Five great spec-fic games

Uh huh, this list has Metal Gear Solid in it.

I’ve sometimes mentioned the snobbishness occasionally encountered by science fiction and fantasy. Yet that does decrease continually, at least in terms of spec-fic works in media with widely-accepted artistic validity. Games, however, are unfortunately far too often excluded from these favoured media. Entertainment’s of course every game’s main purpose, just as it’s debatably most works’ main purpose; this has no bearing on the medium’s ability to demonstrate artistic qualities, among them innovation and intelligence.

So, getting straight to it, some great games in the sci-fi and/or fantasy genre. Games which, besides being a lot of fun to play, are first-class works of speculative fiction too.

5: Final Fantasy VII universe.

Let’s start by getting Final Fantasy VII out of the way. This much-loved 90s RPG has become legendary – it most often appears at the top of lists like this one. And given its great influence historically, and the continued appeal of some aspects today, it does merit some mention in this article. That said, as a younger gamer for whom it lacks nostalgia value, I have to say a few aspects of it have aged awfully.

Final Fantasy VII has always been acclaimed for the vast complexity of its world and story. While by present standards its format’s a limited one, it still retains some of that sense of epic size. A setting of corrupt corporations, eco-terrorism, different peoples, varied places. An emotional tale which includes dramatic staples like fallen heroes and tragic heroines, touches on some modern themes such as mental health and environmentalism, and throws some mindbending twists in there too. But it becomes a bit of a mess, this sprawling story, admittedly. Plus the graphics can look unbelievably dated to us spoilt players of the present day. The first part of the game, in dark urban Midgar, I really did enjoy. But, after departing the city, well, there’s only so many blocky representations of forests I can cheerfully take.

Later spin-offs – Dirge of Cerberus, and Crisis Core – got me into the franchise. And I’d recommend these to the others who struggle with older technology. They allow this beloved universe to realise its full potential with their less old-fashioned graphics etc. Hopefully something the upcoming FF VII remake, to which I look forward, will also do.

4: Beyond: Two Souls.

This interactive drama’s as much movie as game in a sense. I refer to its focus less on action than on narrative, as well as to its extensive use of motion-capture. (Beyond: Two Souls shares a designer, and similarities in format, with the also-excellent – but not spec-fic – Heavy Rain.) Initially, Beyond: Two Souls‘ story can sound a bit on the naff side. To summarise, it consists of non-chronological scenes from the life of a girl psychically linked to a ghostly entity. The aforementioned danger of naffness aside, the concept develops in interesting ways, a tale told and acted thoughtfully.

Some missions are more engrossing that others are; personally I preferred the special-ops stuff, shutting down condensers, to that lengthy sojourn among the Navajo. And choices lack considerable impact until towards the end of the game; this is emphasised by the to-ing and fro-ing in time, letting us know our future in advance. But, overall, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty fine piece and a pretty unusual piece. (There’s also an extra element added by a two-player feature, which lets the second player take the part of the heroine’s entity.)

3: Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Cyberpunk, cyberpunk, cyberpunk. Did I mention the cyberpunkness of this one? Seriously, if Gibson novels were games, Deus Ex is what they’d be. Corporate intrigue, high-tech and low-life, neon-lit cities filled with hookers and hackers and cybernetically-enhanced people. And it’s not only Deus Ex‘s world-building which is worthy of praise, but also its innovative playing style. It mixes the RPG with the stealth-shooter, combining open-world sections with more linear stealth missions, and it is to a fair extent interactive. That free chip upgrade that seems too good to be true? Spoiler: it is, take it from me.

Granted, the main corporate-espionage storyline perhaps isn’t fully compelling until it comes together eventually (which, come to think of it, is a characteristic of a lot of Gibson novels too…). I’d also have liked to see more of my weighty final choice’s consequences. But these are quibbles beside Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s impressively-realised vision of a future impacted by advanced technology, and beside the originality of its gameplay style. I tried the previous Deus Ex games after this one; it left me keen for more. Sadly, I thought these two early 2000s games pretty primitive even for their time. Guess I’m going to have to wait for the next one, Mankind Divided, which looks from its trailers as if it won’t disappoint me.

2: The Last of Us.

