This is a guest post from Seth Dickinson, author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant and its sequel The Monster Baru Cormorant, a geopolitical fantasy about a woman trying to take an empire down from the inside.
Hi! Like many of you, I grew up in the 90s, the golden age of PC gaming. Now that I write full time, one of my favorite low-stress creative outlets (and one that eats up an embarrassing amount of my time) is modding and tweaking PC games, old and new. I don’t know how to code, how to build 3D models, or, really, how to do anything useful — but to my surprise I’ve managed!
I thought I’d share a few of my favorite projects here, as a way of showing what I care about, both in games and in stories. (This mod experience did lead me to the lore writing work I’ve done on Bungie’s Destiny, if you’re a fan.)
I’m most interested in making games feel more like themselves — bringing out the stories that the gameplay is trying to tell. A really simple example might be the Combine Soldiers in Half-Life 2, with their incredible, sinister audio design, chattering in a clipped brevity code which reflects the way the Combine has lobotomized them and reduced them to pure utility. They look and sound like a major threat to the player.
(Check out the way the public image of the American soldier has evolved, from the corn-fed citizen-soldier of World War II to today’s faceless, NVG-masked elite special operator. The Combine soldiers kind of seem like an extension of that trendline, don’t they?)
Unfortunately, these guys are idiots. Their weapons are ineffective and their AI is basic; they like to stand in the open and unload in your vague direction while you clobber them to death with a toilet. The way the Combine soldiers behave doesn’t match the story their visual and audio design is telling. If I were modding Half-Life 2 (and now I kind of want to) I’d focus on making the Combine soldiers more threatening to the player, so that fighting them isn’t a power fantasy (you’re not supposed to be a superhero in Half-Life, just a dude) and so they reinforce the game’s narrative of resistance and survival in a dystopian future.
When I played Crytek’s 2011 shooter Crysis 2, I hit a similar problem. In this game you’re a lone soldier wearing ‘Nanosuit 2’, a super-advanced combat exoskeleton based on alien technology. You fight an alien invasion of New York even while the agents of the sinister Crynet Corporation try to hunt you down and get the suit back. The problem was that the game was too much of a power fantasy: if you hold absolutely still in front of a single alien grunt and let it shoot you, it spends so much time making threatening noises, pointing you out to its friends, and dodging around that your health can regenerate to full between its attacks. How are you supposed to be scared of alien invaders if they’re this incompetent?
(Contrast with the enemy AI in Monolith’s FEAR, a game where you can play endless cat-and-mouse with strikingly lifelike opposition. Or with Halo, where the high-ranking Elite enemies are clearly more than a match for your character.)
Just making the aliens do more damage felt boring, so I ended up drawing on the alien origins of the player’s supersuit. By giving the aliens the same abilities as the player — speed mode, armor mode, and cloak mode — they could feel more like peers and rivals to the player, rather than hapless victims. Through model swapping I was also able to give some of the human forces hunting you an earlier version of the nanosuit, adding a little variety to the legions of ‘soldier man in hazmat suit who shoot at you from cover.’
I’m two for two on ‘making the basic grunt enemies a little smarter’ here, which leads us to the biggest mod project I’ve ever worked on: the open-source space opera Blue Planet. I grew up with this mod, and with the other people working on it; they’ve been a part of my life since college. Blue Planet is a fan-made sequel to the classic video game FreeSpace 2, a space opera story about humans battling for survival against a mysterious, omnicidal race of aliens. Players act as anonymous, low-ranking fighter pilots caught up in titanic events.
In Blue Planet, as in a lot of fanfiction, we wanted to dig into the psychological reality of living in this world: how do you exist, day to day, in a universe of looming existential terror? How does our relation to the cosmos, and to each other, change? Part of our answer was a civil war — a brutal, bitterly fought conflict between two democratic societies, both with a claim to the moral high ground. We wanted the player to feel like they were killing people, not just spaceships: we needed them to hear distress, desperate camaraderie, and even true bravery not just from their friends but from the people they were fighting.
This was easy enough to achieve through writing, but what about putting that into the actual gameplay? For a long time our missions were plagued by a serious problem: in order to create a challenge, we had to add lots of enemy ships. But that meant the player had to kill lots of enemy ships, and how can you tell a realistic story about the cost of war if you’re mowing down entire squadrons by yourself? How can you give the enemy a sense of self-preservation and tactical awareness if they fly at you like Stormtroopers?
The answer was an overhaul of the ‘how to fly a spaceship’ AI, giving them more ways to avoid attacks and a stronger tendency to break off their objectives in order to defend themselves. Even huge enemy capital ships would now warp out of the battle when badly damaged, instead of waiting around to die. Enemies could launch missiles from a distance to draw you out, then flee and jump away. This cost us some of the player’s agency, their ability to alter the outcome of the mission; but in exchange we gained a sense that you were fighting people, not just basic game AI. Most importantly, by making the AI more deadly, we could use fewer AI ships in each mission — instead of throwing swarms at the player, we could set up one-on-one engagements or tangles between forces of equal size.
This let us give the player character a voice and a personality; now that she wasn’t a murderer of thousands with clearly exceptional skills, we could cast her as just another pilot among many, dealing with the traumas and pressures of a soldier.
There’s a theme running through all this: the important of giving characters a sense of purpose, the illusion of internality, as fully complicated and self-directed as us, the ‘protagonist.’ And this is an interest of mine in writing too: the idea that the protagonist plays by the same rules as everyone else, and that other characters in the story, even peripheral characters, have their own agendas to pursue, their own rich inner lives, their own pasts to haunt them. This is a theme in The Monster Baru Cormorant, where we begin to get the perspective of characters other than Baru, and to learn not just how they see Baru but where they come from and what they’re conspiring to achieve.
What makes us human? I think a big part of it must be theory of mind, the ability to think about what other people are thinking. (I wonder if this may even be the root of consciousness itself: if you can think about what other people are thinking, doesn’t that imply the ability to think about what you’re thinking?) Great fiction taps this capability, makes it work for the story. The characters we love don’t go away when we close the book. They live on in our heads because we have made little models of how they act and react, just as we do for our loved ones and friends.
When we can coax people into creating those models, we’re telling a good story — or, maybe, playing a good game.
PS. A few other mods I have worked on!
A co-op mod for Ground Control 2, so it would be challenging enough to play with my brother;
The spectacular Mechwarrior Living Legends, a multiplayer giant mech simulator (although I contributed only a very little);
The Homeworld 2: Point Defense Systems mod, which stuck a billion tiny guns on the game’s spaceships so they could defend themselves better, in the process making the game look ridiculously pretty;
And a Kerbal Space Program mod to add women’s names to the list of possible astronauts, back in the day when the game only had men’s names; on the theory that the Kerbals, being little green hamster-frog people, might not be sexually dimorphic.
SETH DICKINSON‘s short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. He is an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, winner of the 2011 Dell Magazines Award, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. The Traitor Baru Cormorant was his debut novel.
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