Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta’s opening scenes were absolutely out of this world. Within a span of ten minutes, I was torn from the Wasteland, poked and prodded with 100 haystacks’ worth of needles, stripped of the near-impregnable safety blanket I call “Power Armor,” and unceremoniously tossed into a prison cell. Upon awakening, my ragged, desperate human cellmate cowered in fear as some unknown force approached our cell, only to change course at the last second and perform its unspeakable act on some other hapless sap. The poor guy emitted a blood-curdling howl as his frail flesh clunked around in what sounded like a super-powered dryer.
I was absolutely thrilled. Fear, curiosity, and vulnerability hooked me. Adrenaline reeled me in. “Who are these unseen, all-powerful beings?” I wondered. “Why are they doing this?” My interest piqued when my cellmate mentioned our captors’ penchant for tampering with people’s brains. Then I actually saw them. Tiny, green, big heads, round eyes. Beaten and beamed up by God after only two strikes from my pithy 23 unarmed skill. Thrill and intrigue, it was nice knowing you.
What followed was roughly four hours of good old fashioned alien-blasting. Fun, but nothing special. No mind-blowing ulterior motives, no unsettlingly foreign alien culture; the mean, green abducting machines were just a new skin for everyday Fallout 3 enemies. Really, there was nothing "alien" about these aliens. After such a promising opening, I felt more than a little let down.
Upon further thought, though, I realized that Mothership Zeta’s extraterrestrial approach simply mirrored that of nearly every sci-fi videogame since Space Invaders. See, when gamers whine about “ANOTHER sci-fi shooter,” they think they’re doing it because aliens, lasers, and outer-space are played-out. However, like the final frontier it so often focuses on, I think the topic of aliens in videogames could use a whole lot more exploration. We just need to approach it from a different angle, is all.
Since the dawn of the gaming industry, “you = good guy, alien = bad guy” has been the guiding line of thought. And what do we do to baddies? We blast ‘em, of course – no questions asked. Halo, Half-Life, Gears of War, Quake, Metroid – you name it. If it’s not of this world, we like keeping it that way. Sadly, it’s only once you start asking said questions that things get interesting.
Hugely influential novel (and personal favorite) “Ender’s Game” puts forth a great example of extraterrestrial ground videogames have yet to traverse. (Note: Ender’s Game spoilers follow.) The book presents a world semi-recently ravaged by a bug-like alien species, with humanity gearing up to withstand an anticipated second trouncing by these “buggers.” Interestingly, though, the reader never actually encounters a real, exoskeleton-and-blood alien until the latter half of the book. The enemy’s unseen, with only hearsay and propaganda to fill in the blanks. Thus, curiosity propels you through the story. What’s the deal with these aliens? Why did they nearly destroy earth, only to flee when victory was at hand? Where are they now? Etc. I’d love to see this kind of masterful, mystery oriented build-up attempted in a videogame setting.
“Dawn,” by Octavia Butler serves as further food for thought about aliens in videogames. Here, we find main character Lilith Iyapo spirited away from a devastated earth by – what else – aliens. One major problem, though: these aliens are about as far from human as one can get. Little green men these ain’t. Instead, these things are practically made of creepy crawly tentacles, swap genetic information and meld with whatever species they come by, and can be any one of three genders. They are, to put it mildly, hideous, by human standards. Their very existence is an affront to ours. The whole book, then, is about integration with a truly otherworldly culture. What I think games could take away from this isn’t necessarily a totally non-violent alien-based game, but rather, the notion of a world completely unlike our own. Too many games depict aliens and alien cultures as humans with funny skin colors and human-like sets of value to match.
In this respect, I see ACE Team’s Zeno Clash as a step in the right direction – at least, as far as creating a totally foreign, yet shockingly believable world goes. Between the curvy, organic-looking aesthetic, inhuman characters, and oddball philosophy behind it all, Zeno Clash was not a typical first-person videogame. It pulled off its shtick so convincingly, in fact, that multiple people told me that the game scared them, despite the fact that nothing explicitly “scary” ever happens in the game. Why? Because it’s different. Just as non-humanoid creatures like spiders and scorpions unsettle us, so to do utterly strange worlds.
My ideas, of course, are only the tip of a very large iceberg. So, how about you? How would you like to see aliens and other such sci-fi themes handled in modern videogames?