As I start to describe The Last of Us – as a zombie-apocalypse tale, as a man’s reluctant redemption through a child’s love – I realise that this superb game doesn’t even have a particularly unique premise. What it has is storytelling and character development of a sophistication to which most works merely aspire. Though it might not have a wholly original premise, its detailed characters are indeed unique, depicted with real emotional intelligence. We become invested in the story, and are left truly torn as it concludes; we’ve longed for Joel to feel an affection for his charge, but when he does so he vindicates his earlier survival-conscious self as he risks far more than his own life.

In line with the story, the gameplay’s not showy, but is simply of solid quality. And the balance between stealth and shooter, with the scavenging for ammo etc, is so managed as to genuinely give a sense of some guy trying to stay alive in this harsh post-apocalyptic place. (Sometimes failing to stay alive. Prepare to see clickers tear your throat out, a lot.) The Last of Us stands as an example of what attention to narrative’s importance, and to craft, can achieve. It’s a game which affects you as a good novel can do; it’s what such a lot of games ought to be, what so few of them are.

(I’ve decided not to discuss both The Last of Us and The Walking Dead by Telltale Games in this article, given their – coincidental? – similarities of content and themes. But I’ll take this opportunity to recommend The Walking Dead series too.)

1: Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Metal Gear Solid, from Japanese designer Hideo Kojima, can occasionally have more violence – and can often have more blatant ‘look, boobs!’ sort of stuff – than some Western games would dare to include. MGS also has far more erudite discussion, far more politics and philosophy, than frankly any Western game would dare to include. Anime lovers, perhaps, will have some sense of the sort of mix I’m attempting to describe here. (I should stipulate that I’m talking MGS 1-4 in this article; MGS 5 does remain something I’m meaning to play, but I always preferred Solid Snake’s stories to the Big Boss prequels honestly, besides this latest instalment looking a tad Assassin’s Creed for my personal taste.)

MGS is set in a sci-fi alternate history, with mecha and cyborg ninjas and massive organisations which work behind the scenes, and tells a staggeringly complicated political story encompassing about half a century. (Some would call it over-complicated; a complaint that’s not completely unjustifiable, at least in terms of MGS 2‘s exceedingly lengthy sections of expository dialogue.) The simultaneous societal influences both on individuals and of individuals are one major theme throughout the franchise – there’s much mention of memes, in the word’s older sense. There’s also a lot of meditation on war; a subject games seldom address seriously, central as war is to many.

MGS shows continual self-awareness, with a whole lot of breaking-the-fourth-wall in there. So in MGS 2 the Colonel messes with the minds of both the player and the protagonist; I have a friend who actually fell for his instruction to turn off the console, no joke. In the (pretty cool) hack-and-slash spin-off Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the doctor on your team’s keen to chat with you about the psychological reasons for these hack-and-slash games’ popularity. MGS is also bursting with idiosyncrasies and Easter eggs and humour – from ketchup-based escapes, to those cardboard boxes.

Of course, I can’t close without some discussion of MGS‘s gameplay. It’s been claimed, with slight exaggeration, that this franchise invented the stealth game; certainly it popularised the genre almost singlehandedly. Its self-described tactical-espionage-action style – focused on avoiding rather than killing foes, on taking down even bosses through not strength but strategy – was a new idea at the time. MGS games are still excellent examples of this now-extensive genre. Unavoidably, the earlier games have dated to some degree (particularly the first one, though I’d still consider it a fine game, and this comes from somebody whose minimal patience with 90s technology you might have noticed already). But MGS 4, my favourite one, needs no allowances made for its age, despite even this one having come out half a decade ago. To those out there who haven’t got into the MSG games already, let me recommend this franchise wholeheartedly.

Slipstream, weird fiction, & cities & cities: genres between genres

Magic realism, slipstream fiction, weird fiction, New Weird fiction. Confused as to what exactly these are, or at least as to what exactly the differences between them are? If not, if you have shelves stacked with VanderMeer and Miéville, then perhaps you’re not in need of this article. But the answer’s doubtless a yes for a lot of people out there, for these words were invented to define works which resist definition; they’re less names of genres than efforts to name what falls outside the genres.

To be honest, there’s heaps of overlap between the terms I’ve used above. For example, I mentioned M. John Harrison’s Signs of Life in a recent article. It combines a realistic setting with unexplained, or half-explained, elements reminiscent of sci-fi and fantasy. I described it as magic realist, but I could make a case for most of the other terms above too. It might be helpful to think of magic realism as literary fiction with some speculative fiction in there, and of slipstream and weird fiction as the reverse. Notwithstanding hard-to-place books like Signs of Life, much magic realism’s clearly on mainstream / lit-fic’s side of the line, and doesn’t count as slipstream fiction or as weird fiction at the same time. Consider the Latin American magic realists, from Gabriel García Márquez to Laura Esquivel, or consider the works of Angela Carter. In fact, I’ll take Angela Carter’s Wise Children as an instance. It’s evident enough that this novel, a British chorus-girl’s account of the extravagant lives and loves of her performing family, isn’t a speculative fiction one. This is despite its constant development of its larger-than-life scenarios in directions too ludicrous to believe.

