To fans of the Halo series, the 26th century will always be that period in the distant future when, surely, the Master Chief will prevail over the dastardly machinations of the Prophet of Truth and his incompetent cronies (Regret being particularly inept). Halo may have been paraded as a watershed moment for the FPS genre, but in its approach to and execution of its core narrative, Halo fits snugly into gaming’s long established conventions.
I often make comments, in blog entries and in response to articles posted here, deriding the quality of videogames writing. I do not feel this is the place to go into all of the ways in which games writing is subpar, because that would be longwinded and likely frustrating to read, but I will indulge myself in criticising gaming’s oldest narrative convention – use of the distant future and/or parallel universe as a setting for a game.
The convention is used most often in sci-fi and high fantasy games, which in turn make up a large majority of the games we as consumers are presented with, but it should also be noted that the convention is equally applicable to those increasingly popular post-apocalyptic games. All three of the aforementioned genres have in common one thing: in order to circumvent such laborious demands on the developer as attention to detail or a sense of place, games writers instead decide that they would rather work on a blank slate. By beginning with nothing, they are not limited by the constraints of having to work around this or that aspect of the real world. Their storylines can be as fanciful and as silly as they like, and indeed they often are.
Other than the fact that this device is overused, there exists another reason for my ire over our reliance on it. In another sense, the blank canvas approach is in fact an immense burden for the developer of such a game, because they have no framework in which to work. While this is a blessing for their designs of levels, armaments, alien races and intricacies, it also means that creating a truly compelling game world requires a lot more effort – unless the game in question is part of a long established franchise, there is no presumed knowledge which writers can fall back on, and so they either have to create a parallel world from the ground up or, as is more common, flesh out what’s necessary and leave everything else to the imagination.
This sorry state of affairs is remedied by the handful of games which do show that games can reflect the society in which they were made. BioShock uses alternate worlds to explore aspects of our own society. Grand Theft Auto uses simulacra of famous American cities as the perfect vehicle for a grand parody of American society, to such an extent that I can think of a single series, including in television and cinema, which has tapped into the post-9/11 zeitgeist more astutely than Rockstar’s series. Games are already proving they are better than the tat we all too often settle for, but still these games are still few and far between.
Even today, 25 years since Space Invaders became a household name and the likes of Atari were making gaming a part of every household in the way televisions are, we gamers demand very little of those who create the worlds we inhabit and write the storylines we follow blindly in countless ‘missions’. It is my belief, or perhaps just my optimistic hope, that if and when games are written by more competent individuals, we will start to see blank canvasses more fully explored or dropped altogether.