by Jeff Cunningham
Ni hao, travelers! Jeff here, back from a lengthy, profession-induced hiatus, on the air once more. We’ve discussed at length here and in person at cons how real-life voyages out into the black have been inspired by the art of science-fiction. Recent events, however, have opened my eyes to a subtle phenomenon in sci-fi that’s been going on in plain sight, yet has gone unnoticed.
The popular Call of Duty series of first-person military shooters released their latest installment, Infinite Warfare just last week. I’ve enjoyed the series since the days when it began as an historical WWII-setting game, and as it steadily progressed through its most popular Modern Warfare chapters into the future. When I saw the teaser trailer’s reveal that the newest iteration would go further than ever before and take CoD’s grounded, realistic approach and apply it to spaceflight, to say that I let out a “squee” is putting it kinda lightly. The rest of the internet was being the internet and finding things to hate, but I was beside myself with hype.
When I saw the story trailer and watched the developer interviews describing the plot, I grew concerned. From what they said of the game’s antagonists, it started to sound like the unspoken message of the game was that anyone who leaves Earth behind for good is a traitor, and must be punished as all bad guys should be. The more footage and clips I saw of the characters and plot, the more it started to look– to me, at least– like an “historical documentary” of the Unification War in Firefly, told from the perspective of the Alliance. It seemed easy to imagine it as terrestrial propaganda, painting the foot soldiers and shock troops as the gallant heroes, while the extraterrestrial foreigners are portrayed as caricatures that were not defending their freedoms, but rather were unprovoked attackers, according to the victors.
To my relief, the debut of the game proved otherwise. In fact, there really wasn’t much to the story. There weren’t even true villains. No explanation is given for their motives or how this whole situation came to be and led to a war for control of the Solar system. Instead of true human villains, the player is presented with a shooting gallery.
No matter– it’s still ridiculously fun, because that shooting gallery is on the moon, and dogfighting in “Jackals,” the jet fighters adapted to spaceflight, never gets old.
As the story progressed, I noticed something truly fascinating about Infinite Warfare’s setting. It not only feels grounded to us, the players, but to the characters, as well. Living and traveling in space isn’t presented as “extreme” like you’d expect from a Michael Bay feature. In fact, for the men and women featured in the game, it’s the most normal thing in the world. If anything the SCARs, the game’s future, space-based version of Navy SEALs, express discomfort at walking on Earth, and feel more at home in “the wild black yonder” (remind anyone of a certain cancelled TV show’s theme song?). A leader of a team of Marines mounting an operation on Titan, a moon of Saturn, reminisces about his father bringing him and his family there to seek a better life, and of taking him out boating on the lake as a boy– an activity, mind you, that necessitated space suits and took place on a lake of hydrocarbons or liquid methane, depending on latitude.
Even the general civilian population thinks nothing of having only a half-inch of steel between them and death by vacuum. Early on, players are tasked with leading a counterattack to reclaim the Lunar Gateway port, which for all intents and purposes looks no different than any airport concourse here on Earth. The exception, of course, is the far superior view out of the giant, reinforced glass windows. You and everyone present have firearms, though, and yes, you can shoot out those windows, and yes, if you’re too close, you will be sucked out onto the Lunar surface and die before you can get your helmet on. The
airport spaceport, though, is equipped with a special emergency system that, after a momentary delay that’s only long enough to present danger to the player and would never occur in the real world, quickly deploys large shutters that close over and seal the entire missing window.
Nifty, yes. Forward-thinking, too. To me, though, that also shows that, in this vision of the future, the average person accepts the very dangers of space that we balk at today. Civilians and enlisted soldiers alike accept death by asphyxiation just as much as we accept death by automobile, or as Navy sailors accept death by drowning as a part of the job.
I hardly had time to ponder this before another trailer for another upcoming release in a beloved franchise hit the internet: Mass Effect: Andromeda
Here, we have another triple-A franchise, this time a space opera, all of a sudden turning its focus from warfare to exploration. Sure, shooting will occur, because they have to preserve some semblance of the core gameplay from the “Shepard trilogy,” but it will emphasize the lofty goal and responsibility placed on the player to find a new home for humanity in a new galaxy with no support from Earth.
It was at this point that things started to click and fall into place for me, and I saw a pattern begin to emerge. Remember No Man’s Sky, and how disappointed everyone was by it? What was it everyone was upset about? Usually, with this sort of thing, you’d expect the oft-heard complaints of “the combat is broken” or “the graphics are weak.” Not so with No Man’s Sky, no– instead, players were actually more upset that the game didn’t seem to deliver on the developers’ promises of an endless universe to explore. That is, it was endless, but the game’s procedural generation algorithm that was supposed to work behind the scenes to randomly and continuously create new planets on-the-fly as players discover them (much the same way that Taco Bell creates menu items by just mixing and matching new combinations of the same ingredients) only wound up making a quintillion worlds that all looked the same.
When virtual reality re-entered the public sphere with the first model of the Oculus Rift, the killer app for it turned out to be Elite: Dangerous, a modern revamp of one of the most beloved classic PC games of all time– one in which players are free to seek their fortunes as they see fit in another procedurally generated universe.
