhouse world that’s often laugh-out-loud funny and often as spooky and unsettling as anything you’ve ever seen — and often both at the same time. This is a world where you’ll carry around a rubber chicken with a pully in the middle, acquire a T-shirt that says “I found the Lost Treasure of Melee Island,” and watch your long-lost parents transform into skeletons and perform a song-and-dance number. You’ll make constant smart-aleck remarks, cause havoc wherever you go, and your success at sword fighting will be determined more by your rapier wit than by your rapier. (The sword fighting insults — “How appropriate, you fight like a cow!” — were written by Orson Scott Card.) Monkey Island also served as a testing ground for some of Gilbert’s theories about game design — the game makes it impossible to die or to create a game state from which victory is unattainable. To make this point, early on it’s possible to leap from a cliff, apparently to your death, but then after a few seconds your character bounces back into view and explains nonchalantly, “Rubber tree.” All of this delightful insanity climaxes in one of the most famously enigmatic endings in all of gaming. (Ron Gilbert left LucasArts after making Monkey Island 2, and has never revealed what the ending is supposed to mean — reportedly he still receives several emails a day from fans begging him to explain it.) If you’ve never played Monkey Island, be sure to check out the new Special Editions, which feature voice acting and high-resolution graphics. (And also be sure to check out our interview with Gilbert on an upcoming episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.)
Doom: Doom is perhaps the most influential video game of all time. Some estimates state that at the height of its popularity it was installed on more computers than Microsoft Windows, and for years after its release the now mega-popular genre of “first person shooters” was referred to simply as “Doom clones.” Doom is what happens when a bunch of misfits who always got in trouble in school for drawing demented comic books suddenly discover that one of them is one of the most brilliant programmers on earth. Id software had wanted to make a game based on James Cameron’s film Aliens, and when they couldn’t get the rights they changed the aliens to demons, and the rest is history. As the last surviving space marine on a haunted outpost on Phobos, you’ll chainsaw zombies, inject yourself with berserker-drugs and punch demons into splattered piles of gore, and obliterate rooms full of enemies with your BFG (“big f***ing gun”). The game was scarier and more shocking than anything we’d ever seen, the amazing music created an ambience of true otherworldly creepiness, and some of the set pieces are unforgettable — the end of the first episode, when a massive pentagonal chamber opens to the sky, revealing a teleporter that leads to certain death, and thus onward to the shores of hell. And the end of the second episode, The Tower of Babel, when you step out onto a plain of weirdly rippling grey sand and hear something giant and mechanical and monstrous stomping toward you. Doom was also the first game of its kind to enable two players sitting at different computers to square off against each other, and suddenly the simple pleasure of mowing down hordes of mindless monsters just couldn’t compare to the thrill of stalking your friends through gloomy tunnels in ever-more-sophisticated wheels-within-wheels of outguessing and outmaneuvering, knowing that the tiniest mistake or hesitation might earn you a shotgun blast to the face. But Doom was revolutionary for more than just its gameplay. Its shareware distribution model meant that anyone could guiltlessly copy and play the first episode, and the designers gave players unprecedented access to the game’s inner workings, allowing players to create new graphics, levels, weapons, and game modes. Much of the current gaming scene — from first-person shooters to online play to modding — owes a lot to Doom. It’s perhaps the most-imitated piece of software ever made, but for all that no subsequent creation has ever quite matched its fast-paced gameplay and gleefully in-your-face attitude. (For more on the development of Doom, see the book Masters of Doom by David Kushner.)
