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Worlds in Balance

Entry updated 14 January 2019. Tagged: Game, Theme.

Settings created for sf Games have some unique characteristics not shared with other science-fictional worlds. Most importantly, a gameworld must be balanced, meaning that opposing forces must be of approximately equal capabilities. While this may also be a requirement for an entertaining adventure story, in which the protagonist is engaged in conflict with a reasonable chance of either victory or defeat, games are much more demanding in this regard. Characters in stories may act foolishly as a result of personal quirks or to advance the plot; players, in general, will not. Thus an entertaining game requires that the technologies, armies and Superpowers available to the player must be carefully matched with those possessed by their opponents, without introducing repetitive battles which have no influence on the outcome or making available strategies which guarantee an easy victory. This balance can be symmetric (meaning that all participants have access to similar forces, perhaps with cosmetic differences) or asymmetric (in which case the opponents are radically different in abilities, numbers or both, but should still be balanced).

In addition to general criteria such as originality and emotional resonance, this encyclopedia has employed a threefold aesthetic when considering gameworlds, based on depth, breadth and balance. Here depth refers to the level of detail in which the world is specified, and breadth to the completeness of that description. A setting need not be physically extensive to be considered broad, but it should not make the player feel restricted by artificial constraints, or describe some regions in detail while representing others by simple sketches. There is generally some degree of tension between these two criteria: the deeper a world is, the more difficult it is to apply that detail broadly. Where balance is concerned, it is interesting to note how much more successful Videogames adapted from Wargames and Role Playing Games have typically been than those based on novels or films. While it is clearly easier to design a game set in an existing world than one which tries to create an interactive variant on an entirely fixed and linear story (see Interactive Narrative), it is also true that using a setting which has not been designed in a balanced way can result in highly problematic gameplay. Arguably, Forerunners and their mysterious artefacts are so common in sf games because they can provide the deus ex machina devices which are sometimes required to enforce game balance or to correct the courses of wandering narratives, a function performed in fantasy games by sovereigns, sorcerers and, on occasion, the gods themselves.

Gameworlds can be immutable (meaning that the essential characteristics of the setting can never change) or mutable. Typically, immutable worlds appear in forms such as the RPG and the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, where many players want to participate in the same setting at different times, making it difficult to alter. Some of these works, however, do incorporate overarching narratives which affect the entire milieu, as in Heavy Gear (1994), or present stories which radically revise the world as a reflection of some extrafictional event. An example of the latter type is the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventure Die, Vecna, Die! (2000 Wizards of the Coast) designed by Bruce Cordell, Steve Miller, in which the attempts of the eponymous undead sorcerer to become a god cause a multiversal cataclysm; this represents the transition from the second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons to the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons (see RPGs). Mutable worlds, however, are relatively unproblematic in settings which will only be used for a single story or series of stories, as is the case with most Videogames and Gamebooks. This raises the possibility of sf narratives of Transcendence, in which the world is changed in some fundamental, ineffable way; examples of this trope in games include Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (1999) and Deus Ex (2000).

The nature of a gameworld fundamentally determines the kinds of stories which can be told within it. While the Third Imperium of Traveller (1977) is a Space Opera setting, for example, Paranoia (1984) is designed for Dystopian humour, and Delta Green (1997) (see Call of Cthulhu) emphasizes conspiratorial horror and ultimate disaster. This is relevant to the sometimes contentious question of how morality can be represented in games. Arguably, all modern games – including Role Playing Games, Wargames and Videogames – are to some extent simulations. As soon as the world they represent begins to incorporate individual people and their societies, however, those simulations can no longer be judged on purely technical criteria. Instead, they express the artistic vision of their designers. Stories presented in the written genre, or in film or television, may suggest moral lessons or enact tragedies by describing the actions of a character and their consequences. In games, this approach is generally unsuccessful when applied to the protagonist; players often resent being forced to act out a script created by the designers, and do not feel responsibility for the consequences of actions they did not choose to take. A moral perspective can instead be expressed in the nature of the world itself, and in the effects players' choices have within it. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), for example, the player can win the game whether they turn to the light or the dark side of the mystic Force, but either choice has inescapable consequences for the player's relationships with other characters in the game, and for the galaxy at large. [NT]

see also: Game Design.

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