Since the subject of this blog is sci-fi and fantasy, it’s slipstream fiction and weird fiction more than magic realism which concern me here. Bruce Sterling came up with the word slipstream; Sterling’s better known for his connections to cyberpunk, and was the editor of the famed Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Mirrorshades does in fact include some stories more slipstream than cyberpunk, of which 400 Boys and Petra are the most notable; the latter involves a half-statue living in an age when Mortdieu (God’s death) has filled the world with entropy. In 1989, a couple of years after this anthology, Bruce Sterling used the term slipstream for the first time; he defined it as ‘a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange.’

Christopher Priest’s 2006 introduction to the Anna Kavan novel Ice – a novel first published in the 60s, considered slipstream retrospectively – expands upon Sterling’s explanation pretty handily. He writes that ‘slipstream induces a sense of otherness in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror… or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective.’ And – perhaps the make-or-break rule here – ‘Nothing is given a pseudo-scientific explanation (which would make it science fiction), but the strangeness is laid plainly before the audience so that they, like the characters in the drama, take everything at its face value.’ Priest also emphasises that slipstream is nothing so simple as mere allegory. Kavan’s novel shows us an unnamed man’s pursuit of a fairy-tale-like female across a landscape encroached on by walls of ice; interpretations have ranged from its being a metaphor for heroin addiction to its being a metaphor for Cold War Russia’s encroachment over Europe. There’s nothing stopping readers from taking it as either, even as both, but nor is there anything compelling them to do so. This novel never commits itself to representing something so specific. ‘It ends as it begins,’ as Priest puts it, ‘with nothing… concluded.’

Now let’s talk about weird fiction. Originally that word weird was meant in its old sense, as referring not to oddness alone, but to supernatural oddness, to the eerie. Think H. P. Lovecraft. Nowadays, the New Weird is a thing; in some works New Weird’s supernatural-horror origins are visible, but this fashionable term also tends to be applied to works which would pretty much have been described as slipstream previously. And when New Weird appears in a sentence, you can count on China Miéville’s name appearing in the next one (critics will debate what’s New Weird all day, but that Miéville is they always agree). I can’t argue; China Miéville, particularly since his Mervyn-Peake-influenced early days, has become an excellent writer who does indeed exemplify what’s best about this genre. His 2005 short story collection Looking for Jake, of which the highlight is the novella The Tain, still has connections to old weird fiction or horror-fantasy. The Tain might over-simplistically be considered a monster or vampire story, though these beautifully-described monsters are in fact reflections come alive. But his 2009 novel The City & City shows the New Weird’s full newness and its full weirdness; a Kafkaesque police procedural that’s set across two cities which exist in the same space, but which nonetheless remain separate. It’s a page-turner of a whodunnit in a setting which, though it rejects exact comparisons, is intriguing politically and sociologically.

It’s contradictory to obsess too much over the technicalities of the slipstream genre or the weird fiction genre, to label that rejection of labels which characterises the work I’m talking about here. What these works have in common is most of all their feel, and I’ve tried to provide at least a rough sense of that in this article. Doubtful as the exact differences between these areas can be, what’s not in doubt is that they encompass some of the smartest, and the newest, spec-fic out there. And if you’re after an entry-point into these genres between genres, then I’ll be another to make the well-deserved, if predictable, recommendation of Miéville; of The City & the City, at any rate.

