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Exploring Sci-Fi Games: A Q&A with Strangeland's Mark Yohalem

We go in-depth with Mark Yohalem, writer on games including Primordia and Strangeland, about his fundamental views on science fiction and how games can help advance the genre.

Exploring Sci-Fi Games is a Game Developer interview series from critic Cameron Kunzelman, who asks game makers the big questions about theoretical and applied science fiction.

I’m doing these interviews for a couple reasons. The first is that I’m an academic and my specific interest is the intersection of science fiction and games, to the point where I am currently finishing a book on the subject. The second is that I think that video game culture needs a record of the thoughts and opinions of its science fiction talent talking about the genre that they work in. There are thousands of interviews that you can read with prominent science fiction authors or filmmakers, but one has to look hard (and, often, get past the promotional speech for the most recent game they’ve worked on) to identify these creatives in the game space and to find their real insights about the genre.

These interviews are all edited selections from longer interviews, and I specifically instruct my interview subjects to follow their impulses. What comes out are fascinating organic discussions, and I’ve already learned so much about the genre and how it interfaces with games.

Mark Yohalem has written and designed two of the most interesting and fantastical modern adventure games, Primordia and Strangeland. In the wake of the latter’s release, I asked Yohalem to sit with me to talk through some of the design decisions he’s made with the games and how he understands science fiction and its relationship to the broader universe of speculative work.

This interview goes to many places, from broad understandings of the science fiction genre to specific ways that Yohalem and the Wormwood Studios team used visual strategies to intrigue the player in a science fiction setting. What I was struck by in the interview was how clearly Yohalem thought through the various ways that science fiction can provide opportunities for games, especially when it comes to player agency within strong, designed controls. I think there are key lessons here for learning how to design richer, reflective stories for players, and obviously it works: Primordia is considered a modern classic for a reason.



What is science fiction to you? How do you define it? How do you engage with it, and how do you draw a line between it and other fantastical modes?

Like all nerds, I’ve probably been thinking about the divide between fantasy and science fiction my whole life. Since you sent me this question, I’ve been trying to think of an answer. By day I’m a lawyer, so these kinds of definitional issues are important to me professionally, but it’s very difficult.

You could take a cladistic approach and you could just look at the traits. Then you could say, “well, it’s fantasy if it’s swords and magic, and it’s science fiction if there are laser guns and psionics; it’s fantasy if there are orcs and dragons, science fiction if there’s aliens and spaceships.” That kind of works, but it is so obnoxiously reductivist, and it feels like that can’t be the answer. There has to be something philosophically different and not just the window dressing. At some point, someone said to me that the Iliad was the prototype for fantasy and the Odyssey was the prototype for science fiction. I was thinking about that, and I’m just not even sure what that means!

strangeland1.jpg
Strangeland

So I scratched that. The best I could start to do was to think about this famous essay by Ursula Le Guin called “From Elfland To Poughkeepsie.” It’s a really good essay, and she talks about fantasy and the “high mimetic style.” She writes about the way that traditional fantasy, pointing to Tolkien as a modern example of that, was about elevating certain aspects of humanity, timeless aspects of humanity, and presenting these types and paragons. People speak in an elevated manner, and certain values are stereotypically depicted. She thought this was the right mode, and she was very critical of what she saw in fantasy during the time she was writing, which was basically people behaving they would in Poughkeepsie but with the window dressing of swords and magic that I was talking about before. Since Le Guin actually wrote fantasy masterpieces and science fictional masterpieces, I figured that she’s a thoughtful person and that there’s something there.

The best I could come up with is to say that science fiction is about dislocation. Both fantasy and science fiction are, to me, telling you something about the world right now. Science fiction does it by dislocating, so it takes things that are familiar to us today, but puts them in a setting or condition or technology that dislocates them from the familiar and lets us explore how those familiar things operate if you change those other variables. Those variables might be “now the world is ruled by robots” or “aliens have abducted you” or whatever it is, but fundamentally you’re looking at the here and now with these dislocating changes.

Fantasy is about elevation. It takes concepts and elevates them in a way that makes them allegorical or symbolic, and it’s trying to tell you about the present by taking the familiar and elevating it. It’s not particularly dislocating, setting aside the Narnia crossing over settings. It’s not about the guy from Poughkeepsie who shows up in Mordor. It’s about these timeless aspects, or purportedly timeless aspects, of humanity put on display and examined. The lessons you draw from that fantastical setting can then be applied to the here and now.

So that’s the best that I can come up with a methodological or philosophical difference, and of course when you start applying that it becomes very messy. Is Star Wars fantasy or science fiction? Game of Thrones? I don’t really know the answer to that. That’s the best I could do. Maybe the best answer is that lasers are science fiction. [laughs]



I think you’re in good company with that definition! The science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany had a similar definition early in his career. I’m curious about what you think the political implications of that definition are. Elevation seems to carry with it a holding onto the past, and I think we could critique Tolkien for a certain strain of fantasy conservatism. Do you think that there are inherent political capabilities associated with these genres?

