Genre Study part 1: Science Fiction

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Gerry Kevin Wilson

Apr 20, 1995, 3:00:00 AM4/20/95
Welp, this post is about genres. Let's just consider for a moment
the variety of text games out there today. You can break things down both
into the mainstream genres, and then into setting-specific subgnres.
Let's look at a nice broad genre first off, Science Fiction. I will do
others in follow-up posts 1-3 at a time, eventually adding this section
on genres to my authorship guide. It is intended to be a source of ideas
for prospective writers, and not a complete catalog of genres, but filling
in of gaps I leave is appreciated. I am assuming previous knowledge of the
subgenres as I write them.

[insert he=he/she disclaimer.]

Science Fiction is fiction about advanced technology. No, that's
not quite right. It's fiction that INVOLVES advanced technology. Good
sci-fi doesn't neccessarily revolve around its 'widgets', but instead
around the people in the tale. However, in IF, you do see a lot of
'widgeteering', and not so many solid characters. In general, there are
several aspects to science fiction, or rather plot elements. So, in
addition to the standard location-based subgenres, I will also include
some of these devices/storylines as subgenres.

Mankind encounters aliens for the first time, or vice versa.
This plot has an old and respectable tradition in literature, cinema, and
even IF. With such works as Starcross, ET, The Mote in God's Eye, and
many others, you can easily see this plot is full of potential, and
endlessly variable. When writing a game in this subgenre, first and
foremost, you really need an alien race (or races) in mind before you
even begin. Your puzzles are going to be based around the idiosyncrasies
of these aliens, so make them interesting. In Starcross, the ship is
designed to be simple, or at least possible, for anyone who finds it to
fly. At the other end of the spectra is an episode of Star Trek: The
Next Generation called "Darmok." in which the aliens were different enough
to foil even the handy Acme universal translator by speaking in metaphors of
their past. That can be an interesting puzzle, learning to talk to the
aliens. In other stories, humans have been designated as food sources (V,
the movie and series), adopted as friends, attacked as enemies, and even
ignored totally. However you do it, the aliens and their devices are the
stars of any game from this subgenre.

As far back as H. G. Wells at least, the time machine is mankind's
ultimate power trip. We so desire to control our own fate that we've worked
out fabulous and nonsensical methods to do so. (see mini-sermon #1) The key
to most of your puzzles in a game involving time travel will likely involve
paradox, or changing of the past. There are several theories about this.
One simply says it can't be done, as the past has already occurred. It seems
to me that this puzzle will neccessarily limit your options too much.
Besides this view, there are two other major schools of thought. They both
state that it is possible. One has dire consequences attached to it, the
other does not. These consequences range from the destruction of the
universe down to minor changes in the world, almost unnoticable. Or, you
could have only the logical results of any changes made by the player take
place. In essence, you will likely be dealing with convuluted plots and
logic strings when you deal with time travel.

Suddenly, mankind gets ahold of a way to turn Einstein on his ear.
Faster=than-light travel is now possible. Perhaps it's used as a safety
valve for a strained earth (see OVERPOPULATION), perhaps it's just an
exciting new frontier, to explore the stars as man has always dreamed. Or,
in a more ignoble strain, perhaps thanks to the time dilation effect, FTL
ships are being used as prisons. Just ship them off, or even in a wide
circle. By the time they return, your grandchildren will be dead, so who
cares what happens then. It would be interesting to place the player aboard
one of these ships as a convict. Warden or no, the journey might well be
more than bargained for, or perhaps it's the return to earth that raises
eyebrows. This subgenre opens a wide vista of plots up.

Soylent Green, adapted from Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room!,
is a horrific tale of what might happen if we let ourselves breed to the
point where our planet can no longer sustain us. Be warned, the day will
come unless something changes. Fertility laws, euthenasia laws, the
discovery of FTL travel and the subsequent emmigration of mankind. Something
will have to happen, or one day everything will boil over, and we will step
off the stage of life to make room for someone or something else. I could
visualize a game in which the player is an intelligent creature after man has
bred himself to death, exploring the ruins of the nearby city and learning
about what happened to man. The puzzles in a game of this type will likely
involve the search for food and water, among other things.

