An imagined future is supposed to tell us something about the world to come, but how we imagine it usually ends up telling us a lot more about our present than our future. Here, several different science fiction writers explain how to create videogame worlds that feel timeless.
Some of the authors behind the new short story collection Press Start to Play joined us today to answer questions—including one on how to write videogames in fiction that didn’t feel dated. Here are their tips:
There’s two ways you can go about it. There’s the William Gibson way, where you describe the structure of something coming in the future and get it right - that way takes a lot of research and not some small amount of luck. Then there’s the “keep the details vague” way, where you throw in some small things that are recognizable to the reader but are also generally true to human behavior in games in general (like MMO grinding tendencies, factionalization between fanbases of different systems/games/genres, foregoing physical world needs for more in-game time, etc.).
The key thing is to use the game as a springboard to tell the story of the people who play it, and not to get so caught up in describing the exact technical details and plot stuff of the game itself, because that’s where it’ll get dated.
John Joseph Adams
That’s always going to be a real risk for writing about technologies like video games that are constantly changing and evolving. It’s almost impossible to really ward against it entirely. Probably the safest way to do it is to have something set during a very specific time period, instead of writing a story that feels like it’s supposed to be contemporary no matter what time in human history you’re reading it.
The greatest risk you’ll have something that feels dated, of course, is if you’re trying to predict what games might evolve into, and are showcasing a futuristic version of what they might be like—in that case, the vast majority of such stories would feel dated probably pretty quickly. The upside of that, though, is if you happen to nail your prediction, you’ll look like a visionary supergenius.
Ultimately I think writers should probably not worry too much about worrying about their stories lasting forever at the expense of writing stories that will resonate in the moment. There’s still great value in writing stories that will be meaningful and feel realistic to folks in the contemporary setting; the future generations will have their own literature too, of course (hopefully!), so we don’t need everything we create right now, about now, to last forever. If you can, great! But we shouldn’t be afraid to tell stories that might have a shelf life.
Great question! My best answer would be, don’t make things up? Don’t try to imagine an amazing future or near-future technology, don’t try to invent a wild new interface or crazy display tech. Get specific about time and place and be authentic about the technology...maybe these are characters who didn’t have the money to go from PS3 to PS4, so just portray that PS3 experience, the feel of the controllers, the dashboard. Everything’s going to get archaic eventually.
(oops, wrote this before seeing everyone else’s replies. but we agree!)
It’d have to be something that lies outside of any specific reference to hardware - a number of folks I know don’t know what a floppy disk is, let alone how large they used to be. If it’s not the Star Trek holodeck or a game you play solely in your brain, then that’s a tough sell... but the type of entertainment I doubt will change much (especially RPG-wise - the power fantasy of pretending to be someone else - usually more capable than you are in the real world - gaining XP, gaining strength over time and through your actions, having a huge impact on the environment and the lives of others around you whether saving the kingdom or saving the galaxy, and so on).
Definitely agree with Chris here in that it is much about the people who engage with the tech as it is about the tech itself. It’s really about finding the themes that are timeless, the commonality of mankind. For my story I played with the links between the creator and the created. A sort of Frankenstein-esque lens on games. I’m pretty sure that putting ourselves into virtual worlds is going to be around for a while. Plus I’m not especially tech savvy either, so it always has to be the human story first.
You can read the full interview transcript right here.