The Scientific Revolution: ID@Xbox's Excellence in Sci-Fi

By Mark Delaney,
A few weeks ago, I was rounding up my fellow staffers' opinions on their favorite ID@Xbox games. At one point our pseudonymous colleague Chewie offered a trio of science fiction games that he adores: The Fall, The Swapper, and Lifeless Planet. He went on to add, "Seeing my top three and things like Turing Test has made me wonder if there's maybe an editorial in ID@Xbox being the home of intelligent sci-fi games." In the time since then, I've looked at my games played list, as well as the complete list of 500 ID@Xbox games, and I've come to the conclusion that the guy who coins himself as an actual character from Star Wars had some tremendous insight into the sci-fi genre — go figure!

In any medium, be it books, movies, TV, podcasts, or games, no genre is more important to me than science fiction. Such stories paint all of my favorite things, from films like Eternal Sunshine to TV series like Westworld, and fiction podcasts like LifeAfter. I genuinely don't believe a day goes by where I don't consume some piece of media under the sci-fi umbrella. Suffice it to say I consider myself a great enthusiast, if (probably) not an expert on the genre. Looking over my list of games and comparing the science fiction on offer in the AAA games space to those found within the ID@Xbox program, there's simply no contest; ID@Xbox is the home of intelligent sci-fi. Such a distinction is earned and not carelessly assigned, but I believe anyone who has played enough of both worlds can agree.

You're asking yourself, he's not going to talk about The Turing Test again, is he? The answer is, oh yes I am.You're asking yourself, "he's not going to talk about The Turing Test again, is he?" The answer is, oh yes I am.

What makes a great sci-fi story, anyways? In my opinion, the goal of science fiction is to use a world resembling ours but is still importantly different to reveal new insights or truths. Sometimes that comes in the form of alternate dimensions or near or distant futures where extrapolation of our current trends have played out over the time in between. The important thing all good sci-fi has in common, what makes them "smart", is that they carry a meaning that invites inspection and thought that extends beyond the credits, the last page, the finale. This thematic meat is the difference between The Avengers and Moon. Both serve their purpose and neither is objectively better, but we all have taste and it's clear to see which of those two films offers more proverbial meat on the bone if you're looking to consume something that offers any post-credits benefit (other than Marvel's addiction to bonus scenes).

That same perspective can be applied to video games, too. Compare a game like Fallout 4 to something like The Turing Test. Both revolve around stories regarding artificial intelligence and how we as humans will perceive the threat of these potentially smarter beings climbing atop the cognitive food chain, but whereas Fallout gets bogged down in a thousand other things in an attempt to be a massive RPG, Turing has the ability to tell a smaller-scaled but more affecting narrative overall. Smaller games simply can't compete with a massive open-world RPG in terms of scale, but their smaller scale is ultimately beneficial.

This is where the vision of a AAA game can become a detriment for storytelling. In rightfully trying to be excellent games, they often lose sight of their own narrative foundation. I understand most people may quickly take a hundred hour RPG with mods and limitless customization over a ten hour puzzle game any day, but if you're looking for story-first science fiction gaming, ID@Xbox should be your destination.

Fallout does a thousand things really well, but telling a compelling sci-fi tale isn't one of them.Fallout does a thousand things really well, but telling a compelling sci-fi tale isn't one of them.

In other greats like The Swapper, there is a deep appreciation of the genre and a penchant for storytelling that greatly benefits from the reasonable scale of the game. Wordlessly, such a puzzler does more coherently in five hours than some series did in 90 hours. Series like Mass Effect and Dead Space get so entangled in their own lore and world-building that they quickly lose sight of the original themes of their games, arriving at different finales than what seemed to be their trajectory at the onset of each series — they failed to keep up a spectacular level of storytelling. I'd venture to estimate nine out of ten studios would take a game with a huge world, endless questing, and opportunities for sequels over a one-off game, even if it had an exceptional story. Perhaps that just means that the remaining studio is the likes of which we see appear in the ID@Xbox lineup, the likes that work within their limits and end up better for it, at least with sci-fi games.

Other titles with some sci-fi leanings like Oxenfree, or games that sadly aren't on Xbox like The Talos Principle and SOMA, may have financial pockets much shallower than things like Gears of War, Halo, and Titanfall, but for those that consider themselves avid fans of science fiction, it's obvious it's these smaller titles that actually dwarf the story merits of their inflated budget rivals. The AAA games, as exciting as they can be, don't hold up or offer much upon a closer look, whereas games like The Swapper are almost primarily made for this. Ideas of consciousness and all that it means to be alive are superficially scratched with the likes of Cortana in Halo, but it's something like The Fall that does more than just entertain for the duration of the game.

As artificial intelligence drips into our lives more and more, our own ideas of what consciousness means are being held under a microscope. We are trying to create it in these machines but we've not yet determined how we arrived at it in the first place. We are still trying to figure out such a heavy term and it's on the ID platform where games have the ability of honing in on a single theme and trying to grasp it. Whereas Halo uses science fiction largely as a setting alone so they can have interesting weapons and vehicles, games like The Fall tell more intimate and smarter stories thanks to their creators knowing their limits and turning those limits into an advantage for storytelling. Again, neither is right or wrong, but they're different. If your media tastebuds seek sci-fi brain food, it won't often be found — certainly not very coherently — in the likes of big budget action sci-fi like Halo.

One small step for gaming, one giant leap for science fiction.One small step for gaming, one giant leap for science fiction.

Of course, the small scale of these games has the potential to benefit all genres and we do see that play out in other ID works like Overcooked and Candleman, brilliant games that are made better by knowing their limitations and perfecting their smaller agendas. However, the hyper-focused vision in an ID game benefits sci-fi above all else because it's a storytelling genre that demands that nuance and focus. Works of action or fantasy often thrive on the grand scales on which they regularly present themselves, but it's close to impossible to envision a game under either genre umbrella that dials itself back and tries telling something like The Turing Test, with a cast of two and a pace that is contentedly slow. ID@Xbox games carry the connotation that they're smaller in scale and thus less exciting, but the size of a game does not correlate to ambition. We see it often that ID titles can be more ambitious than their AAA counterparts that sometimes get focus-grouped into blandness.

Without the weight of a massive budget and overbearing publishers, ID@Xbox games are free to express the unique visions of their small teams, and when those small teams have worked to create science fiction stories, the end results have been consistently impressive. Such results were likely unforeseen at the creation of ID@Xbox, but three years into the life of the program, this is one of its crowning achievements — it's become the home for the best storytelling in what is maybe the most visited genre in the medium.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.