Part 2: Turning Dreams into Reality
This is the second in the series on literature, gaming and tomorrow.The importance of imagination in game development was discussed and related to literature.More specifically, the relationship was made between science fiction lit.This seemed a natural fit since one of the curious things about our lives on this planet is that virtually every innovation we now take for granted had its birth in literature that was science fiction based.All innovation generally grows from a perceived need; that is true whether it be condoms or toasters.Jules Verne, as noted in the first in the series, wanted to write a story about a mysterious sea monster, so he needed to create one, and then did so with an interesting twist that spoke of the human condition.
In the novel, the “monster” is reported to have attacked other craft in the ocean and then mysteriously disappeared.As a result an expedition is organized to track down and destroy the menace.After much fruitless searching, the monster is found and the attack begins.During the battle, while trying to destroy the creature, the expedition ship’s steering is damaged with the result that the three protagonists are thrown overboard. On surfacing, they find themselves stranded on the back of the “creature” only to discover to their surprise that the “creature” was made of metal.
They are quickly captured and brought inside and it is there they meet the infamous creator of the “creature,” Captain Nemo.Thus, in the late 1860s, the idea for deep-diving submarines was born.The “sea monster” turns out to be an underwater craft named Nautilus capable of feats that were, for the time, beyond extraordinary – indeed, practically magical.
If you ever doubted a relationship between art and life, you must consider what came first, the chicken or the egg.Many think the Hunley, a Confederate submarine of the Civil War that could dive only a few feet, may have been created because of Verne’s story.Nonetheless, the thought that such vessels could ever dive thousands of feet below the ocean floor was considered insanity.How cool is it then that in a tribute to Verne, the U.S.’s very first nuclear-powered submarine, commissioned on September 30, 1954, almost 100 years after Verne’s prediction, was named the Nautilus.Go ahead, I dare you, tell me that imaginators, whether they write, invent or create games aren’t about the coolest people on the planet.
Reality Becomes Deadly Real
The second of these great “imaginators” was H.G. Wells, born in 1866. The “reality” he imagined was terrifying.Wells is considered the father of science fiction, due largely to his incredible ability to foresee the future, but also because he was so prolific.He is best known for his classic The War of the Worlds. But to really understand Wells’ contribution, one has to realize the scope of his work and ideas: he is given credit for the weapon we know as a tank (although he called it a Land Ironclad).In his story The Shape of Things to Come, Wells predicted a world gone mad in a war that would feature aerial bombing of cities.He is also credited with predicting the existence of computers, video cassettes, superhighways, television, and – hold on to your unstained underwear here – the atomic bomb.All of these were unfathomable in his time.
His idea of the “Land Ironclad,” put forward in 1903, so enamored Winston Churchill that in 1913, ten years after Wells created the idea, Churchill championed the construction of tanks in preparation for World War I. But even more frightening, in a later work The World Set Free (1914), Wells forecast a new weapon that would be made of radioactive materials like Uranium, claiming it would be powerful enough to destroy entire cities.One established scientist, Ernest Rutherford, claimed that Wells must have been high on moonshine to come up with such a ridiculous notion.Wells was vindicated 30 years later when Leo Szilard, one of the physicists who helped create the atomic bomb, credited Wells for giving him the idea for a nuclear chain reaction.Tell me again that life doesn’t imitate art and I may suggest an excellent therapist.
Consider games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., that reflect, among other things, the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.It seems the developers of such games not only exhibit deep imagination, but also comment on the state of our society by alerting us to the potential future we face.On that basis alone, are not games a valuable tool for all of us to experience and use to improve the social condition…even if it must be done by scaring the pants off us?
The difference between brilliance and imagination not only exists, but could explain why we are so willing to put down the gaming world.Scientists may well be brilliant, and they may well have imagination, but scientists must deal with established fact and their prognostications, even if dreamt up, must adhere to a strict set of rules to even be considered seriously.The fact is, Wells’ imagined atom bomb did not conform to any of the rules of science then proven.So, naturally, unless a scientist of his day was an imaginator, he or she could not foresee that the rules of science could change.The dreamer/imaginator does not have those same constraints.
But in the final analysis a game must do more than provide a platform for killing and maiming to have any social significance.It must force us to think, to consider our world and even require us to consider avenues by which to better our world.The good news is that many (most?) do – in fact, even those games with ample killing and maiming have been making us think for years. The Phantasy Star series began way back in the mid-1980s, but our own Steerpike points out that
Phantasy Star is a dark and often disturbing tale of heroism, revenge, and power-mad governance with distinct overtones of Nazism, Big-Brotherism, Fascism, and many other isms…its story is nonetheless quite grim, and quite unforgettable.[It] toys thematically with the concept of Evil as a living, breathing thing.
We can’t protect ourselves from evil unless we understand evil.Wells himself was never a fan of technology that could be used for destruction, but he understood human nature and it would have bothered him to see his prognostications become fact…just as it bothered Alfred Nobel that his invention of dynamite was turned to killing; just as it bothered Einstein that the A-Bomb grew out of a simple formula he dreamt up 40 years earlier.We know now that most modern science fiction is being written by computer geeks.And, call me crazy, but I’ve got a feeling that if Verne or Wells were alive today, they would be amusing themselves by still great literature; or, creating computer games to delight, frighten and inspire, but always with the intent, the hope, of someone getting the greater message.
Great article Tony. Some very interesting nuggets of information in there. I think games have the potential to affect in a more organic and less obtrusive way than linear media insofar as players can explore ideas and concepts themselves on a personal level. Portal immediately comes to mind for its space bending mechanics but also for the companion cube section, the room that is allegedly impossible and of course the final ‘fire pit’ room. The players seemingly autonomous actions give way to the experience the developers have obviously, very cleverly and subtly aimed for. Its a masterclass in design and imagination for many many reasons. Who knows maybe the gravity gun will be something the future holds… cool.
Portal is a remarkably important game, one I think will be studied for many years. The Companion Cube experience, not the mention the almost System Shockian sense of closeness you come to feel with GLaDOS, are rare events in narrative design. Even though we see only a few such games in the canon, that they exist at all is gratifying. Plus, I think that as time passes we’ll see more and more. Thanks for the great article, Tony!
Thanks for the comments, you are clearly a fan of both Syfy and the gaming experience. I truly believe we are witnessing the genesis of a major change on American thinking regarding computer games. When the likes of the Pentagon begin to take notice of gaming, you know you have managed to change the perception of the naysayers.
And, you are right when you suggest Portal is a game changing game, so to speak. Its mechanics alone boggle, but I am most impressed by the incredible amount of thought and imagination that went into its development.
Thanks again, and keep checking in with taprepeatedly.
Tony “Two Toes”