New sci-fi games, same old motifs

3 Aug

Recently I purchased a copy of Blizzard’s new Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty game. I love playing it and enjoyed the story, but something occurred to me: this is the same motif every sci-fi space game uses.

Here is the formula:

  • Human-ish space marines of some flavor
  • An advanced alien race, usually religious fanatics of some kind
  • Some type of infection or bug alien that is threatening the universe

The player (usually as a human space marine) starts off by fighting the advanced aliens, only for the third party (bug/infected) to enter onto the stage, where by both the humans and aliens form an unstable cease fire to fend off this greater threat.

The similarities even bleed over into the look of the units:

Space marines: From left to right, Mass Effect, Halo, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k

The aliens: (again) from left to right, Mass Effect, Halo, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k

The bugs/infested, again, from left to right, Mass Effect, Halo, Starcraft, Warhammer 40k

The stories are pretty much the same:

Mass Effect: Human must build an intergalactic team to fight off the Reapers who are going to wipe out all life in the galaxy…again. (Reapers use husks, infected like zombies)

Halo: Lone space marine Master Chief must fight first the Covanent, a group of aliens on a space crusade, and then the flood, infectious spores with a hive mind that tries to wipe out all other life in the universe. (Halo rings designed to kill all life and starve them out)

Starcraft: Terran (humans) fighting Protoss aliens from time to time, but then the Zerg, a ravenous swarm controlled by a hive mind, tries to kill everything in the universe

Warhammer 40k: (Ok, this is a lot more complex, but in Dawn of War II, the space marines were fighting advance aliens, Eldar, and then the Tyranids (almost exact copies of Zerg) show up.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these stories, they’re fun, but for crying out loud, can we mix it up a bit? I’d like to see some other threat besides a giant swarm of infected/bugs moving through space and/or an advance mysterious group of aliens, otherwise known as space elves. (Have you noticed that? They’re always space elves! Sleek and beautiful, often relying on ranged attack and cloaking.)

I understand why space elves and bug swarms are so popular, they’re easy to do and to give them a motive for destroying everything, just play the religion card (hey, works here on earth) or say “because they’re hungry and they need to feed….on everything”. Done, motive set, hero can swing into action. What else could you save the universe from? It has to be something living is. For example, it wouldn’t be much of a fun game if the thing threatening the universe was a natural phenomenon.

But maybe there in lies the heart of the problem. “Save the universe!” limits you to only a hand full of things that could possibly threaten an entire universe. Maybe the games need to lower their sights a bit in order to open up more possibilities. This would in no way be less interesting. Drama is drama, whether it is played out on an inter-galactic stage or between 2 people. If done right, it can be interesting regardless of the scope. What about sci-fi politics? We have plenty of games about past wars, why not make some up about future wars? How about stuff like colonies breaking off from the home world for their freedom; space civil wars. What about evil corporations in space? Space trade wars? If we brought it down even smaller, space bounty hunter games, space mafia, etc, there are as many possibilities in space as there are here on earth, regardless of the scale. The possible content is endless, unless you go for the ultimate “save everything” story that’s been done to death.

Hell, here’s an idea, why not play as space bacteria on an asteroid, battling other space bacteria while trying to burrow deep enough into the asteroid so you don’t burn up in entry to a planet? That might sound boring, but use your imagination, you could turn it into an RTS or a first person shooter. That’s drama on a microscopic scale. Throw in a bacteria love story and you’re golden. ^_^ (Don’t worry, the idea will grow on you)……..sorry.

Oh, and one last thing about scale. I understand that levels in a game can only be so big before they become very impractical, but why is it that events happening on one small part of a planet decide the fate of the entire planet? Think about this. One of my favorite tv shows, Stargate SG-1, had this problem all the time. They would travel through the stargate to another world, billions of light years away, and never go to far away from that gate. While in that one spot they’d make blanket judgments about the planet, including climate, people, politics, religion; everything from one little town. Could you imagine someone trying to generalize the earth from one small town? What if it was a town in Morocco? Japan? Sweden? China? Mexico? Any change in location would give extremely varied results. Yet despite this, sci-fi games continue to generalize an entire planet from one location. Take starcraft II for instance: On the last mission I land on a planet to confront the boss. Of the entire planet, I manage to land in exactly the right place despite being ambushed and all the ships going down in flames.  How does the battle that takes place on this one spot of the planet then decide the outcome on the rest of the planet? That’s like coming to earth, coincidentally landing exactly where  you need to be to do something, say a small town in Idaho, and then after completing whatever you needed to do in Idaho, declaring victory over the entire planet…. <facepalm> I understand that it’s like this because of TV show set limitations, or the limitations of a game level, but it still bugs me.

10 Responses to “New sci-fi games, same old motifs”

  1. Greg Christopher August 4, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    Have you seen this, dude:

    It is really eyepopping to see all the images next to one another, kinda like you did.

  2. godlesspaladin August 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Wow, yeah, a lot of them could be interchangeable. I can think of even more that could be added to that list. >.<

  3. Greg Christopher August 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    I think a lot of industries, video games and RPGs are no exception, have the Spagetti Sauce problem.

  4. faustusnotes August 5, 2010 at 1:09 am #

    Maybe it fits a political model: up until the advent of modern computer games, political/economic conflict was between the “free world” and the “advanced aliens” of the Eastern bloc. While that war was being fought, south east asia developed, and now there are hordes of faceless aliens threatening to wipe out Europe and America.

    Any parallels?

  5. godlesspaladin August 5, 2010 at 3:45 am #

    Hahahaha, never thought of it like that, but if that’s true, then developers must not think very highly of the people from South America. Advanced aliens from Eastern Europe is one thing, but a horde of infected locus from SA?

  6. faustusnotes August 5, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    Lots of people in London would think so…

  7. Andrew Stevens August 10, 2010 at 1:59 am #

    The premise is the same but then again isn’t almost every epic tale the same? What fun would it be if it was a fair fight between two equally matched opponents who followed the rules of war. Also, whats wrong with a fetish for power armored marines? ……. >__>

  8. godlesspaladin August 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    Haha, nothing’s wrong with that fetish ~_^

  9. Soldat January 4, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    I don’t think that Space Marines save the worlds like Superman or some other super heroes in US comics. In DoW2 they’ve said they’re not savior. They tried to save the worlds because of two reasons:
    1.These planets were Imperium lands, which meant that they were Emperor’s lands.
    2.These planets were where they recruit new marines, and possibly where they collect the tax, which were used to support the Chapter activities.

    • Silfarion December 14, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

      Err, I’d say all of the Warhammer 40k games have an excuse for having space marines fighting advanced aliens and then being attacked by bug aliens. After all, it was made in 1987. That was before games like that started popping up. It’d take too long to explain, better to just read up on the lore on Lexicanum or something. Almost 30 years of exposition development has caused it to be nearly impossible to explain the scope of 40k’s lore, and even if you tried you would have no idea where to start since there’s so much to know.

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