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Guest Editorial

The Play's the Thing

by Trevor Quachri

 

After an earlier attempt in 2006 fizzled out due to lack of interest, the first ever Hugo award for Best Video Game was given out this past December at the DisCon III, in Washington, D.C. It doesn’t actually mean there’s going to be an award for Best Game every year: the 2021 award was held using the convention’s discretionary one-time Special Hugo Award Category, so it’s essentially a one-off unless future conventions decide to make it a permanent part of the ballot, like already-existing categories such as Best Dramatic Presentation, Best Related Work, and so on, which is certainly possible.

But is it a good idea? I had the pleasure of being on a panel at that DisCon, with Ira Alexandre, E. Lily Yu, Vivian Abraham, and Leon Perniciaro, moderated by Dave Ring, that discussed its merits, and the answer to that question is more complicated than it might initially seem.

On one hand, games and science fiction have a long history together. Although various games of strategy and chance have existed since the dawn of mankind, the connection grew especially close when H.G. Wells created, played, and advocated for rules for his “Little Wars” in 1913.1 It was here that Wells’ science-fictional author’s perspective met his fancy for games as entertainment: Wells believed that his “Little Wars” could serve as an analog (ahem) for the real thing and an outlet for those who enjoyed strategy while also showing the futility of the war that much of the world was about to embark on. As Wells put it: “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be.”

Later, players of the war-games that grew out of “Little Wars” would attribute names and personalities to favorite figures and introduce rules allowing for gradual persistent growth over the course of a campaign, eventually leading to Dungeons & Dragons (also heavily inspired by fantasy from greats like Howard, Moore, Leiber, and Vance, it’s easily the subject of a future column), the first roleplaying game.2

From there, things really exploded. Video games existed prior to D&D (Pong was released in 1972; D&D in 1974), but tabletop games introduced a slew of concepts and mechanics, on paper, like hit points, leveling, and more, that vastly influenced the way we play games electronically even today.

Many early video games (like Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Galaga) had some sort of “sci-fi” motif, but usually not much else: the action you performed was not integrally science-fictional. For example: you blew apart asteroids as a rotating space ship in Asteroids, but if you were blowing apart, say, catapult shot as a disembodied magic wand instead, the gameplay would be functionally identical. Games, then as now, were typically more about giving players an experience than they were about telling a story per se. (Let’s put a pin in this idea for later; it’s important.)

Over time, games would continue to borrow the external trappings of science fiction, to increasingly better effect, eventually (arguably) crossing the threshold into “real” science fiction, albeit of a relatively unsophisticated sort. (Metroid, starring one of games’ most iconic female characters, is essentially “What if Boba Fett landed on LV-426, from Alien?” Halo is heavily inspired by Starship Troopers and takes place on and is named after a Niven-esque Ringworld.) Although the appeal to any SF fan should be obvious, the writing wasn’t the kind of thing that would merit any literary awards (even when very good SF authors—including some from these pages—were brought in to shore it up).

Today, there are a plethora of genuine hard-SF (and space opera, and hard-SF “adjacent”) games available, like In Other Waters, where you take the role of an AI monitoring a xenobiologist as they survey an alien water planet; Hardspace: Shipbreaker, where you play a worker tasked with disassembling various models of spacecraft in an orbital scrapyard without blowing yourself up in the process; Kerbal Space Program, a serious orbital mechanics sim where you try to launch cartoon “Kerbals” into orbit; Surviving Mars, a city-builder where you try to do just what the title suggests, and more. You can mine the rings of Saturn with surprising scientific accuracy or explore universes of inconceivable size if you so wish.

So it seems straightforward: games, particularly of a “science fiction, fantasy, or related subject” bent (per the award description) deserve a permanent spot on the ballot, right?

Well, let’s hit the pause button for a moment.