As seen on Star Trek, matter transmitters would cause a profound
social change. Or rather, as not seen on Star Trek. I could foresee many
consequences of this technology that have either been ignored or brushed over
by Star Trek. Dr. McCoy expressed his belief that the transporters somehow
steal the soul out of a person. What they realistically do is far more than
that. They tear you into molocules, then shoot you off somewhere, and then
put you back together. It occurs to me that you would thus die every time
you went through a transporter. The copy of you at the other end would never
know the difference, but you would be dead. What's more, if they can make
one of you, what's to stop them from making more? There could be eight or
8,000 copies of you roaming the galaxy, maybe even without knowledge of each
other. So, if you have a transporter, you neccessarily have a matter
replicator as well. The economic consequences of these discoveries are not
lost on me. Think of it. The entire supply-demand system shot all to hell.
What would happen? Who would run the power plants to fuel those greedy
widgets? What would you pay them with?
You'll probably need to use TADS 2.2 for a game like this, since it
supports dynamic object creation and destruction. There could be all sorts
of neat puzzles involving such a device. Imagine a situation in which you
had to clone yourself with a transporter to get through a sticky situation,
and then found out your clone wanted to live just as badly as you do, or
better yet, tried to trick you into taking the bullet for him, instead of
vice versa.

The alternate earth scenario has also been used in many forms,
including the recent Sliders TV series. The premise is just an infinite
number of worlds, all slightly different from one another, but mostly
similar. Perhaps the only difference between two worlds is a certain leaf
on a certain maple tree in South Carolina. Perhaps Germany won WWII, or
the South won the Civil War, or even perhaps Elvis was elected President,
and so never died. The obvious trick is to decide how to use the differing
worlds to your advantage as a game writer. Don't think that you can simply
have a bunch of identical areas with small differences. That's not the point
to this subgenre. In IF, you have to understand how all the pieces fit
together, and make them logically solvable. Rather than seeing this as a way
to reduce the number of room descriptions you have to write, instead look on
it as a chance to go deeper in depth with what you DO write. Consider having
an NPC that appears in each world, subtly different in each, but a unified
personality nonetheless. To do this, you come up with a character, shove him
into various situations, and see what he'd do. Also bear in mind that the
player is going to have several alternate versions of himself running around
as well, possibly all with dimensional teleporters. It would be amusing to
assemble a task force composed entirely of yourself to storm a building.

Two good examples of this spring to mind. The first, of course, is
A Mind Forever Voyaging, where you play the part of an intelligent machine.
The other is The Legend Lives! in which an intelligent machine plays an
important, but very non-interactive part. In both cases, there is little to
distinguish the Artificial Intelligence from a real human. This is perhaps
not to the credit of these two games. In AMFV, you do have some neat
computer interfaces, but nowhere did I actually begin to believe that the
character was a machine. He was just too human, too normal. Something more
exotic is perhaps in order if you are planning to write a game based around
this theme. A stream of consciousness style of writing might be what is
needed here. Not for everything, but certain parts of the game, to give the
player a taste of his own alien thought processes. Too much of this sort of
thing will cut down on the intelligibilty of your game. Too little, and the
player starts to think, "Ho hum, another metal man. Big deal. Does he do
windows?" and the thrill will be gone. As I have written many times, don't
add something to your game without adding something to your game. If there
is no real reason for the player or NPC to be an AI, a human will do just as
well. Without some special goal or style of play, the AI subgenre will
simply be a weak gimmick. Nothing more.

If you haven't seen at least the two movies Firestarter and Scanners,
go do so before beginning to write a game in this subgenre. Firestarter is,
of course, also a book by Stephen King, who I'm told is a good writer. The
premise to this subgenre is that man, who only uses 10% of his brain, must
have other uses for the rest of the brain. These other uses, are of course,
thinly veiled super powers. Telekinesis, pryokinesis, mind control, flight,
and all the rest. If you fancy a nice little government conspiracy, this
could be the one you've been looking for. Imagine that the government has
been breeding these 'psis' in isolation from the rest of us, and
experimenting on them looking for the perfect X, where X can be anything from
a spy, a soldier, or even a weapon. The player could either be the captive
psi, or a secret agent sent to track him down after a bloody escape. The
trick is, how do you find someone in New York who can control minds, erase
memories, change shape, whatever. The answer, most likely, is that you
don't. He finds you. Plot twists? Plenty. Give the secret agent psi
abilities as well. Or, still give him the abilities, but it turns out that
he's sympathetic to the escapee's plight. Puzzles should revolve around
creative use of the power(s) that the player possesses.

