Monday, October 20, 2014

Clarke's Third Law

Nope not Issac Clarke from Dead Space.  We're talking about Arthur C. Clarke, a prolific science fiction writer from last century.  He said a lot of things over the course of his life, but one of his most often quoted tidbits is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  Well...that's all fine and dandy, but what does it mean for video games?  Not a whole lot unless you're into world building.

Days of future past, cargo cults and post-apocalyptic settings are some of the 3rd Law's most prominent features when applied to entertainment media.  It's interesting to note that, when the apocalypse happens and when the story starts can drastically affect the look and feel of the fiction.  From the player's perspective, in Fallout it's pretty easy to spot stuff that exists in the real world.  While, in say, NausicaƤ of the Valley of Wind it's pretty difficult to recognize anything.  In some cases this is deliberate.  In Dragon Riders of Pern everything takes place on a planet colonized by humans rather than Earth.  Personally, I think there's a sweet spot such as the original Planet of the Apes movie.  It's not obvious, but observant individuals can pick up on details of where the story is taking place and how the destruction of humanity came about.  The same goes for technology.

In Phantasy Star they tend to be pretty fast and loose with what is a product of highly advanced technology and what is the result of magic.  For the most part it doesn't matter thought since the setting background is just an excuse to have robots fight monsters and wizards ride spaceships.  The table-top RPG "Rifts" takes this kitchen sink approach and tries to categorize all the gonzo setting material into magical, psychic and technological origins.  Meanwhile "Tribe 8" goes in the opposite direction, intentionally blurring any distinguishing features of tech or magic through the use of unreliable narrators.

Science might seem like witchcraft to the ignorant, but even to a learned person living in a first world country, most of the engineering principles of an internal combustion engine or computer circuit board are only understood on a rudimentary level (if that).  Sometimes the solutions to problems with various forms of technology can take on a ritualistic quality.  True story; I had a well educated uncle who every winter warmed up a fussy padlock on his barn door with a lighter before turning the key.
Neither of us knew why that worked, but it did so that was how it was done.  Of course it's easy to enlighten oneself thanks to things like public libraries and Wikipedia.  However, certain accomplishments of the past such as the construction of Hellenistic triremes or Egyptian pyramids are not well understood now days because the skills and techniques have been lost to time.  Worse still are instances when technological knowledge is a form of authority and as such becomes a closely guarded secret.  Some ancient Greek temples would utilize various tricks to astound visitors by means of hidden mechanical devices complete with gears, water wheels or even steam power.  In other words they were fooling everyone into thinking the temple had divine favor by way of parlor magic.  Granted, whenever I hear some explanation for artificial gravity or FTL travel involving zero-point energy, dark matter or some other area of theoretical physics, I kind of feel like it's the same sort of deception just dressed up in a different outfit.

Anyway, those are just a few things I wanted to mention concerning world design.  Overall, I think there's a lot of interesting directions video games could go if they decide to use Clarke's Third Law.  I'm also curious to see what upcoming titles like Torment: Tides of Numenera or Hyper Light Drifter do with it.  Hopefully the developers will take things in a direction we haven't experienced before...or maybe I should a long time.

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