M. John Harrison and his K-tract trilogy: space opera meets cyberpunk meets almost everything else

M. John Harrison, though not a particularly well-known author in any sense, is perhaps best known as a writer not of sci-fi but of fantasy. Throughout the first part of his career he was preoccupied principally with the Viriconium sequence, which consists of three novels and numerous short stories. While Harrison’s Viriconium works aren’t a personal favourite of mine, I’m interested to observe the shift between the first novel and the last one. The author moved from The Pastel City, slightly Arthurian large-scale epic fantasy, to the final novel In Viriconium, a work which centres on the riff-raff of one area. This writer’s skill with words is evident throughout the series too, especially his penchant for that aptitude that makes you feel simultaneously like you’ve never seen it that way and like you’ve always seen it that way. (Have you ‘Watched two clouds close a slot of blue in the winter sky, so that you felt as if something had been taken from you forever?’) From this Harrison went on to novels such as Course of the Heart and the excellent Signs of Life, novels best described as magic-realist in style. His recent Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, published 2002-2012, is Harrison’s major foray into sci-fi to date (his only one since an early – 1974 – effort, The Centauri Device, loved by some critics and loathed by himself, still to be read by me).

Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space make up the K-tract trilogy. The three are linked by some characters’ recurrence, and by the sense of transcendence with which each book closes, and by the constant overshadowing presence of the Kefahuchi Tract singularity. But all three also stand alone, though the last to a slightly lesser degree than the other two. The first is a space opera told from the perspectives of a (psychopathic) researcher somewhere around the present day, a far-future space captain who forms part of her spacecraft, and an ex-space-explorer who’s addicted to virtual reality. The second – perhaps my favourite – is a noirish crime story set in a weird town where scientific laws don’t apply thanks to the K-tract singularity (Nova Swing has a more-than-passing resemblance , as it recognises with an opening quote, to Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys). The last book, Empty Space, blends space opera and detective tale and more, and creates a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

This genre-bending is one of the joys of Harrison’s K-tract sequence. I’ve used the term space opera a couple of times; the space-ships / aliens / intergalactic warfare are there in plenty. Yet these works focus less on epic conflict than on low-life, and are in fact more cyberpunk in their sensibility. The series is sci-fi; but soft sci-fi, and its loose semi-metaphorical explanations of phenomena can mean it borders on fantasy. Consider the ubiquitous algorithms known as shadow operators, who can run on human bodies ‘as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives’, but who tend to cling in corners ‘in loose temporary skeins like cobwebs in the folds of an old curtain… biting their thin, bony knuckles.’ In its veering between sci-fi and fantasy, and in its often-dreamlike quality, the series can be described as slipstream at times. This dreamlike quality occurs even in the present-era parts of the narrative, and it is contributed to by the characters’ tendency to behave obliquely – to an extent everybody resembles the minor cast-member Sprake, his motivations ‘a dialogue so internalised it could only be inferred, partially and undependably, from the sum of his actions.’

Whilst it’s difficult to further convey, at least without giving too much away, this is a first-class sci-fi trilogy. And, more, it’s just a first-class trilogy; it’s one of the most memorable works I’ve happened upon in the last year or so. Aside from his imaginative scope, Harrison possesses a technical ability that most writers in any genre can only envy. This is evident in his plotting and pacing, in his movingly convincing characterisation, in the minutiae of each sentence in every story. To use the words of that other superb speculative fiction writer China Miéville: ‘M. John Harrison proves what only those crippled by respectability still doubt – that science fiction can be literature of the very greatest kind.’

Ex Machina: Listen, people, this isn’t what intelligent/innovative sci-fi looks like

Ex Machina

Last night found me watching the 2015 film Ex Machina. It was the choice of a mate who’s as much a sci-fi fan as me; but his interests extend less far from the mainstream than mine. Aside from the robot hottie in the promotional pictures, the movie’s main attraction for him was The Force Awakens actors Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac’s presence. Part of its appeal for me – added to the acclaim it has received – was that it is the directorial debut of Alex Garland (writer of Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd).

Let me summarise Ex Machina in a spoiler-free way. A young genius (Gleeson) is invited by an older one (Isaac) to a retreat in a scenic valley, where he is asked to test whether an android secretly created by the older scientist possesses true artificial intelligence. Besides shots of said scenic valley, and interviews with the robot, the film consists of the two men’s discussions on what constitutes artificial intelligence and what the implications of its creation would be. A romantic sub-plot, some (not-unforeseeable) twists, and Isaac’s character’s increasingly sinister quality result in a little action towards the end of the movie. Given his tastes, it was perhaps predictable that my friend would doze off before this finale on discovering that the film consists mainly of philosophical debate. But while it wasn’t this which put me off, personally, I nonetheless soon felt just as disappointed as he.

