Morlocks & Eloi | Science Fiction and The Diverging Evolution Of The Gaming Public
For a very long time, there was absolutely no consensus on what to call the thing that's now known as Science Fiction. When the work of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells rose to prominence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the literati of Western Civilization knew they had something different on their dainty, uncalloused hands, something whose epic scope was similar to the fantastic mythologies humanity had been spinning since time immemorial, yet was distinguished by the fact that everything it portrayed was, at least in theory, possible. The worlds crafted by Science Fiction pioneers featured heroes of Arthurian bravery and Promethean will, but their powers weren't bestowed by supernatural agents; it their own intellect that carried the day. For most of humanity's tenure as the dominant species on earth the stories men and women told each other were of the distant past, a prelapsarian age when gods and spirits intervened directly in the affairs of mortals, who themselves existed in a purer, ideal form present humans are but a pale facsimile of. Stories about the future, to the extent that there were any, were about the end of the world we know and the return of the age of heroes. They were about the gods and heroes that abandoned us returning, and the cataclysmic upheaval that would restart the world in a better state, like it was an uncooperative computer. The concept of progress, as we know it today, did not exist. There was harmony and there was discord, there was turmoil and there was peace, but the betterment of humanity as a whole, without supernatural intervention, was a nonstarter. That changed with the Enlightenment, and with the idea that the world could be understood through rational inquiry came the notion that humanity could improve its lot in this life. It was easy to be optimistic about science prior to the horrors it birthed in the World Wars (colonial subjects of the European powers were way ahead in that regard) and tales of using science to conquer death and explore the universe flourished. But what to call them? Several names bounced around: Future Fiction, Scientifiction, Science Fantasy, and Fabulation among them, but my favorite pre-consensus name for the genre that would eventually give rise to beloved classics like Dinocroc vs. Supergator—and one that you still hear bandied about from time to time—is Speculative Fiction.
It's a very Sci Fi description of what Sci Fi writers do: They're speculating, they're projecting, they're trying to identify current trends and extrapolate them into the future as a means of commenting on the present. (What will the future be like? Will we still have governments? Will we still live on earth? Will we still have bodies? Will we still wear clothes on those bodies? How much of our bodies will those clothes cover? Turns out it's surprisingly little!) Take H.G. Wells' perennial 1895 Speculative classic The Time Machine. To the untrained eye it's a straightforward swashbuckling adventure about a man who journeys into a grim future and tries to save the beautiful but childlike Eloi from the monstrous Morlocks, but to the eye that has brains it's an allegory about the world H.G. Wells saw in 1895, and the ruinous direction he believed it was heading in. To H.G. Wells, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, the economic conditions of 1895 laissez-faire capitalism had created two social classes whose conditions were so radically different they would eventually split along evolutionary lines. By the year 802,701 the Time Traveler journeys to, the privileged, sedentary upper class has evolved into the beautiful, idiotic Eloi, while the underprivileged, exploited lower class has evolved into the intelligent but predatory Morlocks. In the novella the Morlocks and Eloi enjoy a relationship that technically qualifies as symbiotic, but is devoid of all humanity. The Morlocks use the Eloi as cattle, clothing and feeding them until they grow into good feed stock, then stealing them away to eat them. It's a grim, but refreshingly candid vision of a world shaped by nothing but class and market forces, as well as one that was largely ignored by mainstream culture, which preferred to read The Time Machine as a pure adventure story.
