Elf, dwarf, dragon, tavern.
Space pirate, FTL jump, space cruiser, space junk.
I’ve just summed up the settings of 50% of the science fiction and fantasy novels in existence. And I’ve also summed up the settings of 90% of Western* science fiction and fantasy video games.
These numbers are fictitious, of course, but I choose them to illustrate a point. High fantasy and space opera** are probably what most people associate with fantasy and science fiction, respectively, but they are a long way from comprising the entirety of the broader genres. On the other hand, they dominate gaming both old and new: to name just a few examples, consider Heroes of Might and Magic; Warcraft and its spinoffs; Master of Orion; Star Control 2 (as I discussed here); and Mass Effect, which I have running in the background as I write. These traditional settings can be done very well – Star Control is among my favourite games – but it should still be asked: why are they so prevalent?
In the case of fantasy, I suspect this is because the influence of D&D still runs strong, particularly in the RPG genre. And in any case, the situation is getting better; game developers are increasingly looking to the “modern” crop of epic fantasy authors for inspiration. At the AAA end of the spectrum, Dragon Age is pretty obviously influenced by George R R Martin; at the indie end, not only is Dominions 3 based off real-world mythologies (as I described here), but there’s even a minor spell inspired by the T’lan Imass from Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. In another ten years, we might well see games inspired by Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, or Patrick Rothfuss.
Science fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t have that excuse. Sure, there’s probably a good reason why we don’t see hard science fiction games, but that still leaves a huge gulf. Where is the post-apocalyptic (other than Fallout and its predecessor, Wasteland), the near-future Mundane SF, the cyberpunk, the post-cyberpunk? Even when it comes to space opera, we mostly see the “classic” variety featuring a dozen alien species, but humans who are exactly the same as they are now, just with FTL drives. Where are the transhuman space opera games, with societies characterised by mass use of biotech (e.g. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cetagandans; and the Abh from Crest of the Stars), AI, and/or cybernetics?
As a result, there’s a lot of untapped potential. Imagine a Ghost in the Shell knockoff where, like a 2050s version of 2K’s upcoming remake XCOM, you had to solve cybernetic/AI-related crimes around the country, gathering evidence of a master scheme along the way. Or a Europa Universalis-style strategy game where you had to manage political cohesion across an interplanetary, or even interstellar, nation, in the face of social change driven by biotech/AIs/the Singularity. Or, as I mooted a few months ago, a steampunk version of Space Rangers 2 in which you could fly an airship around the world, fighting pirates, embarking on quests, and playing mini-games. Originality wouldn’t even be the commercial kiss of death, if Dragon Age (over in the fantasy realm) is any indication.
Again, game developers, I throw down the gauntlet. You’ve let me play Aragorn and The Lady, Johnny Rico and Han Solo and Mon Mothma. Now let me play Motoko Kusanagi and Miles Vorkosigan and Prince Alek of Hapsburg. You’ve already created so many worlds of wonder for me; surely you can show me a few more varieties?
* Japanese games might have their own clichés, but they’re not the same as those favoured by Western developers.
** For the purposes of gaming, I’m lumping together military science fiction and space opera.