I think it’s fair to say that Le Guin was a progressive thinker and writer for her era. She was very concerned with power differentials, gender issues, and race issues. Often she was frustrated by things like Ged [the protagonist her Earthsea novels] being depicted as white on a cover when he was brown in the text. But she wrote both science fiction and fantasy, and I don’t think she’d be writing fantasy if its sole function was Goldwater conservatism. I think she viewed it as having progressive possibilities, and I think she’s right. Every ideology needs its values and heroes, so methodologically, I don’t think there’s anything conservative about fantasy.

But the primary form of fantasy that is out there is the pastoral medieval fantasy, and I think there is an argument that when the thrust of it is, like, saving the Shire from the outside world, then, yeah, there’s a basic conservatism inherent in that premise. It’s not ultra right wing, but it is little-c conservative.

primordia1.jpg
Primordia

Science fiction can be extremely conservative too. How you dislocate things in a science fictional setting can either be meant to highlight some inequities in the present or to make a burlesque or a grotesque out of something you want to Other in the present. Ayn Rand worked in science fiction. She was not doing that for progressive reasons. Some of Heinlein’s science fiction is very conservative, some of it is less so. So maybe there’s a little bit of a tilt.

I don’t know.

As a Jew, I remember reading and being a little dismayed at an article (written by a Jew) about how there’s a lot of successful Jewish science fiction writers but not a lot of successful Jewish fantasy writers. It seemed to me not really true. Guy Gavriel Kay is Jewish, and he’s very successful. It seemed to me that the definition of what was fantasy had been gerrymandered in a way to achieve that result. A little alarm bell is going off in my head, which is: depending on where we draw the line between fantasy and science fiction, we can support the thesis that one or the other is more progressive.

The last thing I will say is that early science fiction seems to have been fairly closely associated with progressivism. Wells, Verne, and Huxley were part of a very clear political valence. I guess what I would say is that descriptively it might be true that we might find more progressive science fiction than in fantasy, but I’m not sure I think it is inherent as opposed to historical accident.



In the Primordia developer commentary, you talk quite a bit about influences and practical matters of development and how you solved specific problems. What were the problems or concepts from our world that you were “dislocating” into that science fiction world?

In the game, the protagonist has a religion that is called Humanism. It’s not what we call humanism. His is sort of a pastiche Abrahamic religion in which “Man the Creator” has replaced “God the Creator.” Humanism in our world sense was the core ethos that I wanted to promote to the extent that there was something that I wanted to promote in the game. Humanistic values.

The benefit of doing robots is that you do have that dislocation. Issues that otherwise would map super obviously onto present day political disputes, rightly or wrongly, are not going to happen as much when you’ve got robots. So, for instance, the universality of humanness means something different when you have robots. They all have these very different chassis and designs or whatever. When you talk about humanism in the context of machines, it’s a different question.

Overall, I see the course of the game as being a thesis, antithesis, synthesis for the protagonists in which the ultimate settling point is a sense of openness to others. A sense of the dignity of others. And a sense of restraint. I think more generally, or maybe more specifically, the game has a pretty strong pacifist message. If it’s not ultimately a true “let yourself be slain by your enemy” pacifism, it is at least a very strong one with a high threshold you would need to cross before violence would be acceptable.

This is spoilers for a game that’s nearly a decade old, but the protagonist is an android that was a partial download of an AI from a warship that was a doomsday device meant to destroy the last city on the planet with people living in it. The warship overrode its own programming to prevent itself from destroying the city, crashed itself, and then downloaded itself partially into this android. The arc of that character is like: how does a being that is hardwired to destroy recreate itself as a being committed to creation and care for others? The arc of the game requires that character to go to the very city he was programmed to destroy, and he has this sort of hardwired antipathy for the city. When he gets there, he’ll often default to the callous, means-to-an-end actions of something hardwired for destruction, and then he has to exercise this override to get himself out of that mode.

The takeaway that I hope players get is that you have a character who starts as an intensely, independent, libertarian kind of “get off my doorstep” hermit who then, by the end of the game, has gotten past that to the point where he is accepting refugees from the city to join him at his home. The final message is that he realizes the tasks he had set for himself were too much to do by himself, and that a collective approach would allow him to do them.

I’m trying to think of a pithy way to put it, but to me those humanist, modest, and anti-violent values are all woven together. Authors who have been inspirational to me in that regard are people like Primo Levi or Italo Calvino. I could keep listing authors, but I don’t know if that would advance the cause of what the message of the game is other than “try to restrain yourself a little bit.” [laughs]

primordia2.jpg
Primordia


This is an interesting place where science fiction and games are running into each other. You just pointed out one of the endings of the game, but Primordia has several different endings. In one of them, you can embrace the protagonist’s nature as a murderer and kill off many of the characters. It seems like the adventure game genre that you’re working in makes the game experience a little more fractured and less knit-together than a Le Guin novel. The medium of the video game seems like it alters how you have to work in science fiction. Did you find that liberating? Constraining? Beneficial?

I don’t think it is required by the medium because the overwhelming majority of adventure games have one ending. We certainly could have forced the player to make what I think of as the right decision, but then it would not have been a decision at all.

