Slick spaceships and seemingly-infinite worlds. Cosmic battles and alien encounters. Whether it’s No Man’s Sky, Stellaris or the Mass Effect series, science fiction in games is an often irresistible opportunity to try to convey the breadth and scope of the universe. In space, everything is larger than life; the vistas are more expansive, the conflicts more consequential and far-reaching. It’s one of the strengths of the genre, certainly, but it has blind spots too. Who, for example, could keep track of individual people and locations in these expanses, and the ways in which new technology impacts them? It’s easy to lose sight of what grounds most humans in their everyday lives: the familiarity of recurring faces, revisited places.
In the past month, three games have subverted the perennial love affair between sci-fi and the thrill of grand scale. Instead of being let loose on endless spaces, the players are confined to clearly delineated structures that bear the marks of the people living in and moving through them: the space station of Tacoma, the cramped apartment complex of Observer and, the most extreme case, the train car of Subsurface Circular, which the player never gets the chance to leave. In fact, you never even leave your seat.
The spaces of Tacoma and Observer come alive through their accumulation of detail. Even though the player rarely or, in Tacoma’s case, never really encounters another human being face to face, the density of discarded items not only makes it easy to imagine these spaces as inhabited, but even makes them seem haunted by the lingering presence of people you’ve never met. In the tight living conditions of Tacoma station, where space is valuable, the things these characters chose to surround themselves with – the posters, books, musical instruments, sketches, letters – reveal a lot about the people they belonged to, the relationships they cultivated, their everyday routines, interests and concerns. These things add texture to what would otherwise be a bland, soulless structure defined by technology and corporate interests.
Observer’s spaces are far more anonymous than Tacoma’s station. Its apartment complex is a dehumanising place, a labyrinthine hive of refuse, broken screens and torn down walls masquerading as living spaces. Most inhabitants are stuck behind their doors due to a lockdown, appearing only as disembodied voices and distorted, magnified eyes on the screens of intercoms seemingly pieced together from bits and pieces of archaic technology. Over all this grime and misery, there are projected slick holographic images of door numbers and advertisements. It has an improvisational feel to it, the look of a structure continually and desperately repurposed to allow for some sort of survival, ill-fitting parts taped together to form a monstrous composite. And of course, since this is a world of augmented eyes, holographs and frail mental states, all of this is filtered through a fickle perception that adds to and distorts everything you see and proves more and more unreliable the further you progress into the game.
Like a palimpsest, a manuscript in which earlier writing has been effaced by more recent additions of text, the apartment complex of Observer consists of multiple layers that are almost impossible to pry apart. Newer technologies and structures are superimposed on existing ones without making the latter completely invisible. The old is imperfectly overwritten, and traces remain that suggest the troubled history of this place, and, by analogy, the sick consciousnesses of its inhabitants and protagonist.
Tacoma, too, has its layers and holograms: in any given location, the player can conjure the “ghosts” of Tacoma’s crew by accessing the station’s AI and its surveillance recordings. These ghosts in the machine appear superimposed on the actual spaces the player is moving through, walking and talking like actual persons, but naturally completely oblivious to the player’s presence. After a while, past and present seem to blend, and they stay separate only through a conscious effort on the player’s part. Every space has several overlapping levels that must be explored in tandem. As in Observer, these layers suggest a depth of history in the places the player explores. Observer, of course, has its own spectres that haunt both the living and the dead. The scrambled, corrupted memories of the murdered people whose minds the protagonist hacks into are full of apparitions and visions of the past. But some of the ghosts the protagonist encounters in the minds of strangers are his own and, again, it can be difficult to tell them apart.
Subsurface Circular is the most focused game of the three. It takes place entirely within a single train car, a space that isn’t there to be explored, but instead more like the stage of a mystery play – with an all-robot cast. As a detective robot, you interrogate other robots that enter the train to find out more about a case involving missing robots. All of the machines have been assigned some specific function by the Management, from athlete and librarian to soldier and priest.
The robots are colourful personalities and all of them have something to say, but the question remains whether they possess genuine agency or whether their behaviour is entirely predetermined by their hardware and programming, which the Management can delete or change on a whim. Despite this ambiguity it becomes clear that these robots possess real consciousness, their own culture and even religion, but their programming limits their agency and determines how they can behave, even regulating their motivation towards certain actions.
Take the athlete bot, who signed a sponsorship contract and is unable to give you the information you need because their programming only allows them to talk about a certain product. Only after you suspend their “brand awareness modifiers” does a normal conversation become possible. Ostensibly a detective game, Subsurface Circular is more interested in the ways technology and society's pressures influences behaviours. In the end (vague spoilers!) the detective’s examination determines the fate of this society, without the robot ever leaving the train.
Tacoma and Observer, too, tackle pertinent themes that gain focus through their restricted scope rather than being limited by it: questions about our place in a reality in which human beings are gradually replaced or transformed with robotics, artificial intelligence or augmentation in the interest of progress and corporate agendas. They all engage with the impacts of rapid technological developments on society as a whole, and the ways in which our perceptions, behaviours, relationships or economic circumstances may change. These games succeed not simply because they are enjoyable and unusual experiences, to varying degrees, but because they approach the grandeur of the high technology from a ground-level perspective. Science fiction in video games works beautifully when it presents this more intimate, microcosmic view on speculative futures — and resists the allure of boundlessness.