Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 125 / JANUARY 1991 / PAGE 76

Far stars and distant worlds; science-fiction games make the most of computer technology. (The Brave New World of Electronic Games )


Science fiction and interactive electronics are made for each other. There's something, after all, science-fictional about interactive games themselves, about the act of plugging yourself in to an aritificial world over which you exert total control.

For a while it looked as though electronic SF might consist solely of dueling spacecraft. Spacewar, one of the first successful arcade games, pitted starships against each other in a universe filled with gravity wells, stars, and black holes. Asteroids, not long after, made the universe simpler and struck a more popular chord: Give players a spacecraft and weapons, then let them blast away to their hearts' content. Arcades and video game consoles have gone far with this basic approach.

SF on computers, however, has become more sophisticated. In the mid-Eighties, for example, Electronic Arts' M.U.L.E. provided players with a more challenging universe, letting them dispatch robots to explore and establish trade. Elite, from Firebird, created a vast starscape, populated it with warriors and pirates, and sent players forth to live or die electronically.

Some companies have even specialized in SF software. Texas-based Interstel built an entire gaming universe around its Starfleet series. Fans of hard-core space combat flock to Omnitrend's products, notably the Breach line. In Breach you assume the role of a leader in an elite military outfit: Dropped into dangerous situations, it's up to you to command your troops, accomplish predefined missions, and keep yourself alive so that you can fight again.

Software companies continue to hone their skills in the creation of science-fictional universes. Electronic Arts' Starflight series offers players hundreds of worlds ripe for exploration and exploitation, along with a galaxywide mystery to be solved. Midwinter from Microplay puts you in a post-apocalypse world, challenging you to save civilization.

Virgin Mastertronic's Overlord gives you the tools to rebuild worlds and create a galactic empire. Sierra On-Line's Space Quest series gives interstellar adventure a satirical twist. Access Software makes deadly future streets come alive in games such as Crime Wave and Countdown. And Origin's Wing Commander brilliantly reinvents spaceship combat in a game that screams for a fast PC and a good sound system.

In recent years some science-fiction writers' literary works have made the transition from printed page to electronic screen. Omni contributors William Gibson and George Alec Effinger have seen their works become interactive computer games. Interplay transformed Gibson's Neuromancer into an interactive environment that captured many of the novel's cyberpunk details. Effinger himself worked with Infocom (a division of Mediagenic) on the creation of Circuit's Edge, an electronic version of the future Middle East he writes about in such novels as A Fire in the Sun. What, one wonders, might a Larry Niven or Frederik Pohl produce if teamed with the right programmer?

New technologies, of course, will make electronic SF even more convincing. CD-ROM offers the vast storage capacity of a CD, making it possible to store hundreds of megabytes of data, imagery, and sound on a single disc. With that sort of capacity you can look forward to games that talk, images that are animated with almost lifelike movements, and even worlds whose visual richness approaches that found in a television program.

Further down the technological highway we can expect virtual reality games that will let you essentially "step into" your computer screen, or fool you into thinking you've done so. Imagine sitting in your favorite easy chair and having it transformed as if by magic into the center seat of the starship Enterprise. Can Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck be far behind?

The appeal and possibilities of the new technologies, along with the increasing respectability of interactive entertainment as an art form, will go a long way toward attracting better storytellers.

As interactive electronic media become more widespread, and their capabilities more supple, we may see whole new approaches to storytelling and world building. Science fiction creates myths for a technological world; interactive SF may well use technology itself to underpin those myths. Look for the next renaissance in SF to flow, at least in part, from interactive electronics as well as the printed page and film.

Science-fiction games are indeed growing up with computer and video game technology. Next stop, the stars....