To me, there are two reasons why the player is given the choice at the end. One is that I think the most powerful thing game storytelling can do is giving a player agency and thus making a player complicit in the narrative. It just means a lot more when you, the player, actually makes the choice not to do X than when the game makes that choice for you (or make the choice to do X). Either way, to me the coauthorship you have with the player when you do that heightens the quality of the narrative from the player’s experience.

The second thing is a bit of a trick to pull off, and I don’t know that we did pull it off. But the reason that I want different endings is to let the player, to some extent, to ascribe their own meaning to everything that came before. A valid interpretation [of Primordia] is that, at the end of the day, there’s no overcoming your own wiring. It’s not the world I hope we live in. But that is a legitimate way to look at the story up to that point: robots, and human beings, maybe don’t actually have the free will to overcome the way our brains are made. Maybe destroying the city, which was the fundamental thing programmed into Horatio, could only be avoided by destroying himself, which he attempted to do. Sort of the extreme Odysseus tying himself to the mast. At the point where he put himself into a position where he could carry out that core logic, there was no stopping himself [leading to the “bad” ending of the game where everyone is dead].

That, to me, is a grim world, but it is a valid way for the story to end. So giving some flexibility so players can take the story and give it different meanings is a nice thing about games.

The one thing I tend not to like to offer is the complete good ending. A number of players felt that it was frustrating that there was no ending where you save the city or reverse the apocalypse and usher in a utopia or something like that. To me, there is no good ending in reality. There’s a process of doing good, and it’s something you have to do constantly. It’s like entropy. You can’t do something and then reach a conclusion, and having successfully concluded matters, everything is fixed and you don’t have to do anything further. That kind of an ending is ultimately not that appealing to me from a messaging standpoint. The messaging I would rather have in the games that I make, and I know they’re heroic on some level, but the heroism is like: ok, you’ve finished this 24 hour period of struggle and you did it with dignity and decency. Now it’s tomorrow and you have to pick yourself up and do it again. With both Primordia and Strangeland, to me, the ending is having a character oriented closer to the correct path, but it is not an end. You’re still on that path and have to continue on that path, and keep making the course adjustments necessary.

I don’t know if that’s inherent to the medium of games. If anything, I think games tend to end with a period rather than a semicolon, or they end with an exclamation point. But I think I’d rather my games end with a semicolon.

I’m curious about the visual imaginary of Primordia. Cinema has its own way of doing science fiction. It has edits and shots that define how science fiction is depicted. I wonder if the shape of a science fiction game is different than a western game. Something that really sticks out to me in Primordia along those lines is the initial reveal of the Goliath [a giant, buried mech] where we start on the left and slowly pan to the right in a way that is very different from how most adventure games look. There’s a formal, stylistic way that it shows up. From your perspective as a designer, were there visual strategies that you thought were important for establishing Primordia’s world?

It’s funny, because the scene that you mentioned is one of the few places where I can definitely say that was me rather than Victor. Originally, that scene was quite different visually, and different how the player entered the room. There’s this sculpture in Washington, D.C. that I saw when I was a kid called “The Awakening,” and it’s a giant, screaming human being who is mostly underground. There’s like an arm and a hand and a head that are positioned in such a way that the body appears to be subterranean. It had a super strong impact on me when I was a kid, so I pushed for redoing how that scene worked and the panning-in idea. In some ways, it makes absolutely no sense from the character’s perspective, because of course the character has been walking towards the giant robot for however long it took to get there. That’s what they’re looking at. There’s no surprise to them now that they’re 20 yards away from it. But from the player’s standpoint, I thought it was a way of heightening the impact and the scale of this artifact.

The part when you enter Metropol and Horatio uses the energy sensor, I think that was also my idea, and it was a similar idea to give a sense of the verticality of that structure. But I will say, generally speaking, the visuals are Vic’s conception and execution. He’s an amazing artist who is very steeped in cinematic and fine art traditions, and also just pop art stuff. He’s an omnivorous consumer of excellent art. You just happened to ask about the one thing I can take credit for.



I’m thinking too about that brilliant shot of the train to Metropol and how that does such a great job of operating as an establishing shot, which I don’t normally associate with adventure games.

Earlier I said that I was a little bit surprised that people wanted there to be sequels or a larger universe, but we deliberately made it so that the edges of what you see in the game are interesting and ragged edges. So it always seems like there is something more, whether it is catwalks in the background, whether it’s an establishing shot that shows regions of the city you don’t get to, or the metro map which has 45 subway station names. The information kiosk allows you to look up information about a lunar colony. We wanted to create an illusion of something more substantial than there was.

I think the establishing shots do that, and I think the lore in the world does that. I think it helps make the game feel like more than just an amusement park ride. Although I guess I will say that really good Disney rides do the same thing. They give the implication that if you could only get off the track that there would be all sorts of other things that you would see, though in reality there is nothing beyond what you see on the track.

Maybe this is sort of a necessity in science fiction. If you set a game in New York City, you don’t need to prove to the player that there’s anything more to New York City than what they see in the game because everyone knows that it is a big city with lots of stuff in it. But if you want to sell people on the idea that Metropol is the last great city on Earth, you need to prove it. You can’t just assert it and expect the player to accept it.

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