Image By Flickr user: JBLivin
Dark. Vast. Alien. Alone. Each of these words can inspire fear, as well as describing fears in and of themselves. Indeed, being cold and alone in the darkness of an alien place is perhaps the sum of all fears for many. Yet what is essentially the ultimate combination of these sobering thoughts is the backdrop for many of our most beloved games. That backdrop of course, is outer space. Space enables the exploration of many themes, but these are its pillars. And failure to adequately represent them, has caused many a problem in our space-based scifi games.
Something is always lost when sci-fi game series stray from the aspect of space that most heavily informed its gameplay. It’s true that gameplay should always come first, but the setting must inform the new as it did the old. Otherwise it creates a disconnect; a distinct sense that the game is missing something important. Such issues are of course present games with settings besides space, but because it’s pillars are easily discovered, it is in the realm of space that such lapses are most easily noticed and most keenly felt. So much so that, even otherwise great games cannot escape the consequence.
Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 are widely held up as great additions to the RPG genre. They each had a good story, rounded characters, and engaging gameplay, but players of the original Mass Effect probably felt something was a little off in both games. Plot elements aside, almost all the important aspects were present, all except one: its scale. The vastness of the galaxy had been lost in the transition between games. The ability to skirt around the galaxy map was still there, but gone were the uncharted worlds! It was the emptiness and isolated nature or these disparate chunks of rock that pressed upon us the vastness of space and just how empty and inhospitable it can actually be. Once that was removed, we were never faced with that again. Our missions became self-contained, and the galaxy became that much smaller for it. It tried to make up for it by emphasizing darkness in the plot, but the new theme wasn’t able to entirely replace the old. The Mass Effect trilogy is still excellent, but because the games stepped away from showcasing the vastness of its universe, it lacks the grand sense of scale the first game tried to create.
This can be seen in the Dead Space series as well, though the declining theme wasn’t vastness, but isolation instead. In the original Dead Space, Isaac Clarke was a silent protagonist. He wasn’t so much a character as he was an avatar that we could project ourselves onto. We, through Isaac Clarke endured the choking solitude of the Ishimura’s dark halls. With Isaac becoming full character in Dead Space 2 however, this would not remain the case. Isaac was still off by his lonesome for much of the sequel, but it was definitely Isaac Clarke methodically picking his way through the Sprawl, not the player. He was there with the player instead of it feeling like the player alone, which in turn took away some of the ever-present dread from the first game. Dead Space 3 took this a step further with the introduction of Carver, a partner character. So not only was Isaac accompanying the player through the game, but it was implied that Carver was there as well (always just out of view). Again the sense of isolation was reduced, and the remaining fear-factor along with it. Like the Mass Effect series, the Dead Space games remained good, but they lost some of what made them special in the first place.
This was the case with Metroid: Other M as well. The Metroid series was founded on the theme of the isolation of space. One that had, up until that point been almost unwavering in its commitment to it. Much was changed in Other M. Some hated the gameplay/plot while others embraced it but the controversy surrounding the game centered mostly on the characterization of Samus. While some accepted it, many others were outraged. Exactly what was wrong with her varied from person to person, but all detractors agreed her characterization was bad. This was the first time Samus had spoken or had character development, so it wasn’t simply giving her a personality that prompted the reaction. I suspect it had more to do with the jarring shift of her role and the circumstances. Rather than adventuring alone, Samus had suppoting characters and answered directly to Adam, a former CO. So right from the beginning, the series’ trademark sense of isolation was thrown out the window. An action cemented by making Samus a full character rather than having her act as an avatar for the player as had always been the case previously. Unlike Mass Effect or Dead Space, Other M leaped away from a core theme of its space setting rather than lightly stepping away from it, and as a result still isn’t seen in a favorable light by many a Metroid fan.
Setting must inform gameplay and if that isn’t the case something is always lost from the experience. For the games mentioned here, the concepts of isolation, vastness, and darkness were paramount. Each of these series steps of varying degrees away from these themes and each suffered an equivalent loss. With so much else that goes on in game development, it’s understandable that such oversights would be made. Afterall, in the case of these games, it wasn’t leaving the player alone in the empty void of space, but keeping them there that was the problem.
Did you notice this in these games? What about other games in with other settings?