What’s more, one of the most anticipated future releases is Star Citizen, yet another freeform space simulation based in a massive, persistent universe.
It’s clear that there’s a new trend in games– not just video games, but the big, blockbuster titles that make more money than Hollywood films– of whisking players off to faraway places where they spend at least as much time exploring new places as they do shooting things. Because let’s be honest, as Jayne Cobb would no doubt say, it wouldn’t be any fun without at least a little shooting. The real question is why, just where did all this come from all of a sudden?
“We Have the Technology…”
The first and most obvious guess anyone will make is that the technology of game design, from the graphics to the volume of memory available to these games to contain entire universes, has advanced to a point to make such ambitious “exploration simulators” feel truly plausible and compelling to players (as we all hope that the upcoming Firefly will be, despite silence on the part of the developers for some time). Large-capacity servers and high-speed internet connections enable truly open-world (or open-galaxy) gameplay. While the first MMOs treated exploration as a side feature or mini-game, developers now make it a completely viable endgame in and of itself for players who aren’t interested in fighting at all.
CPUs and graphics cards are powerful enough now to procedurally generate new worlds down to the individual plants, just as the player stumbles across them. Lastly, the technology behind VR headsets allows a new degree of immersion into the final frontier– small wonder that the most popular downloads, games and apps for this particular new and emerging medium tend to involve spaceflight, such as Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – Jackal Assault, the latter of which is free to all PlayStation VR owners.
Same Song, New Verse
Another factor that can’t be ruled out is that a lot of this isn’t new– game developers have been trying for decades to craft new worlds, star systems and galaxies that give the player the feeling of being able to go anywhere. These titles have had varying degrees of success with the technology available to them at the time. A few overcame technical limitations through clever gameplay mechanics, such as the original Elite and Earth and Beyond Online (where players actually earn experience points for exploration activities). It’s entirely possible that we’re just seeing the end product of years of slow buildup to this point.
Children of Tomorrow
If you’ll indulge me, though, I’d like to float one additional theory that came to me while writing this. In the early days of modern rocketry– I’m talking decades before “One small step for man”– in the days of Robert Goddard and a much younger Wernher von Braun, the home for imaginations run wild was comic books and radio broadcasts. If you grew up in the 1930s and subsequent years, it was Flash Gordon that had you pretending to ride your rocket ship to other planets (it was Flash Gordon, interestingly enough, that would go on to inspire both Star Trek and Star Wars— in fact, it’s where Star Wars got the opening crawl from). It was these kids who grew up and went on to make airplanes and rockets like the ones in their comics.
March forwards to the 1960s when the space race is in full swing, and what is it that’s leaving a similar impression in young minds? Star Trek. Walk around any NASA facility and ask anyone over the age of 40 (which as of 2015 was at least 80% of the agency’s workforce), and most will tell you they were inspired to get where they are today by watching that show, and wanting to make it a reality.
What we’re seeing now, I propose, is the cycle repeating in another new medium. Again, we’ve spoken at length at our con appearances about art inspiring the explorers of tomorrow, but now I have a theory as to why some examples of that art do this and others are forgotten. The key is that the medium in question in each instance was relatively new and developing when the explorers and scientists each inspired were in their youth.
The first rocket pioneers were influenced by comics that predated the iconic superheroes of both Marvel and DC, the men and women at the forefront of the space race were among the first to watch television broadcasts as children– and now? The target audience and demographic of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is the generation that grew up with the original Nintendo Entertainment System.
For each of these generations, the new and emerging medium served as the means for dreaming the dream anew. Each new technology gave us a new kind of canvas to paint the same gleaming, alabaster murals of the future as envisioned by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Wernher von Braun, Walt Disney, Joss Whedon, and Elon Musk. The real reason why Infinite Warfare wasn’t held back by the “future fatigue” of the previous entries in the series was because it was the first and only chapter to ride this current. The Call of Duty fan base wound up forgiving the game’s imperfections, because it gives players what they were really looking for, even though they didn’t know they were: a fine ship to call their own, and a star to sail her by.
The notion of being “inspired” by a video game may sound silly and even juvenile to us, but it can’t be more silly than it was for the people who grew up on comics and radio serials who went on to create the world’s first space program. Arthur C. Clarke said that such dreams have three phases of how they’re perceived by others:
- “It’s completely impossible.”
- “It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing.”
- “I said it was a good idea all along.”
That’s why Zoe had to remind her husband Wash in the scene in Firefly where they discuss psychic phenomena, “We live in a spaceship, dear.” The truth will always be stranger, so no one should ever feel ashamed of harboring a healthy imagination and a sense of fantasy!
That’s also why it’s worthwhile to name real spaceships after iconic ships from science-fiction. Bridging the gap between the hard science of space exploration and the imaginative realm of science-fiction helps open the public’s eyes to how it’s relevant to their interests– in other words, they feel a connection to the vehicle that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, which in turn gives them another reason to care– the name, whether it’s Enterprise or Falcon or Heart of Gold or Serenity, gives them someone to root for.
And that’s one of many reasons why we believe SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon should bear the name Serenity when she finally breaks atmo. If you agree, write to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and president Gwynne Shotwell to tell them so.