Science fiction. It’s a genre all about man’s eternal struggle against space aliens, cyborgs, and people with British accents in very large flagships. Or, you know, about things larger than humanity, about exploring the unknown, and about the sense of wonder at exploring strange new frontiers of a world similar to our own but unfamiliar at the same time. It’s a chance for us to step beyond the boundaries of our own world and into the great beyond just a few paces at a time.
But it’s mostly the cyborgs and flagships. That stuff is really cool to watch.
WildStar is a science fiction game. But it takes more than a few cues from a show that also had the audacity to lend a lot of the wild west to a deep space setting. It’s hard not to pick up on the Firefly vibe from the previews, after all. But it’s been very illuminating to see what the designers have to say about influences and the direction they want to take the game’s storytelling because it’s very different from other science fiction games on the market right now.
See, there’s one firmly reiterated idea from the game’s developers: that WildStar should not be an interminable slog through a layer of grim seriousness. There should be some jokes, some humor, some moments that wind up just provoking a smile rather than a deep contemplation of the universe. When rounding up feedback on what makes something science fiction, the staff outright stated that Firefly was a major influence on the tone of the game as a whole. Not even close to a surprise, no, but even so.
This is going to turn some people off because we are now in the era when science fiction is allowed to take itself seriously. It’s always done so, of course, but right now we have to distance ourselves from the time when it was goofy. Buck Rogers is out and grim-faced men in front of spaceship viewscreens are in. The remake of Total Recall doesn’t feel the need to include ridiculous action movie one-liners because it’s telling a serious story.
You don’t have to look far in the MMO space to see that science fiction is Serious Business. EVE Online isn’t a place of humor, unless you find sniping at defenseless mining craft to be funny. (A lot of people do.) Star Trek Online is driven by the dangers that the Federation faces, closer to the later parts of Deep Space Nine than the goofier ones. PlanetSide 2 is all about a global war, Firefall is set against a colorful backdrop but focuses on colorful ultraviolence, and while I never played Earthrise, scowls seemed to make up about 90% of its facial expressions.
If you want to chuckle, go play a fantasy game. This is science fiction, and we are adults.
This makes me sad. Yes, science fiction as a genre has always been more than capable of being serious, but it’s also capable of being laugh-out-loud hilarious. From a literary standpoint, it’s a genre that likes to explore human beings as we progress onward in our development, and that encompasses a lot of different emotional reactions.
More to the point, good science fiction finds time for laughter and levity even amidst the seriousness. A lot of well-known dark science fiction is in short story form because it’s almost punishing to read — I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is a bear to get through because it’s so relentlessly depressing, and it only clocks in at 13 pages or so. Having one note at all times wears on your quickly.
So WildStar doesn’t want to be forever scowling seriousness against a backdrop of grim darkness. And there’s a lot of room for seriousness there amidst a bit more lighthearted fare, with stories and threats to match.
Is that reductive? I don’t think so. I think it’s more reductive to have a setting devoid of humor.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the major parts of science fiction as a genre is placing human beings in a different setting and letting things play out. The sense of wonder comes from the alien, but the human part comes from, well, familiar human nature. And there’s more to human nature than just sitting and grimacing until something horrible happens.
Firefly is being used as an example because it hits the right notes. The core of the story is just people surviving in a harsh environment, which fits the inhabitants of Nexus right on down the line. You’ve got a deep divide between two groups of people, both with a lot of bad blood but more in common than you might think at the end of the day. And there are always bigger things moving in the background.
But it’s also a story in which people get to act like people. Sometimes people are silly or greedy or absent-minded or just plain dumb. There are heroes like the leaders of the Exiles, and then there are the denizens of Protostar Corporation with no real stake in anything beyond getting your cash.
These two things can coexist. More than that, they can occupy different space as the story demands it. Protostar is pretty ridiculous, but I can easily imagine Dominion players deaing with a project on the planet’s surface that’s gotten out of hand and threatens the planet in a serious manner. Or Exile agents trying to help a landholder pay off an unfavorable contract before those thieving corporate bastards try to take back the homestead. And then after you’ve done that, you go back to your home where a cheerful representative tries to oversell you on supplies you won’t conceivably need with a big smile and an absurd degree of patter.
It’s a game of variety, is what I’m getting at. And having more of it is good in the long run.