Science fiction is littered, quite literally, with the corpses of long-dead civilizations. Forerunners, precursors, elders, the generic-ness of the names suggests that we can’t ever know the reality of them. At the same time, we cannot resist the idea of a vastly advanced race that came before us. Adding the relics of a long-ago culture to your science fictional video game gives you the opportunity to add depth and mystery to your world without the expectation that it will be resolved… Ever.
Forerunners are an evergreen tool to keep in your world building toolbox, but the idea comes with it’s own set of risks.
One of the differences between games and literary science fiction is the active presence of the player. In games (much like film or television) every little thing costs. It costs time, sure, but you’ve also got your designer, concept artist, sound engineer, gameplay engineer, texture painter, environment designer all involved trying to bring a story to life. Game players learned a long time ago that anything in a game is there with deliberate purpose. This is one of the reasons easter-eggs are so precious. They are a deliberate action, a gift, if you will.
This “every polygon has a purpose” mindset means that, like toddlers at the Louvre, game players will poke, prod, shoot, roll over, kick, pray to, finger, collect and carry about in one’s inventory for months in the (possibly vain) hope that an object will reveal its secrets. If, as a game designer, you failed to make it clear to the player that the forerunners are just part of the backstory, they’re going to burn hours on tasks that do nothing to advance the gameplay experience (or, these days, just head to the internet to see about a walkthrough). As a gameplay concept, this can work well in a sandbox style game, but if something more immediate and mission based (say a FPS), it’s going to be rage-inducing.
In fact, where science-fiction videogames are concerned, I would go so far as to say that probably 80% have a forerunner civilization involved somewhere in the narrative. Sometimes you’re simply fighting your way through the ruins of their cities. Sometimes they have left behind a technology that is essential to finishing the game. Sometimes they are the reason given to all the incredible technological advances (like flying cars and full-body regenerations).
This gives us a loose “trope-y” framework on which to classify the presence of forerunner races in videogames. By and large, you’re going to see them pop up in one of three forms.
Set-dressing. Things like ruins with mysterious glowing lights or miles of dimly lit metal corridors. Sometimes even the ground itself is an artifact, like the ring-world in Halo: Combat Evolved (widely considered to be one of the best videogames of its era) and it’s sequels. Under the set-dressing heading, I would include elements like backstory, architecture and non-useable technology. Essentially, this focuses on elements that are used to deepen the world, but that are not essential or active participants in the playing of the game.
Excuses. Ray-guns the size of a BMW that you can yank out of your hip-pocket? Doomsday weapons that can wipe out all life on the planet? Flying cars (okay, maybe not that one) but any kind of handwave-y improbable technology is often attributed to the existence of a precursor race. The technology might be useful (even essential) but any hard sci-fi fan is going to peg it as a stretch. This kind of use is different from set-dressing in that it is often integral to the gameplay itself, The players need to interact with and.or use the technology rather than it serving solely as a worldbuilding element.
Game mechanics. These elements are *essential* to the way the game is played. Sometimes it is a technological tool that allows the player to complete the game, sometimes it is a literal change in the way you think about solving problems. Players may be asked to memorize musical notation or computer code, they may need to remember that the forerunner race had no single central brain and therefore headshots on the robots they left behind will never succeed. One way or another the game itself revolves around the player’s ability to understand and problem solve around a race that’s been gone for millennia.
Last time I talked briefly about the Anthem of Creation, a prime example forerunner technology and a core piece of that particular game. This week I want to take a look at Halo: Combat Evolved which showcases two out of the above three themes. The final theme: Game mechanics, I will cover in the next article in the series.
Now, let’s be clear, Halo is a first person shooter, or FPS. The general perception of these games is that they are light on story and heavy on the “pew-pew-pew”. While may have been accurate in the earliest days of the genre, at the AAA level everything has a story. How much of that story makes it into the game is up for grabs, but I guarantee you that somewhere in the design chain, somebody has a fully realized narrative that they are developing from. “But why bother writing the story if you’re just going to shoot everything anyway?” you may ask. The reason is simple enough. Games (almost every game, but there are always exceptions) are the product of multiple people. That means different experiences, different ideas and different styles. At the AAA level it can be tricky to streamline communication and production under a single visionary. So the story, the high-concept of the game is laid out. If a decision needs to be made on something small, or something that has to happen rapidly, it can be checked versus the story and the existing design to see if it will fit.
KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Dyson ring)
In the case of the first Halo game, we are delivered onto a larger-than-planet-sized Set Dressing referred to as the Halo ring. It is an artificial ring-shaped world built for an unknown purpose by a long vanished race. It is, essentially, variation on the Dyson sphere. A ring-shaped artificial habitat surrounding a power-source (like a star). But, in the case of Halo: Combat Evolved, we are not here to examine the structure. We’re not here to figure any of this sh*t out. We are a super-soldier in an exo-suit being guided by an AI that’s a h*ll of a lot smarter than we are. It is merely the closest place for us to crash a broken spaceship. And so we do, quite spectacularly.
Of course, since we are in the middle of a combat scenario, and the guys who punched a hole in our ship are coming to finish the job, it is up to the Master Chief (our player avatar) to clear a path to what’s left of the command section of the ship. Bring on the pew-pew-pew!
But about halfway through the game, the Halo ring (which is one of seven that form the Halo Array doomsday device) goes from being Set Dressing to an Excuse. The ring itself is a tool, much like the Anthem of Creation from last month’s article, and direct intervention with this tool is key to the winning of the game.
KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Doomsday Weapon)
As we power through the narrative via a now standard set of shooter game mechanics, more of the world gets revealed to us and we come in contact with the immortal maintainers of the Halo ring. These are not precursors or forerunners themselves, but rather they are stewards and as such form another piece of the overall gameplay puzzle. The ring is being overrun by a parasitic organism called The Flood. The stewards are responsible for keeping the infection under control. The arrival of the survivors of the crash and the enemies that are hunting them has provided a fresh new source of hosts for the Flood and, of course, the clock begins to count down. You (as the Master Chief) and your smarter half (Cortana, the AI) are engaged to help activate the Halo ring, which will eliminate the Flood and save the day.
So, through the discovery of these stewards and the reveal of the ring as more than just a big, dumb, object, the forerunner technology takes a step forward from Set Dressing to Excuse.
Why Excuse rather than Game Mechanic? Because you, as the player, still don’t get to work with any of this technology. It doesn’t require you change the way you think or the way you play. You don’t get bigger, fancier shields or bigger, better guns. You now have robot friends with improbable beam weapons and have been told of some kind of super weapon you can use to save the day, but you don’t really get to use much of anything the elder civilization left behind. As a gameplay element the precursors and their technology are still just a way to explain not only the structure of the ring world but the presence of the new bad guys (the Flood), the robot friends and their beam weapons and ultimately a doomsday weapon that only a human can fire.
KEY CONCEPT: HALO RING (Busted by humans)
In Halo: Combat Evolved, we never get to the point where the forerunner/precursor technology is a central to the gameplay mechanics themselves. In games that is a much more rarified event. Here are the technology serves as a threat, it serves as a location and only very occasionally serves as a tool. In fact the climactic moment of the game involves, not the use of the advanced race’s technology to win the day, but instead the oldest trick in the book. Blowing up the remains of your crashed ship. This cracks the ring world and defeats the forerunner/elder civilization technology without the player ever really engaging with it in a meaningful fashion.
THE WRAP UP
So while Halo: Combat Evolved does a reasonable job of using the science fiction concept of an elder civilization as an underpinning for the game, it never makes the final jump to having that experience being a more intimate part of the game experience. That is reserved for other AAA titles on the market. However, within the greater context of Halo’s climactic moment, this makes perfect sense. After all, it is by reverting to the technology that the main character (and through them the player) has at hand that the the day is saved. The story of Halo at the end of the day, is that humanity’s current state, their will to survive, trumps the rationale put forth by their ancient ancestors.