The Ryan Lambie Column: Video games and SF literature

Ryan wonders if video-games might not be a better home than movies for the bizarre worlds of Philip K. Dick...

Fallout 3

Terra’s fate depended on the one man who could not be killed – because he had mastered the secret of borrowing life from the future.”

So reads the rather misleading (and very long) tagline on the cover of Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year. I’ve been reading the novel all week, and it’s as perplexing as all of Dick’s work: brief, bewildering, often misogynistic, patchily written and occasionally glimmering with brilliance. His novels and short stories may have borne many of the hallmarks of the pulp magazines in which they originally appeared, but Dick’s ideas and imagination set him apart from the run-of-the-mill hacks found in the yellowed pages of publications like Astounding or Startling Stories, and it’s no surprise that his work would eventually be adapted for the cinema – indeed, the only surprise is that it took so long.

What’s even more surprising is how little direct attention Dick – or many, many other science fiction authors, for that matter – has received in video games. His work is obsessed with the meaning and fragility of reality, and it’s strange that a medium that’s all about creating new realities hasn’t looked to his work for ideas more often.

While video games have been plundering the science fiction genre for ideas almost since their inception, SF has mostly been used merely as a convenient theme – Space Invaders‘ crab-like Martians may have been partly inspired by War Of The Worlds, but the SF trappings were only considered after the box office success of Star Wars.

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In many ways, video games use the SF genre in a similar manner to Hollywood; it’s a means to an end, a convenient hook on which to hang far-fetched stories full of explosions and gunfights. Take the stories of Dick, for example, and how they’ve fared in the hands of mainstream cinema – stripped of their paranoia, philosophical leanings and depictions of futuristic drug addiction, they became ultra-violent star vehicles like Total Recall (which bears little resemblance to Dick’s original short story, We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale) or beautiful but shallow film noir homages like Blade Runner. Richard Linklatter’s stunning A Scanner Darkly is one of the few films that sticks faithfully to its source material – a novel with only light touches of SF anyway.

Like Hollywood, the video game medium is fascinated by the trappings of sci-fi – its big guns, menacing aliens and magical gadgetry – but not its ideas.  When writing their stories or designing the concepts for their worlds, game developers plunder the archives of cinema rather than the shelves of the library’s SF section.

Influenced by cinema, video games have received many of their science fiction tropes third hand. Ridley Scott’s Alien, a film whose creature and space craft design still influences the look of games even thirty years on, was based on one section of the novel Voyage Of The Space Beagle by AE Van Vogt (the author even sued for plagiarism shortly after Alien‘s release – 20th Century Fox eventually settled out of court). Similarly, John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film whose extraordinary Rob Bottin effects and singularly bleak mood inspired numerous games, including the belated 2002 tie-in and last year’s Dead Space, was based on the short story Who Goes There by John W Campbell.

By the time the ideas from the original stories have filtered down through video games from the foothills of Hollywood, much of their freshness, original meaning or initial impact has been lost. We’ve seen a legion of bug-eyed xenomorphs borrowed from Alien, all of them lacking the sexual menace lurking in Giger’s original creation; we’ve visited a score of futuristic dystopias, none of them as disturbing or politically minded as George Orwell’s.

And while there’s certainly nothing wrong with borrowing from the visual language of SF cinema, video games look to speculative literature all too rarely -Bethesda clearly had Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in mind when they created Fallout 3 (and even suggested as much in a recent interview with Edge magazine), and the makers of Deus Ex were obviously fans of imaginative fiction, with references to Olaf Stapledon, William Gibson and G.K. Chesterton to name a few – but other examples are comparatively thin on the ground.

This is highly unfortunate, because where cinema has a tendency to reduce SF to a series of generic trappings, the best examples of speculative fiction are a breeding ground of strange new ideas and bizarre alternate worlds.

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Video games are far better equipped to convey the jarring shifts in time and space found in, say, Philip K Dick’s work than mainstream cinema. Surely one brave new developer could produce an RPG based in the screwed-up, drug addled world of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, with its once-famous protagonist reduced to an anonymous nobody for no obvious reason? Or maybe a game based on The Man In The High Castle, with its intersecting timelines and seemingly random shifts between one post-war reality and another? I’d pre-order my copies now.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.