Here I turn to that Infocom gem, Suspended. The player is placed in
frozen storage to monitor the computer control systems of an entire planet.
Later, he awakens to an emergency, and is placed in control of 5 robots to
prevent disaster, or at least minimize it. This is an unusual and creative
use of a standard science fiction subgenre. It is, in my opinion, one of
Infocom's greatest works. In general, however, a cryogenic storage plot
does not involve remotely controlled robots. It is simply a way to get time
to pass quickly. In a more subtle manner, it is also a method of time
travel, and a way to bewilder the player. 40 years, or even 30 years in the
future, how much will seem familiar to you? Very little, in all likelihood.
A person who enters cryogenic storage is essentially giving up his world for
another. His family and friends, if not dead, are now seperated from him by
an enormous gulf of time and experience. The experience could well destroy
his mind. For this subgenre, I could envision anything from Demolition Man
to Woody Allen's Sleeper. If I myself were to write a game like this, I
would stock it with lots of unfamiliar devices and sights that the player
would have to watch the operation of to really understand. The player would
likely wind up being confused at first with the swirl of life around him,
but that is an effect that fits very well here.

Almost everyone I know can quote at least a few lines from the Warner
Bros. cartoon "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century." Space Opera is an
attempt to marry science fiction with the western, or perhaps there is more
of the swashbuckling flavor in it. In any event, science is overturned in
favor of dramatic flair. Who cares that the aliens have 8 heads and change
color to match their surroundings. They will still speak English, and carry
off nubile earthwomen for some nefarious scheme. Who cares that a laser
gun's best strength would be it's continuous ray, easy to sweep back and
forth. In Space Opera, a laser gun is designed like a normal gun, and damn
the consequences. The idea here, is form over function, style over sense.
You can have those really cool looking cigar shaped rocketships if you want,
no one will mind. Most important to a game of this sort is an evil
arch-villain, a master plot, a sidekick, and a love interest for the player.
Everthing else is just window-dressing. Still, the more widgets here, the
better, as the plots will be fairly standard, so the player will want
something more interesting to play with.

Well, this is the last subgenre I'm going to mention for sci-fi in
this post, but rest assured I may come back to this genre later and add to
it. There are many I can still think of. Anyways, back on topic. Societal
rifts are by no means restricted to sci-fi. This subgenre simply means that
the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Only, in sci-fi, it could be
any number of things that the priveliged few possess and the many lack. It
could be immortality, psionic powers, food, matter replicators, weapons,
whatever. This subgenre is a favorite of those people out to write a
political allegory. In general, the player will show pity for the many who
lack the whatever that the few possess. At the same time, the player may
come to realize that there is a very good reason for keeping the whatever out
of the hands of the many. The player may be acting out the role of a member
of either group, and still be able to see either side of the argument.
A rich person can sympathize with a poor person, and a poor person can
realize that there just aren't enough resources to make everyone rich.
Again, it has to do with what message you're trying to get across to the
player. (see mini-sermon #2) Puzzles will depend upon the nature of the
whatever, and the player's attempts to acquire it, or keep it from being
taken away from him, or whatnot. So, decide on your precious whatever well
in advance, and plan some puzzles around it. For instance, if a player was
playing a member of the larger, immortality-lacking group on Venus, you
might have a series of security checkpoints to pass through to even get close
to the serum that grants eternal life at $2 million a pop. Or maybe the
trick is to get hold of the formula, and realize that boiled Venusian
swamp cabbage is the secret to immortality.

Mini-sermon #1: The Player's Impact
Let me tell you straight out, most players will want their actions to
make a difference in your game world. Some can live with doing insignificant
things and playing a minor role in a major story. Many want to be a hero on
a grand scale. That's what game playing is all about, feeling important and
having fun for awhile. You don't have to follow this advice, just bear it in
mind when writing a game. If the player isn't doing major things, then at
least let him do things that are emotional and personally gratifying, such as
marrying a beautiful woman and having kids, or something.

Mini-sermon #2: The Writer's Message
Written works need a message. I believe this firmly. If you don't
have a reason to write the game, then why write it at all? Even the reply,
"Because I want to." is suspect. The key is to ask yourself why you want to
write this game. If your answer is to make others happy, well, that's nice.
I should tell you that a theme, or message will add a unifying factor to your
writing that can help bring the whole thing together in a nice, neat package.
This is rather a good thing. The player gets to know the author a little
better. The author gets to spread his beliefs around, and both are usually
happier, or at least more satisfied for the experience. In the event that
the player disagrees with you, the writer, I wouldn't worry about it. A
player is unlikely to turn off of your game just because you don't like
abortion, or want to sink all the whaling ships. The trick is not to put
thoughts into the player's head that he wasn't having. It's okay to make the
character think things like "God, these smokers are arrogant buttheads." as
long as the character is distinct from the player. Players resent the more
heavy-handed "God, how you despise smokers." when the player himself is
supposed to be the character in the game. If the player thinks that smokers
are just too cool for words, then you're likely to upset him by telling him
< RTI T Imagination sold and | ~~\ >
< G O WAR E serviced here. | /~\ | >

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