Sci-fi game or Sci-fi wrapper: how many “sci-fi games” lack a sci-fi narrative

The magic of science

Science fiction is one of my favorite themes within video games.  The tales of science and technology beyond our understanding is fascinating to me.  When speaking of technology and our comprehension of it, British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously noted “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”, an adage which has stood the test of time to be known as one of Clarke’s three laws.

The utilization of advanced technology and scientific principles is what gave the Europeans such an extreme advantage when conquering the new world.  In 1504 Columbus and his crew became stranded in Jamaica.  As tensions mounted between his men and the Arawak Native Americans who had been supplying them with food in return for trashy goods from the new world, Columbus decided to exploit his access to advanced scientific knowledge to broker a deal with the Native Americans.

In order to negotiate that they be cared for until a rescue envoy could be sent to retrieve them, he used an almanac, written by Regiomontanus, a german astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician.  The almanac had become a mainstay for all sailors at the time to help them navigate via the stars.  In it he discovered that there was an upcoming lunar eclipse, and claimed that the christian God, upset with the native Americans for not helping the sailors, would block out the sun to illustrate his wrath.  Sure enough, the lunar eclipse came and using science that appeared to be magic, Columbus terrified the native Americans into agreeing to continue to care for the sailors.

Sci-fi in video games

In video games science fiction has often been used as an art style or gameplay element rather than as a true theme. Below are some examples of how games that have appeared to be sci-fi in nature have often been about something else entirely.

  • Cartoony fantasy with future tech: Popular franchises within this category are Pikmin and Starfox where space travel and technology are employed to color the game worlds, but are not used to question or reflect on the science or tech behind it. Instead these games rely upon tropes like warp drives, planetary scanners, laser weapons, and space suits to inform the player of the theme.

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  • Post-apocalyptic earth: No franchise better represents this approach to sci-fi than Fallout. Although the narrative is about an alternate, future human timeline, it uses sci-fi to tell a cautionary tale of how technology and warfare can lead to the total destruction of humanity.  In this way Fallout’s theme is actually less about an exploration of the future and technology and more about the follies of man and could be considered to be more of a post-apocalyptic themed game than a sci-fi themed game.  This pseudo sci-fi theme is a reflection of the video game industry’s current fascination with post-apocalyptic themes.

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  • Apocalyptic war between humans and an inhuman alien force: Diving deeper into the apocalyptic pool we have games that use the cover of a sci-fi theme to tell the story of how humans, using future technology, must fight off an inhuman force.  Franchises which fall into this category are Gears of War, Halo, and even games as far back as Space Invaders.By dehumanizing the aliens the humans encounter, portraying them as barbaric, aggressive monstrosities, or making their intentions purely malevolent, these games’ narratives remove the moral conflict associated with taking a life and reduce intergalactic relations between alien races and our own to a kill or be killed binary. These games while wrapped in future tech are actually games whose narrative focus is war, with the weapons and methods of warfare being of little consequence to the game’s story.

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If you liked this article be sure to return for my upcoming sci-fi articles, Mass Effect Andromeda: Sci-Fi immersion, Mass Effect: come for the sci-fi, don’t leave because of the shooting.

What do you think of sci-fi as a theme in games?  What is your favorite sci-fi game? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis of how sci-fi has been used in the above mentioned games? I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please respond to the thread for this article, or talk to me through my email or any of my social media:, FacebookTwitter.

Play Professor is the blog of ludologist and video game journalist Andrew Mantilla. You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.


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