At first the concept’s an attractive one; there’s always been a lot of thematic potential in artificial intelligence. But that’s the problem in a sense; for as it proves Ex Machina does little that hasn’t been done before, and been done with considerably less pomposity. Check: Ghost in the Shell style development of the what-is-AI debate into a what-is-consciousness-itself debate. Check: Blade Runner-esque depiction of AI’s creators as godlike (including the creation’s anger towards its maker). It became too much for me as the android’s inventor declared: ‘It’s Promethean, man.’ With this the movie pauses condescendingly, so that we can absorb the sentiment, and perhaps the word’s size, with awe. Trouble is that likening the creation of humanoids to the legendary Prometheus’s creation of humanity has been around since the ‘first sci-fi novel’ Frankenstein, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, was published by Mary Shelley. Of course it’s Promethean; that’s what Promethean means, actually. It continues: discussion of the danger that AI if uncontrolled could pose (hello Asimov, and The Matrix too, and a hundred dystopian movies). And continues: damaged android faces, providing that thought-provoking juxtaposition of human features with the workings inside (except it’s a lot less thought-provoking for the fact that it stopped being new somewhere around Terminator‘s time).

This said, derivative films can be a decent watch all the same. And Ex Machina is often beautiful visually (if a little ostentatiously so). It’s also acted superbly – its strongest point, I’d say. It’s main fault isn’t that it’s not all that intelligent, or that it’s not the slightest bit innovative. It’s that it thinks it is. Its pretentiousness, for me, offsets its virtues. I can’t share its conviction of its cleverness. In short, it takes more than an impressive vocabulary for an impressive movie.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

‘My name is Charles Yu’, reads the back of Charles Yu’s 2010 book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. ‘I’m a time machine repairman. In one minute, I’m going to murder myself. Again.’ A time-loop premise which is certainly catchy, but time-loop stories are no novelty; it’s thanks to its other aspects, I find, that this work does have a unique quality. (This review should be fairly spoiler-free.)

The conceit of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is that it is a ‘book from nowhere’. This is an oft-proposed time-travel paradox (for instance, as I write, it has recently been the subject of a Doctor Who episode). A time-traveller takes a book he wrote, and travels back to before he wrote it; he gives said book to his younger self to copy, which is how the book was written in the first place. Think about it: his book exists, but all he’s done is to copy. So Charles Yu’s novel purports to be a work from his future self (the same self he’s murdered), which his present self is now reading and writing simultaneously. Though it isn’t his own, Yu puts the paradox to skilful use; it provides the whole work with a metafictional element.

This postmodern self-reflexiveness isn’t limited to the ‘book from nowhere’ conceit alone. A word about the self-declared setting of a ‘science fictional universe’. This doesn’t refer to a universe based on advanced science. It refers to a universe based on the sci-fi genre. The time machines move less between dates than between tenses (our hero’s lived in the Present Indefinite for some time). The protagonist owns a dog who was ‘retconned out of some space western’, as another instance. And in this book’s world – or worlds, rather – you come across people like the son of Luke Skywalker; this kid’s ‘trapped in his whole dark-father-lost-son-galactic-monomyth thing and he doesn’t know any other way.’ Besides the literary boldness of a novel that sets itself within its own genre in this way, and the layer of complexity added by self-consciousness in this degree, Yu’s approach can result in humour which is almost Douglas Adams-esque.

Furthermore, for all this book’s postmodern cleverness, there are some simple (even eternal) themes at the core. One of its strengths is how it reflects on the human condition via time-travel tropes. For example – on time-travel’s inability to alter the past, and on the effects were this possible – ‘Instead of the ordinary problems of life, the problem of what to do next, of what to do first, of what to do ever, at all, even the smallest step, we would also have the problem of what to do yesterday, of what to do last year, of how to justify anything, ever.’ Time-travel is a metaphor for memory and even life: ‘Everyone is a time machine. […] The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped.’ Much of the story, in addition, is an exploration of the protagonist’s relationship with his parents (with his lost father particularly). The novel’s more fantastic elements are offset by some beautifully-observed snapshots of day-to-day personal life.

I will say that Yu’s ending feels a little easy. I’ve stated that the book’s time-loop premise, if fun, isn’t in fact its main success. Certainly the resolution of the time-loop story didn’t satisfy me. The epilogue, Appendix A, also seems to sort out the subplot involving the father with a neatness in contradiction to this book’s attitudes (although, in a work as ironic as this one, there’s room to suppose that this conclusion was itself intended ironically).

But on the whole, Yu’s first novel is smart, innovative, funny; and it doesn’t have brains alone, it has heart too. Looking forward to reading more by this author in the future.