My good friend Peter Gabriel and I were discussing last night how I feel Mass Effect 2 has no faults. A hard opinion to defend to be sure, but it started the ball rolling: What elements make up a great sci-fi game? What do we want to be in control of, what do we really need to feel alive and a part of a Science Fiction setting from our games?
I start with three ideas.
Delivering a great sci-fi experience is a balancing act in giving the player control, and limiting their curious minds. Give them control over technology, let them figure out how it works in the environment. Let them interact with new devices and relationships with technology (Deus Ex does this well...where there is more than one solution to almost any given situation). But agency only extends so far: let the player walk too far, or give them too many things to do and you'll be spread thin in some other area: representing the world through art, game play, etc. Games have very specific verbs available to the player "Run, jump, shoot", and unfortunately some of the technology may not involve any of it "Browse Internet, Eat Sandwich, Use Little Cyborg's Room".
After my discussion with Peter, I thought about three Sci-Fi video games that got it exactly right (some more than others), and what about them made them feel so good.
1) Have your own ship. (Darkstar One)
Darkstar One was a lukewarm game for me. It doesn't let you leave said ship, only has ONE said ship, and the voice acting/graphics are terrible for a game that took 4 years to get on consoles. But once it was on consoles, it did just fine! The controls work for a complicated ship, with complicated controls. The combat is decent (early on, you get way more frantic later), the upgrading is good, and when you upgrade the Darkstar One it change appearance to match.
The game makes you feel like the galaxy is waiting for you and your little ship. Even though I lamented some of the unpolished edges of this experience, I feel limitless adventure when at the controls of a ship, with nothing to do but what I want. That sense of adventure is what comes from having a mobile home with guns and warp speed. The game lets you decide how to live your life in space, from smuggler to cop, but doesn't force you down any of them. But I did feel one thing: a striking sense of loneliness.
2) Know your ship. (Star Trek: Bridge Commander)
Bridge Commander stands as one of the greatest simulations of a starship bridge since the interface heavy antics of EVE Online. You could issue orders to crew down to such a precise level that you personally balanced shield to engine ratios, and tactical maneuvers, and scans of the area...It was nerd porn, and not just because I am a huge Trekkie. Being in a physical "ship" space gives that ship history and meaning (which Darkstar One lacked). Especially a ship made as finely as a Starfleet ship.
Bridge Commander lets you direct orders to your bridge crew in a pretty intuitive way. Click on your helmsman, and give him context specific orders. Click on your first officer and order them to throw the ship into Red Alert...etc. You really are the captain in this game, and very few other games let you have that sensation. When you watch sci-fi movies the captain is either the pilot, or if there's a bridge they're walking around it barking orders. If you ever wanted to know how that job could be harder than flying the ship, try this game. You have to be aware of the balance of shields to power to warp, know when to call off the chase, know when to set intercept courses or load torpedo bays. It's all tactics, and it's a nerve wracking good time. However, a lack of facial expressions kind of lessens the impact of quantum mines...
3) Give it weight (Mass Effect 2)
This is the toughest of the three things to include in your game. Weight comes from connecting the player to the moment, making them empathize with the goals and situations of the game and science fiction can be hard to connect people to without yet another list of things that must be included: Likable characters, believable technology, unique and interesting sitautions...etc. But in a video game it's even harder to include those things when your primary reasons for being there has to be the controller in your hand...what do you get to do? And can that hold a player's attention for umpteen hours? If you can't get the player to care, it doesn't matter if your game is in a galaxy far, far away or Elizabethan England. The game play will trump the world and all your cut scenes get skipped. How do you keep the player's interest up in the drama unfolding between the game play? Make it short and sweet.
Mass Effect 2 always did a fine job of keeping the drama in line with the action. The dialog system is stripped down from Bioware's usually verbose responses to simple one lines, conveying a general emotion. But each sentence can drastically change the future of the game you're playing. Mass Effect 2 tries hard to make sure that the little things in between the fighting carry as much gravitas as the fighting itself. Realistically all Shepherd can do it walk and shoot...and dance and drink. He can't climb, he can't jump, he can't sit. But we forgive him because the conversatons between the shooting make the game feel like there's something massive at stake. Will you choose Tali or Thane to love? Will you save the Council? There is so much asked of Shepherd that the player feels involved every step of the way.
My favorite aspect of this is Yeoman Kelly. She's the ship's Deanna Troi (that's ship's counselor for the non-initiated), and she has a bead on the emotional state of the crew. Talking to her will tell you all about her opinions on people's attitudes, appearances and more. She has almost no effect on game play, but she can have a major role in your story if you involve her in it. Mass Effect 2 lets you decide where to develop between the shooting. If Bridge Commander had Mass Effect 2's dialog engine...who knows?
So if we combined Mass Effect 2's combat and dialog with Bridge Commander's control over the ship and systems with Darkstar One's "Choose Your Destiny" galaxy map...we'd have Firefly the game and we'd all be happy. Or we'd have something new and amazing and I have a feel that it's right around the corner.
Honorable Mention: Infinite Space
This game was so close. SO close to the mark. Great idea, micro-management, giving directions to your crew, knowing their strengths, travelling wherever, building your own ships...but combat was so abysmally difficult to master, and after it was mastered the game was still either too hard or too easy or too tedious to stick with till clear. However, it is a great attempt and worth playing for the great graphics, sound and systems.