In 2014 H.G. Wells' vision seems more plausible than ever, with the things that join us as a society steadily eroding while the things that separate us grow ever more pronounced. Everywhere you look these days it's have nots and haves, underprivileged and overprivileged, 99 percent and 0.0001 percent, Morlocks and Eloi. It's happening in politics, in economics, in pop culture, in religion, in education, in diet, and even, I'm willing to speculate, in video games. (I apologize)
The gaming public has always been psychotically overeager to divide into judiciously segregated cliques, but for much of its history l33ts and n00bs still played the same games, the only difference was who got to enter the initials/three letter obscenity of their choice into the high score screen. In the period since then the video game market has fractured exponentially, balkanizing into subgroups and subgroups of subgroups, with designers making video games with an increasingly narrow appeal directed at an increasingly fervent audience; still, no matter how specialized subgroups of gamers become, the division between who video game developers are courting is the same as it's always been: you have your casual gamers over here, and you have your hardcore gamers over here. We're still in the same groups we always were, the difference is a matter of degree. In the process of having our different tastes catered to, hardcore gamers and casual gamers are splitting off in evolutionary directions so distinct from one another that we could eventually arrive at completely different ideas of what a video game should be. (Assuming we haven't already.)
The casual players are growing more casual than ever before, and the hardcore players are growing more hardcore than ever before. Getting into gaming has never been easier, getting acquainted with gaming esoterica has never been more difficult. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of Alpha builds, it is the age of pick up and play, it is the epoch of multiplayer games being confined to only the most elite players, it is the epoch of everyone playing games with their friends on their mobile devices, it is the season of early access, it is the season of eternal patching, it is the spring of free-to-play, it is the winter of microtransactions, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us, we are all going direct to Heaven, we are all going direct to Hell—what I'm trying to say is there's conflict. Two groups exist with irreconcilable goals. I probably should've just said that.
On one side stand hardcore gamers. The wall separating developers from hardcore gamers has never been so thin, with crowdsourcing turning gamers into venture capitalists and early access turning them into volunteer Quality Assurance personnel. Releasing a major game that's “finished”, whatever that even means anymore, has become a luxury even the biggest developers and publishers can no longer afford. Every game ships with a day one patch, and everyone who plays a major title within the first week of its release is effectively drafted into the Quality Assurance Corps. Many hardcore gamers have embraced their new role, and playing the early access Alpha build of a game has become a badge of honor, bestowing cred similar to the kind furnished by playing an insanely difficult roguelike, a retro-flavored indie game with period-appropriate difficulty, or a game with punishing reputation like Dark Souls. Don't be surprised if, several years in the future, you make an offhand remark about playing a newly released game called Rust and hear someone incredulously respond “Rust?! You played that game after it was done?! Man, I didn't know you such a pussy.” Please remember to thank them for illustrating my point when you're done punching them. Incomplete games like Rust and DayZ have the benefit of siphoning off
Griefers and Powergamers that would taint otherwise enjoyable games, but we delude ourselves if we think such undesirables are the only people Alpha builds appeal to. There's something naturally alluring about buggy unfinished games. There's an organic feel to them, playing an Alpha build is like exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization that have been partially reclaimed by nature. The influence of human design in a game like DayZ Alpha can only be partially felt, and there's a beautiful melancholy in interacting with an artificial world that's partially subsumed by chaotic forces, a feeling similar to what Urban Explorers are chasing when they venture into the abandoned ruins of Detroit to see the great edifices of man being slowly consumed by time, weather, and nature. It's a feeling that's complex and intense, both traits that are markedly absent in the casual gaming scene.
As easy as it was to pick up a controller and play the original NES, it required some degree of effort on the player's part, and if they didn't immediately hurl the controller down in disgust, they were inevitably introduced to some species of video game arcana, which is why I can say “Our princess is in another castle!” or “It's dangerous to go alone!” or “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left,
Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start” and assume you'll immediately know what I'm talking about. Quick, without looking it up, can you name three Angry Birds? (Don't worry, this isn't a test.) Yes, there's the circular red one, the triangular yellow one, and the small blue one(s), but they have names. Do you know what they are? Time's up! (I lied. It was a test, and you failed.) The red bird is named Red. The blue one(s) that splits into three is named Blue Jay, Blue Jake, and Blue Jim, respectively. The yellow one is named Chuck. Don't feel bad for not knowing. (or do) Games like Angry Birds are made to be disposable. Angry Birds may have spawned cartoons and plushies and several theme parks of varying levels of legality, but Angry Birds is too casual an enterprise to merit the kind of emotional investment that has you committing a character's name to memory. If Angry Birds was a prostitute, you'd tell it “I'm not paying you to talk.” then you'd go to jail for having sex with birds, unless you're in Florida, whose state bird is the Northern Traumatized Warbler. Games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush and Bejeweled and Fruit Ninja are engrossing and addictive, but they're trifles, they're distractions, they're ephemera, designed to engage without being engaging. They can still be well designed, but the experience they seek to cultivate is antithetical to what hardcore gamers want.
