I’m going to open this short essay by recommending that you go here and download MDD Clone, a commendably-light (the download comes it at around 500K) program which allows you to play all of Novagen’s classic Mercenary series on a modern PC. Not only small but undemanding system-wise and thus perfect for the “slower” end of the PC market. Go on, play a bit of ’80s sci-fi gaming on your netbook!
Some of you have probably heard of Mercenary which caused more than ripples when it was published on both 8-bit and 16-bit formats in 1987 (although Wikipedia tells me it was published on the Atari as early as 1985). The player takes control of a “space cowboy” who, in a short opening sequence, crash lands on the planet Targ where a state of war exists between the native Palyars and the invading Mechanoids. The only real goal to the game is to escape the planet, the player’s ship having been wrecked on impact leaving it jammed into the ground looking like a badly mis-thrown dart. Everything is rendered in wireframe 3D and shown from the player character’s perspective. Things start-out with an offer to buy an aircraft for getting around the planet (the crash having occured right next to the runway on which said craft sits, handily) and with an offer of work from the Palyars. After that it’s up to you.
Now, Mercenary has rightly been retrospectively and rightly classified as a “sandbox” game in which play is not linear and a wide open area (in this case the only city on the planet Targ which extends both over and underground) is accessible from the start with the player free to make money how they want and side with who they like. However, that’s not all that’s interesting about this game.
You see, Mercenary‘s setting and general “feel” invokes a type of game environment and scenario which was everywhere in the ’80s and yet has since petered-out to the fringes of gaming – that of the traditionalist sci-fi.
I should explain what I mean by this term (which, to be honest, is a bit vague). In the ’80s and early ’90s, most sci-fi games were heavily influenced by two things: the popular literary and cinematic sci-fi tropes (notably the works of authors like Isaac Asimov and films like Star Wars) of the previous 30 years as well as the then-recent Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. What this lead to is games which were intended to invoke the expectations of their (usually) young players and reflected the cultural background of their 20 and 30-something programmers – gleaming silver and white towers, huge glittering space-stations, hulking great star ships, funny often-friendly aliens, a sense that these were fascinating worlds to be explored and gawped at if not (thanks to the influence of Hitchhikers) to be taken necessarily seriously. It was hard to do all this with the limited technology available, of course, but games like Mercenary, Driller and Elite all gave it their best shot.
Then, something changed, and that something had its origins, ironically, in the 1980s.
There had always been a small tradition in sci-fi of pessimism, notably in the works of Philip K Dick who portrayed the future as grimy, hostile and full of damaged, flawed people – frequently drug-users who had unhappy private lives. Dick’s works were directly responsible (not least through a film based on one of his novels – Blade Runner) for the rise of a new sci-fi movement in the early ’80s – Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk took all the traditional sci-fi ideas and then removed all the optimism. Post-cyberpunk the towers aren’t gleaming, they’re dirty; the space stations only glitter from a distance; the giant starships are for fighting ugly, destructive wars of attrition and the futuristic worlds are hostile and frightening as much as they are fascinating, usually governed by lawless, profiteering corporations rather than democratic governments. They reflected a postmodern, often negative age and, slowly, they began to affect games.
There was a game based on Neuromancer, one of the definitive cyberpunk literary works, by the end of the 1980s but you have to go to the ’90s to see the genre start to really take hold. Shortly after the last of the Mercenary titles was published Frontier, the long-awaited sequel to Elite made its appearance. Frontier effectively straggled the old and new – it retained the sense of scale and spectacle which Elite had but it removed the Hitchhikers’-ish humorous universe with its strange and silly inhabitants and replaces it with a more realist, less jolly environment. There are no aliens (except a rumoured single alien vessel), the galaxy is divided between a democratic “federation” and a totalitarian royalist “empire” and the corporation-run systems, existing as little more than one of several interchangable “government types” in the original game, feel more at home here. After that came the adult arcade-adventure Dreamweb, the dystopian Beneath a Steel Sky and the post-apocalyptic Fallout. By the end of the ’90s, science fiction games weren’t about gleaming spires and tongue-in-cheek aliens, they were about grimy “realist” environments and the aliens were almost-universally violently hostile. The space-suited protagonists of the early games also gave-way to cynical anti-heroes in aviator sunglasses and trench coats. The change was even manifested in box art. Compare, for example, the classic sci-fi look of the cover art for 1987‘s Amaurote with the art from late ’90s games with a similar theme. The influence of early, optimistic science fiction was slowly dying a death and being usurped by the newer, more cynical, more dirty post-cyberpunk asthetic.
And despite the most famous aspects of this aesthetic themselves looking dated (nothing says “90s” more than a trenchcoated computer hacker wandering round a rain-sodden futuristic American city) the atmosphere and attitude they brought with them continues. Play any modern sci-fi themed game and you’ll see dirty industrial environments, red sunsets, aliens that want to slaughter you, muscled gun-for-hire protagonists, all-powerful corporations with any comedy being cynical gallows-humour rather than whimsy. If you want to find the spotless, minimalist environments; the future as awe-inspiring rather than dystopian and the sense of the universe as mildly absurd and want to find these things hogging the mainstream then you have to go back to the ’80s. So download MDD Clone and relive those days. Then go back to trashing aliens amidst the ruins in Fall of Man.
(Oh, and given that this is a bit of a waffle by me to cover the fact I’ve still not finished writing the Tai Pan article, feel free to argue I’m wrong in the comments)