Published on March 25th, 2012 | by Fraser Brown2
Fraser Brown, Xenoarchaeologist
As wonderful as these places were to me, the episodes were always restricted to small areas and the crew frequently left the interesting outdoors to venture into mundane buildings or go back to the ship. It always left me wondering what was beyond the tiny space I got to see, what would the crew find if they ventured further into these inhospitable lands?
As a viewer, we’re always going to be stopped from truly exploring the worlds we see on our screens. I think that’s one of the reasons that video games quickly became my go to medium when it came to escapism. Not only could I be presented with new worlds to look at, I could explore them myself at my own pace. But in the late 80s and then the 90s developers had, in many ways, even more restrictions than the makers of my favourite sci-fi and fantasy shows.
Modern video games may have budgets that would make Hollywood producers raise an eyebrow, but back then it was still young and experimental. Visually they were even less believable than alien sets from the 60s and generally players were still restricted to set paths, limiting them to how much of these worlds they could explore. Sure, games like the Ultima series seemed absolutely massive at the time, and thanks to the writing the game world seemed entirely believable, but our imaginations were doing much of the work.
Oddly enough, at first it was the adventure game genre — still in its golden age — that really made me feel like I was exploring alien worlds, not RPGs. I’d already known the joys of text adventures like Zork and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and they did a masterful job of scratching that itch without any visual stimuli, but when my family got our first decent PC in the early 90s it came with a Space Quest collection and it blew my mind.
Not only was Space Quest hilarious and witty — probably more so than my young mind could appreciate — it allowed me to wander through weird and wonderful planets that mimicked and satirised the locations I loved from classic sci-fi. I might have just been moving from one screen to the other, but it felt like I was really exploring these places. The fact that the “hero”, bumbling janitor Roger Wilco, could die from any number of unknown threats made it even more exciting.
There was no exposition, no warnings of danger ahead, you just kept moving forward and hoping for the best. Dying in an adventure game seems insane now, but it was pretty standard back then. These locations felt alien because the game wasn’t throwing information at me every second, every step was trial and error.
In 1992 Interplay released Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and I was as excited as a kid on cocaine. Not only could I control the Enterprise, I could control away teams and play through what was essentially the fourth season of The Original Series. It looked incredible, the art presented in the away team missions was a significant improvement on the set from the show, I was in sci-fi heaven.
I was spoiled for choice in those days, so many worlds to explore, so many pitfalls to overcome. LucasArts’ incredible space mystery, The Dig, is especially worthy of a mention. The stunning environments coupled with the fear and intrigue of the unknown still resonates with me today; which is why I still play it on rainy weekends every now and again. LucasArts’ adventure games were known for their sense of humour, but The Dig was played straight. There were moments that could illicit a chuckle, but it was no comedy. It was enigmatic and sometimes unnerving. If xenoarchaeology was a real career path, I certainly wouldn’t be writing about video games.
But as much as I loved those games there was still something missing, something huge and important, a theme integral to modern gaming — freedom. My exploration of these worlds was severely limited, usually restricted to small, separate screens. Off in the distance I could see vast mountain ranges, alien settlements and unearthly vistas, but I couldn’t visit them. The games set me a goal, my job was to complete that goal. These worlds were manufactured for a single purpose, it was a wonderful purpose, but not one of my choosing.
Then 1999 happened. If the whole apocalyptic Y2K rubbish had any bearing in reality and had gone on to cause the end of human civilisation as we knew it, it would have been okay. That seems a bit callous, you might say. But my reasoning is sound, you see, I got to play Planescape: Torment and Outcast. My appetite for huge, fully realised, increasingly open worlds had already be whet by Baldur’s Gate, but for all its magic and lore it never felt particularly alien. The Forgotten Realms is too dependent on real world mythology to really be truly different. Its cousin, Planescape: Torment, was infinitely more “out there”.
Sigil, Planescape’s hub, was insane; mixing medieval architecture with magical technology and demonic aesthetics. I was swallowed up by the loud, confusing city. The Infinity Engine had its limitations, but I didn’t care. What the engine failed to conjure, the writing managed to. While it sometimes bordered on over exposition, the dialogue was an adventure as much as the action was. Most of the Nameless One’s stats were used in dialogue consistently, so it actually felt like real roleplaying rather than a simulation of the past time. The alien worlds I got to explore weren’t just set in the physical realm, it was an exploration of my character’s psyche; one that hasn’t been topped since.
Outcast, which came out in the summer, several months before Planescape, was equally a revelation. The developer, Appeal, must have been using future tech to scan my thoughts all those years before, when I wished I could stop watching actors traverse distant worlds and do so myself. I was instantly sold by the promise of taking on the role of Cutter Slade, US Navy Seal turned messiah, in a world he knows nothing about. The game required a beast of a rig to get the most out of it, but my was it worth it. Looking at it now, it might seem amazing to imagine that it could make my eyes pop out of my skull. But in 1999 it was the most believable world I had ever laid eyes on in a video game.
This impressive action adventure game gave players multiple continents, strange flora and fauna and plenty of action and exploration. I could finally visit those interesting specks on the horizon and not be forced along a narrow path by developers keen to make sure I play by their rules. A huge amount of effort was made to ensure that players never felt removed from the experience. Even saving your game became a gameplay mechanic, rather than simply using menus without any in game context. Menus and your inventory were integrated into Slade’s futuristic visor, not unlike the Metroid Prime series. It always felt like these actions were taking place within the game. This was even more enhanced by the fact that saving caused you to alert foes to your location, should any be nearby, making it something you had to plan.
I honestly didn’t think it could get much better, or that I could get any closer to actually investigating the alien and unknown. But with the sixth generation of consoles on the horizon and the increasing power of gaming PCs, I was a fool for not having greater optimism.
Next week, I jump into the 21st century and reminisce about Silt Striders, mute women, a pig loving reporter and a whole lot more. See you on the other side.