Amber Diceless Role-playing: In his ten-book Amber series, Roger Zelazny invented one of the most engaging literary creations ever dreamed up — a universe where witty, sword-wielding immortals wander through time and space, gifted with the godlike power to locate any reality they can imagine among an infinity of parallel worlds. Fans couldn’t get enough, and for a time Amber-themed weddings abounded. The desire to visit Amber proved so overpowering that games based on the series were inevitable, but early efforts, such as a Nine Princes in Amber computer game, were a decidedly mixed bag. After all, how do you create game rules for a universe in which players can literally do anything? That’s the question that challenged veteran game designer Erick Wujcik to throw out all the rules and create a diceless role-playing game, something most players thought impossible. In Wujcik’s revolutionary design, there’s no role for chance at all — the player with the highest Warfare will win a swordfight, the player with the highest Strength will win a fist fight, and the player with the highest Psyche will win a magical duel. Rather than relying on a lucky shot, players are forced to contrive contests on their own terms and playing to their own strengths, and once the game gets going no one’s really sure who’s gotten better at what, so players are forced to bluff and feel each other out and hope they’ve guessed right about who’s the current master of each skill, and this does a remarkably good job of replicating the sorts of rivalries and mistrust that make the books so much fun. And just like in the books, there’s a tendency for the powers introduced to spiral out of control, and for the universe to be torn asunder on a regular basis, and it takes a virtuoso game master to keep things well in hand, but once you’ve walked the halls of Castle Amber, or taken a hellride to the Courts of Chaos, trudging through a grimy dungeon in search of gold coins just won’t compare. Two game books were produced, Amber Diceless Role-Playing and Shadow Knight, both of which are available as PDFs from DriveThruRPG.com.
Interstellar Pig: Interstellar Pig is a science fiction board game that doesn’t exist … but I really wish it did. It’s the centerpiece of the William Sleator novel Interstellar Pig, which describes the adventures of a shy teenager who begins playing an amazing game with his strange new neighbors one summer after his parents rent a cottage at the beach. In the game, the superpowered “piggy” is an intergalactic time bomb that will destroy the homeworld of every intelligent species, and only possession of the piggy can spare your planet. The game is described as having detailed rules for combat, an assortment of amazing weapons and items, and a menagerie of grotesque alien races, including a colony of sentient lichen and a symbiotic creature that lives in your mouth and boosts your intelligence when you feed it. The protagonist of the novel, Barney, eventually discovers that the aliens are real. I’d settle for just discovering that the board game is real.
Well that’s a broad topic for me since I have favorites from the last few decades. If we want to start out really old we could likely begin at Elite. Elite was the first PC game for me that had scale. All the other space shooter elements were there but it was the idea that I could journey outside the games story line and just cruise space hunting resources to bring back to trade/sell was a big theme for me. I also enjoyed other games in this category as well: Space Rogue, Jumpgate, Privateer. Good formula, good games.
Another in the “really old” category is Wasteland, which later grew in to the Fallout series of games that are currently very popular. This whole series takes individual characters and storytelling to levels most other game companies do not even bother with. I originally played Wasteland on my Apple IIe in monochrome and still remember how compelling it was with its turned based gaming and top land exploration versus other games on the market that were just one dungeon crawl after another. It was a fantastic breath of fresh air to be fighting radioactive scorpions versus your general (boring) giant D&D style scorpion. I know that distinction is very small but it still made a great impact on me.
Jumping ahead a little the next real “wow” for me occurred with System Shock which was one of the first Sci-Fi games I had played that had a suspense factor to it. Sure other games gave you suspense with the game play but I mean suspense in that I became so engrossed in the story line that the antagonist “SHODAN” (similar to HAL9000 of 2001: A Space Oddity) was quite creepy to me. It was also one of the first games I remember having mini-games in it as well. For example you had a mini-game to hack circuits to open doors and things similar to that which seem trivial now but really made you feel like you achieved something way back then.
When graphics in PC games started to really come to the foreground of game play two titles really stick out for me in that aspect. Star Wars: X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter and Wing Commander. Both of these games really immersed you in their environments. X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter in that it allowed you to live the action you witnessed in the Star Wars movies as well as expand on an already excellent universe. Wing Commander was just icing on the cake in that it had all the awesome star battles that X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter had but it was contained in a bunch of cut scenes that gave the whole game a story line that rivaled going to the movies. I remember specifically that in Wing Commander you had the option to skip the cut scenes for things like just taking off from the games battle carrier and still… I never skipped them! Total geekdom.
Ahh then came the FPS games. You had your standards of Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein which I thought were all really good but never really “wow’d” me until I got to a game called Tribes. The Tribes series of games, while they had good story lines, was the first game where the controls were made logically (to my mind) and could be executed in a way that made your proficiency of those controls make you stand apart from the others playing the game. Executing a maneuver called “jet pack skiing” was the pinnacle of what I am talking about here. In fact I do not think the developers had even considered this method of movement in the game originally. It was the players that made this facet of this game so pivotal to winning or losing a round of Tribes. This game also was my first self-acknowledged “fanboy” game. If you could execute a proper jet pack ski while still being dominant at killing the other player you were “elite” and therefore could look down at other players who could not execute this skillful maneuver. Was I a douche-bag about it? ABSOLUTELY. Would I shout to the heavens about it? DOUBLY SO! In my defense though, that kind of bravado was the draw for me there.