Everyone on that games panel quickly stumbled over the same basic question: Given all of that background, what’s the primary criterion for judging the “best” game in a given year? And what makes the Hugo for Best Video Game different from any of the other already-existing game awards given out by fans, professional game designers, and the like? Is it a “writing in games” award? The Hugos may be primarily literary, but well-written games may not actually be the best games, taken on their own merits. (Chess, for example, isn’t a lesser game because the pieces don’t each have an elaborate backstory.)3

And how do you explain what makes a good game to folks unfamiliar with them? Games are built from readily-understandable art to one degree or another—the graphics are art; the music is art; voice acting is acting, which is art; and yes, the stories in games are art—but the thing that makes games unique—the game part—isn’t so easily grasped. How do you explain Muhammad Ali’s right cross, Kasparov vs. Toparov in ’99, Serena Williams’ forehand, or Daigo vs Justin Wong at EVO 20044 to someone who doesn’t have any experience with the greater context in which they occur? The art that inspires is the punch, the strategy, the stroke, the timing, not whether there were relatable characters and a satisfying conclusion (even though those things can be a nice cherry on top, if possible, where games are concerned). Is that even a worthwhile concern? It’s not like folks who aren’t fairly steeped in SF/F are voting on the rest of the awards, so why would the award for games be any different? People who have opinions would vote; those who don’t, wouldn’t.

And what even counts as “science fiction and fantasy” in games? To use the 2021 nominees as examples, they were: Hades (an action game based in Greek myth),5 Animal Crossing: New Horizons (a cozy island-life simulator full of anthropomorphic animals), Spiritfarer (an adventure/management game about helping souls into the afterlife), Final Fantasy VII Remake (a remake of a classic science-fantasy roleplaying game), The Last of Us Part II (a post-fungus-zombie apocalypse tale of revenge), and Blaseball (a crowd-“steered” wacky fantasy baseball game). Does simply having talking cartoon animals qualify?

And what of accessibility? Games rely on both technology and the physical ability to play them, both of which can limit their overall reach (although any literary science-fiction fan, myself included, worrying about the reach of an $85-billion-per-year industry is like a guppy worrying about how well sharks are doing on the hunt). Sure, one could argue that literary science fiction also requires some investment, be it financial, educational, or physical, but the barriers are at least lower.

All those questions and more remain. Although we did reach some tentative conclusions during the panel, they were, like everything, just the opinions of some interested parties. They’re not rules or guidance, and nor should they be. But these are important questions for future Hugo committees and voters to consider for themselves, and they should be considered. If the Hugos are going to attempt to remain a comprehensive science fiction award, encompassing not just the written variety but also visual art, film, episodic programming, and various “related works,” then it’s probably only a matter of time until video games become a permanent fixture as well. That’s why it’s important to make sure that our understanding of video games and what makes them special, as well as what makes the Hugo awards special, is as clear and precise as possible.

If you’re interested in helping to ensure that video games have a future as a Hugo category, head over to https://www.gameshugo.com/ where Ira Alexandre, the primary campaigner behind the 2021 award, has compiled loads of data and the best arguments for it you’ll find.

 

Footnotes:

1 https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3691

2 The first commercially available one, anyway.

3 Optimally, the story and the gameplay can work in concert, but often they don’t—the term “ludonarrative dissonance” refers to the ways in which narrative and gameplay can be at odds. The most common example is a character who embodies the “everyman adventurer, who’s in over his head and out of his element” archetype, who nevertheless manages to shoot or outfight hundreds if not thousands of enemies, although many more subtle examples exist. Any time you remove the player’s agency in the game in order to progress the story’s plot, you’re creating a conflict. Better to not have any story whatsoever than have story that actively works against your primary priority.

4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzS96auqau0

5 Hades, which won the award, managed to avoid the queston of relevant criteria because it’s successful across the board: it’s mechanically tight, with smart, intuitive systems; excellent writing, voice acting, and art direction; an innovative blending of story and gameplay; and is available on most current major platforms for less than the cost of a new hardcover novel. One could hardly hope to set a better first example.

Copyright © 2022 Trevor Quachri

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