Truly we live in wondrous times. From upstart pixel art masterpieces to narratively ambitious, independent games that look and play like AAA titles from big studios, the gaming market has never been this diverse in its approach to science fiction. Here are three games that tackle the theme in very different ways—and touched my brain and/or heart in 2015.
Goddamnit SOMA, I can’t stop thinking about you. The way you tackle science fiction and the apocalypse (my favorites) with such outstanding narrative finesse. How creepy you are. How unsettling. Let’s be clear, SOMA: you’re not my type. Horror? No thank you. My feeble heart struggles to handle the fear and stress you so enjoy dishing out. But SOMA. Your story! It was better than any science fiction in recent memory, on film or television. You’re up there with Black Mirror (season 1) as a shining beacon of hope in what is increasingly becoming a bleak and repetitive landscape. Interstellar? OK. The Martian? Passable. Ex Machina? Decent but ultimately flawed. SOMA? A goddamn classic. Someone even recently modded the game to make the monsters non-aggressive. There is no excuse. Play. This. Game. Especially if you’re a fan of science fiction. Play it at night, with good headphones. Play it with the lights off. I dare you.
Score: Ten out of ten brain operations gone terribly wrong.
(Want to go deeper with one of SOMA’s creators? You can read our interview with Thomas Grip of Frictional Games here.)
Civilization: Beyond Earth (Rising Tide)
The Beyond Earth series was built on solid ground. A quarter century has passed since Sid Meier released the first Civilization game, and the franchise has evolved into an institution, a complex strategy system with immensely satisfying mechanics and a real sense of depth. What’s interesting about Civilization is precisely its sense of anonymity. It’s to games what the Encyclopedia Britannica is to novels, refusing to dwell on the micro in favor of the macro, and succeeding wildly at doing so. This is because Civilization has a complex, mind-boggling, infinitely diverse thing to model itself after: human history. Every little hexagon of the game’s entire honeycomb can be filled with the bizarre vicissitudes of mankind’s long journey through the ages.
With science fiction, it’s a little trickier. You have to make it all up from scratch, and even if you nail the story-line and atmosphere, it’s hard to invent whole social, structural, and cultural dynamics that walk the line between alien and familiar while remaining functional and interesting. That’s why I feel for the team behind Beyond Earth. They seem to get a never-ending torrent of flack on social media and elsewhere for having created a game with insufficient personality and lore. To add insult to injury, Beyond Earth is constantly being compared to Alpha Centauri, a title that transcended the inherent limitations of a game developed in 1999 by crafting a genuinely memorable universe.
Still, I’ve had a lot of fun playing Beyond Earth (2014) and its first major expansion, Rising Tide (2015). It’s one of the only titles that my girlfriend and I can play together for hours on end, without getting bored or frustrated. That is until my beloved realized that no amount of investment in the Harmony Affinity would ever allow her to build an alien petting zoo. That’s when she summarily ragequit and stomped around the house accusing me of being a liar. So I kept playing solo. What can I say? The game’s underlying mechanisms are sound.
Score: Seven and a half units of xenomass over ten disappointed, alien-loving girlfriends.
This game is all about eating squirrels, boiling water so it doesn’t make you sick, stabbing other vagrant travelers so you can steal their single boot, and running away from giant mutant werewolves. All of this to reach Detroit Megacity, a ruined urban nightmare where you can steal electricity to charge a laptop you found on a corpse in a destroyed office two towns back—only to realize there’s no wifi because the world is a husk of its former self. What would you do on the internet anyways? NEO Scavenger is all about the crucial importance of each individual decision: it’s a game in which finding a rifle and a couple of bullets (that are actually the right caliber) feels like an epic triumph (but still doesn’t guarantee your survival). I might encourage my American friends to vote for Donald Trump just so that I can experience this game in 3d. I can’t wait to pull a child’s sled behind me containing my meager possessions as I slowly freeze to death! Also, the combat system is very complex and satisfying. And text-based. Go figure. Created single-handedly by Dan Fedor, an ex-Bioware employee gone indie, NEO Scavenger is a dark, unforgiving, unsentimental gem. I played the crap out of this game.
Score: Eighteen sleeping bags over twenty aluminum scraps I’m not sure what to craft with.