The gap continues to widen. Where will it end? Anything I could say would be pure speculation on my part. (I am very sorry.)
Science Fiction has always been better at describing problems than positing solutions, but it took a long time for Sci Fi writers to learn that the genre is at its best when it's descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Early Sci Fi is rich with beloved classics, but their overtly didactic messages seem silly today. Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis is beloved for its cinematography and Art Deco design, while its story about the conflict between a decadent upper class and exploited lower class is more tolerated than revered. Metropolis' ending, where the film's hero has the leader of the workers shake hands with the leader of the managers with the accompanying text “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN THE HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!” has aged very poorly. A
more fitting epigram might be “YOU CAN ALWAYS PAY ONE HAND TO CHOP OFF THE OTHER HAND!” but such sentiments are of their time.
H.G. Wells himself proved he wasn't above confusing a scribe for a soothsayer when he published The Shape of Things to Come, a book of speculation on the course of world events from 1933 to 2106. In 1936 he helped adapt the book into the film Things to Come, another movie more beloved for its design than its message, which was conveyed via a series of ponderously turgid speeches. Likewise, if a pioneer like Wells were to address an issue like today's divide between hardcore gamers and casual gamers, what he'd say would be highly dependent on whether he happened to be wearing his author hat, or his prophet hat.
As RobotAcid so eloquently pointed out recently, gamedevs are dadgum fools to think they have nothing to learn from a game like Candy Crush, whose predatory free to play model can obscure but not invalidate sound gameplay mechanics. Ideally, game developers aiming for a casual audience and game developers aiming for a hardcore audience would learn from one another, but projecting current trends into the future is not a recipe for idealism. Portents of doom, on the other hand, always speak to the present condition. In that spirit, let us revisit the far flung era of the year 802,701 and encounter a world of video games that is very different, yet in some ways, not unlike our own time.
802,701 AD is a grim and savage time. Casual gamers, known as Ka-Gas, are no longer tethered to the finite batteries of mobile devices, but for a reasonable monthly fee they tap into a global psychic network of entertainment, video games, pornography, and poorly written conspiracy theories about how 9/11² was an outside job. Known only as Mindhole, the psychic network is able to judge whenever a Ka-Ga has a moment of free time, then automatically tap into their nervous system and induce a fugue state, freeing their conscious mind to play Flappy Bird: Star Wars vs Twilight. Most Ka-Gas spend their non-gaming time attending to the vacant bodies of gaming Ka-Gas, especially since a recent update has them violently soiling themselves whenever they beat a level. Every other waking moment is spent beating back the encroaching horde of hardcore gamers, or Ha-Gas.
In what came to known as The Great Gamification of 777,776, every self-identified Ha-Ga retreated from a surface world they condemned as “irredeemably nerfed” and built a vast underground network of electronic gaming that they categorically refused to call a LAN party, even thought that's more or less what it was. There, in catacombs bathed in the ghostly light of LED screens, the Ha-Gas waged the most brutal e-sports imaginable, forming an e-society based on e-Social Darwinism. From the moment their young were secreted into the nursery crèche to the day they perished in their ergonomic gaming chairs, the Ha-Gas lives were consumed with the pursuit of video game excellence, yet all that changed when a misguided attempt at overclocking the earth's core resulted in lava flooding into their underground network, forcing them to the surface, where they wage a savage war of attrition with the Ka-Gas.
Hey, this would make a pretty good video game.