With souped-up graphics and processing power, Playstation 4 and Xbox One will bring us one step closer to truly “cinematic” video games. But could game developers’ long quest to emulate silver-screen cool actually limit the creative potential of next-generation console titles?
This question came to mind after the recent burst of publicity for Destiny and Titanfall, two of the “most anticipated” next-gen games. They are also both science fiction titles — a gaming genre that leans especially heavily on Hollywood-derived tropes.
A quick glance at the current console era shows just how often such games mimic cinematic sci-fi — and how limiting that approach can be when designers with a blank virtual slate fall back on the constrained conventions of film.
Game makers don’t have to worry, for example, about makeup or costume budgets. Yet leading titles like Mass Effect largely parrot Star Trek’s portrayal of aliens as essentially humans with forehead malfunctions. Unhampered by models or sets, the vast majority of sci-fi games still go with the Star Trek/Star Wars version of outer space,: a familiar environment plagued by sound waves, gravity, friction, and movement along 2-D planes. Mass Effect is again a culprit here — despite a few cute nods to Newton — while Halo: Reach’s foray into space combat put players in a “starfighter” that handled like a banking, barrel-rolling jetplane.
And then there are the space marines. Game after game has given us barely-tweaked derivatives of James Cameron’s Aliens: bulky mechs, tanks and drop-ships deployments- and steel-armored soldiers wielding the standard menu of — say it with me now — rifles, pistols, shotguns, SMGs, sniper rifles and launchers. No matter how many eons in the future a game is set, humanity’s armies just can’t seem to think up anything better than old-school machine guns spurting conventional bullets a la Starship Troopers — you’re hard-pressed to find anything even as inventive as a phaser or lightsaber among their ranks.
Mass Effect gets some kudos here for at least giving its tech a distinctive style and throwing in some inventive powers; but until the third game its weapon mechanics were run-of-the-mill. Aside from the infamous chainsaw bayonet, Gears of War gets pretty much the same rap. The original Halo introduced some truly wacky alien armaments like the Needler and now constantly-imitated “sticky grenade” (as well as the groundbreaking “only two guns at a time” concept). But subsequent titles have, if anything, regressed: where the first game’s arms often defied easy categorization, Halo 4 delivers barely-distinct human, Covenant and Promethean equivalents across all the expected classes.
So – will next-gen science fiction games break new ground in any of these areas? Will they take advantage of the near-limitless possibilities of the gaming medium to offer us fantastical universes that push well beyond the limits of even the best sci-fi films?
Judging by current previews for Destiny and Titanfall, the answer is a resounding “meh.” Maybe they’re saving the best for later, but thus far the visual language of these games is stubbornly familiar. Titanfall is pretty clearly doubling down on the James Cameron space-marine aesthetic, serving up soldiers, ships and mechs with fashion sense straight from the Cold War. Meanwhile, Destiny’s dozens of alien races seem strangely united in their essentially-humanoid sizes and shapes — at best, a few imitate other Earth species like insects or reptiles (old sci-fi movie tropes in themselves). And how do we recognize Destiny’s heroes? Of course, by their Badass Longcoats (a la the Matrix) or their epicest of epically epic Shoulder Pads (a la — well, pretty much every sci-fi thing ever).
As for tech, here’s concept art laying out Destiny’s take on a couple of the standard space marine weapon types:
See what they did there? Me neither.
Titanfall seems to aspire mainly to be Call of Duty in the Future — not surprising, given that it’s being developed by Electronic Arts and “key developers behind the Call of Duty franchise.” But that bodes even less well for major innovations in sci-fi weapons, technologies or visuals. (Worst case scenario, Titanfall could be the next step in the “EA-ization” of sci-fi gaming that has troubled fans of Mass Effect and Dead Space.)
To be fair, both of these titles’ developers clearly want to push the limits of some gaming conventions. As The Guardian’s Keith Stuart recently reported, Destiny seeks seamless, large-scale drop-in/drop-out multiplayer campaigns, while Titanfall introduces parkour-esque wall-running and leaping movement along with its own efforts to blur the single/multiplayer divide. Since these are, first and foremost, games, one could argue that innovation in gameplay mechanics matters much more than challenging the look and feel of cinematic science fiction.
But pushing beyond stale sci-fi tropes often leads directly to more innovative gameplay — as some of the most heralded titles in gaming have shown.
I already mentioned the innovations of the original Halo. There’s also Dead Space, a franchise that achieved uniquely terrifying gameplay by embracing the real weirdness of outer space. Where other sci-fi developers shunned soundless vacuums or zero-G environments, Dead Space milked them for all they’re worth: the silence of an airless room masks the screams of approaching monsters, and gravity-free areas disorient players and open up countless new angles of possible attack.
Meanwhile, games like Borderlands push sci-fi boundaries through absurdism. While some tropes are embraced, many more are subverted: shoulderpad-wearing super soldiers are villains. The heroes are a diverse bands of space hipsters, bisexual meatheads, and profane robots. Weapons fall into the traditional classes, true, but beyond that all bets are off: some fire in nonsensical trajectories; some express qualms about violence in mechanical voices; some shoot exploding swords.
Then there are the masterpieces, which have tested the limits of space and time in ways no movie ever could. The Portal series takes advantage of gaming’s virtual domain to wreak mind-bending havoc on conventional physics. The Zelda classic Ocarina of Time, while a fantasy game, still plunges players into concepts of time travel and temporal paradoxes where sci-fi films have only toyed at the edges.
I’ll be thrilled if Destiny, Titanfall and other next-gen titles have half the creativity of these classics. Even if they don’t, I’m sure they’ll still be great fun to play. But I also suspect that the truly standout games of the next console generation, sci-fi or otherwise — the ones that will take an eternal place in the gaming pantheon — won’t be those that are content to harness existing enthusiasm for long-established tropes. They’ll be the ones that give us worlds we hadn’t yet imagined, and that don’t look or play like anything we’ve seen before, on screens big or small.
Bryan Collinsworth writes (occasionally) about politics, pop culture and their more interesting intersections. He lives in New York and works in nonprofits and new media by day. You can follow him on Twitter as @bbcollinsworth .