These next series of games is a biggy for me. In fact it was the reason I went to college for a computer animation degree: Battletech. This series from FASA started as a D&D style table top game but I honestly didn’t play it much in that incarnation. I stumbled across one of Mike Stackpole’s original books in this universe,Warrior: En Garde, and had a blast with it and near the same time the first strategy game in this series released Battletech: Crescent Hawk’s Inception and I was enthralled. Big robots, feudal warring houses setting applied to fictional space, fighting in these massive war machines in a mecha-knightly battle against enemies trying to steal your piece of space. Games don’t get any more “my type” than this! I was hooked so hard I started doing my own artwork in this space and then even began working with FASA on some graphic arts and later even on Mechwarrior 2 in a more official capacity. I played each and every subsequent game that came out in this universe and in fact still have Mechwarrior 4 and Mechwarrior Mercenaries loaded on my PC today.
Enough history, let’s get to some of the current games I am playing. In the war games arena I am playing Call of Duty: Black Ops as well as Battlefield: Bad Company 2, the latter being made by one of my favorite game companies, DICE. The whole Battlefield series of games runs an engine and game style that I have come to love. The have a mode of play called “Conquest” which hardly a night goes by that I don’t put some time in on that game. It’s like breathing, it is necessary to my existence. The Call of Duty series has been more hit or miss for me but this latest incarnation Black Ops refines the COD multiplayer formula to a science. In these war games it’s all about the multiplayer for me. Sure I play the single player campaigns but they are just icing on the cake as the draw for me will always be real world player against player.
So I have saved the best for last, Bioware. If there is one company out there that embraces the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genre the best IMO it is most certainly Bioware. They have made some awesome games. Baldur’s Gate in the D&D universe, Knights of the Old Republic and a new MMO called The Old Republic in the Star Wars universe. Mass Effect 1 & 2 in a unique Sci-Fi setting as well as Jade Empire and Dragon Age in unique Fantasy settings. Bioware tells stories in a way that brings characters to life. Other game companies pull this off every few games or so where Bioware hits a home run out of the park nearly every time they release a game in to the wild. As far as game companies go I hold them and their games in the highest regard.
Well I’ve prattled on too long and JP has already hounded me to wrap it up and send my response to him already. Slave driver that JP. (LOL) If I had to sum up the overall theme that keeps me going back to Sci-Fi & Fantasy games it’s all about the characters and story line for me. Gameplay only rarely comes to the foreground for me and only if it’s really bad or difficult to control. I do love great artwork in a game but as I said, if the story is not compelling it just doesn’t hold my interest very long.
I’m going to ignore the specifics of the question and answer in broad generalizations. I want to impress on you, dear reader, the importance of the game. Any game. As long as you’re playing it, it’s important.
My primary interaction with SF/F as a child was the game. Roleplaying games, mostly, but some videogames. Card games didn’t become the all-income-destroyers that they are until I was in college (Sold my M:tG alphas to buy a computer. Regret, it tastes like 32 bits) and by then I was thoroughly committed to the game as storytelling device.
I don’t say that lightly. When properly played, the pen and paper RPG is the greates of all our tools. Writers are used to being able to tell their characters what to do. Readers have to follow the line that the writer has created. And the world is laid out along the path of the narrative and no further. Maybe there are notes about the rest of the world in some notebook, but the reader probably can’t tell. But if the reader could stop the writer, stop the character in her narrative and say “Well, what about that door instead? Let’s go that way.” Ah, the joy of unexpected literature.
Gaming (and when I use that word, I mean four or five people sitting around a table and rolling dice and making maps) can be a storytelling experience like no other. It takes a while to get the players in the right mindset, to understand that no one is actually going to win this game, that some portion of the story depends on them, on their imaginations, that they are not there to be entertained but to be involved. In the same way, it takes time for the gamemaster to understand that he’s not just laying out a maze and traps and monsters, but that he is a living, thinking world, that the players aren’t his enemy but his story.
It gets done wrong a lot. It becomes recreational math, and charts and maximizing stats. But if you can get the right group, the right story, then it can be the best story that can be told. Because we all tell it together, and everyone wins the game.