Think of those ugly, malformed crystals you could grow with a kid’s chemistry set at home but much bigger. How big? Think miles. And no one knew they were coming because one day they were simply there. As if they’d always been there, you know, like some dusty forgotten ornaments of the atmosphere.
I am nostalgic about those days, the last good days, because I like to think the fear of the unknown, of the uncertain future, was still tinged with optimism.
Governments confirmed our visitors were not here to do harm but neither were they here to help. No green energy. No cancer-curing medicine. The blue-skinned aliens of the orbiting crystal colonies visited, observed, studied and sometimes hung out for a chat. Few of us were comfortable with the official, benign story; the aliens surely had some reason for coming here en masse. We waited for something to happen, for the aliens to show their hand.
I still don’t know whether the aliens had benign or malignant intentions for our planet, because it didn’t play out like we expected. Another colony arrived, bringing news of a plague that had taken root amongst their worlds. Although the aliens put on their best blue face, details were thin and we knew they were anxious.
The end started when our two worlds mated: a colony slipped from orbit and plummeted to the surface. I think the bodycount was in the thousands, not including the aliens aboard the downed colony. I have no idea of the numbers there. But not every colonist perished and… that is how the infection came to Earth.
Looking back, it’s obvious that the plague was more virulent than the aliens revealed and the crash was the first sign that they had lost control of the situation. Our governments looked to the aliens for help but with Earth now in the grip of the same plague they had been fleeing from, the aliens made for greener pastures. How strange that both their sudden appearance and sudden disappearance could cause so much fear and alarm. Their absence was their last communication: your species is a lost cause.
I believe their civilisation has probably fallen to the plague like ours has, out there in darkest space, colonies waging private wars between the plague vampires and the uninfected. The plague infects slowly and you never know which ones amongst us are turning until it is too late. Several of our group concern me, some are healing their wounds faster than I would expect. Two of our number are blues who were stranded after the colonies took their leave abruptly; I believe they are both carriers.
The clock is ticking. It is only a matter of time before we all know the bloodlust…
When I woke up from this dream I thought it was an awesome idea for a short story which demanded to be written. But when reality filtered back in, I thought: “Alien vampires… really?”
My dream factory has plenty of source material to draw from. Mired in my subconscious are memories of the Buck Rogers episode “Space Vampire” and the flawed sci-fi film Lifeforce. It’s important to note that my dream painted in big, chunky brush strokes, all big picture setup yet little actual plot. The story is derivative and thin.
It’s not the first time this has happened and it’s always annoying. I experience an amazing dream, awake possessed with the urge to turn it into a novel then discover the whole thing is unoriginal. It has no plus to sell yet I shudder with creative adrenaline for the better part of a day.
If I’d read the above passage on someone’s website, I would probably think: nice try, come back when you’ve got some ideas. But the fact is I’ve experienced living through the end of the world via alien vampire plague. Between the dark of sleep and the light of waking, the dream survived in waking memory for a short, terrifying instant, but quickly floundered as the external world flooded in. Ah, it was all a dream. Thank Christ for that.
I wasn’t the passive consumer of a movie or a book, but a participant in a gripping drama. In sleep, I was able to overlook some of the loopholes in the plot and put aside the fact that it was not contiguous, seemingly jumpcutting across space and time. Living the story elevated its mundane plot, unworthy of print and HTML, into something more dramatic.
Okay, so, videogames.
Delphine Software’s Flashback was the first game I played outside of interactive fiction that pushed a story more complex than a single sentence like “stop the bad guys” or “save the princess”. I was engrossed in every little twist and turn through to its eventual conclusion on an alien planet. Half-Life was also very special to me because whereas Flashback made me feel like I was exploring a movie, Half-Life put me inside one.
But the stories in these games have no meat and the majority of them are spent in fetch quests, in puzzle-solving, in trap-escaping and in gunning down opponents. Our experience of agency seems to flesh out the story, putting weight behind cut-scenes or scripted moments we’ve worked an hour or more for. Without agency, there’s no participation, no interactive hook to snag the brain. Thus, when videogames are translated to the silver screen, they need a lot additional narrative work to fill in for the missing player experience.
We have forgiven game stories for being so empty because we are allowed to be inside them.
It’s not that simple, of course. The more games we play, the more familiar the thin tropes become and our expectations keep rising. Stories have evolved to the point where it is now commonplace for reviewers to write about story and critics to deconstruct meaning. It begs the question whether games like Planescape: Torment are great stories in their own right or whether we’re just being kind because it was fun to be there.
But let’s not be so binary about it. There’s a third option. We could posit that games are something else like we’ve being saying all along and best used for crafting stories that are not cinematic or literary in nature, that don’t work in other media. Because is it fair to reduce a game to its story? Isn’t that destroying its true nature? Isn’t it just proving the ludological reductionist case of “games are rules not story” if you assume you can lift out the story elements intact?
So maybe we should think about games a little more like dreams, as a composite experience instead of something we can slice and dice into pieces that don’t make sense in isolation.
Further thoughts for the reader
- What does this mean for games with “low” interactivity such as Dear Esther or Dys4ia?
- Laura Michet wrote about games as dreams in 2010.
- We often think indie games give us more nutritious stories than BrainShotgun IV, but this may be down to expectations. Sometimes we don’t look for messages because we don’t expect them and the same happens in movies as well. Matt Singer, in a piece called “Breaking the End of ‘Source Code’” was surprised to discover his own dark interpretation of the film’s ending was the one envisioned by the film’s director, Duncan Jones.
- Aping cinematic conventions has long been seen as a stopgap, with cut-scenes bearing the unspoken implication that story is something to paint onto the core game. Cart Life succeeds not by creating a game with a powerful story but by creating a game that is a story.