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“Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada. Are you ready? Prepare to blast off.”
Starfighter video game introduction
The Last Starfighter
Imagine yourself inside your favorite book, television show, or movie. Not just watching, reading, or listening to it, but part of it. Making decisions and taking action. Perhaps taking on the position of major characters or villains. Maybe even the main character. What about exploring areas and ideas which weren’t focused on in the story but interest you? Sounds like science fiction. Yet it isn’t. Well, not completely.
Video games are possibly some of the truest science fiction creations to exist currently. While there are plenty of inventions and technologies we use or are exposed to regularly, most of them were predicted in one form or another in speculative fiction. Computer and video games weren’t. I suspect this is because computers were originally huge, building-sized contraptions, much too large and expensive for anyone except corporations, governments, and universities to own. Most science fiction didn’t even explore the idea of miniaturized computers. Computers were written about in science fiction, even in the position of a game referee or judge. The World of Ā (A. E. Van Vogt, Astounding Science Fiction, August-October 1945) explores the very concept. Yet no one posited the concept of the computer running the game or players directly interacting with the machine.
In 1952, A. S. Douglas programmed the University of Cambridge’s Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) with OXO, a version of noughts and crosses (also known as tic-tac-toe). The same year, Christopher Strachey programmed a version of draughts (checkers) on the Manchester Mark 1. While both games were video games in the sense the computer played one side and they displayed output on screens, they were much different from playing on a board.
That would change with the introduction of the DEC PDP-1 computer. During the summer of 1960, Steve Russell read the Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith. He thought it would be fun to be able to play the space battles from the book. Thus, the idea for Spacewar! was born. The first true video game was based on a science fiction novel series. In the game, two players controlled two ships, the “needle” and “the wedge.” The ships had limited maneuvering fuel and ammunition. The early version of the game only included the ships, but soon a star was added, making the game more difficult as the gravity affected the ship’s motion. A hyperspace feature also allowed players to warp to random locations on the screen. Originally the ships were controlled by switches on the PDP-1 but Bob Saunders built the first gamepad to make playing easier. The game proved to be very popular with students and faculty alike. Albert W. Kuhfeld wrote the article “Spacewar” about the game in the July 1971 issue of Analog Science Fiction Science Fact Magazine.
Others would see the possibilities for expanding the game to the public. Computer Space would become the first commercially available video game. It differed from Spacewar! in that it was a single player, with the computer controlling two flying saucers and there was no stellar gravity well. The game sold over 1,400 units during its production run and was financially successful. Another variation, called Galaxy Game, was also developed in 1971. The game was closer to Spacewar! with only a few changes in graphics designs and none to the core gameplay, including keeping the two-player model. Unfortunately, only two prototypes were ever built, and it was never released to the public for sale.
With the success of Computer Space, arcade games became the newest trend. By the late 1970s, machines were found in restaurants, bars, convenience stores, malls, and in special stores dedicated to them, the video arcades. Speculative fiction continued to be an inspiration to the programmer. Alien invasions (Space Invaders, 1978 and Galaxian, 1979), landing on alien worlds (Lunar Lander, 1979), and escape from alien confinement (Breakout, 1976) were all scenarios presented in the games.
As processor power and speed increased, prices reduced, and graphics improved. Space battles, by the nature of technology, were acceptable as simple black-and-white or single-color blips on the screen. Fantasy required more colors and higher resolution to be interesting. By 1982, arcade machines could produce the necessary graphics to fulfill the idea of magic and monsters. Q*bert (Gottlieb) and Joust (Williams Electronics) were both released that year. The next year would, for the first time, allow players to enter a fantasy world, but one in full color and hand-drawn animation. Dragon’s Lair (Cinematronics, 1983) allowed players to take control of the sword-wielding hero, the valiant knight Dirk the Daring as he plumbed the depths of an ancient, trap-filled, monster-infested castle in an attempt to free Princess Daphne from the clutches of the evil dragon Singe. The entire game was animated by Don Bluth, who would also animate both the science fiction game Space Ace (Cinematronics, 1983) and a sequel Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp (Leland Corporation, 1991). Interestingly, Dragon’s Lair II had sequences in the game based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, Macmillian, 1865) and the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty.”
However, arcade games weren’t limited to just stand-up and cocktail machines. Magnavox released the Odyssey game system in 1972, the first home gaming system. The market would boom in 1976 with the introduction of cartridges to contain games and systems to play them, like the Atari 2600 (Atari Inc., 1977) and the Intellivision (Mattell Electronics, 1979). Now arcade games could be played at home on the family television. Speculative fiction games like Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) with its ghosts, the nuclear destruction of Missile Command (Atari, Inc., 1980), and the famous fantasy Adventure (Atari, Inc., 1980) with the first Easter egg in any known game. Home video game consoles would continue to grow and change. Later systems would improve the graphics, sound, and storytelling capabilities. One of the most famous video games of current times, BioShock (2K Games, 2007) was based on the ideas and philosophies espoused in Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand, Random House, 1957).
As the arcade market grew, both the in-store and at-home versions, another change was happening. Programmable computers began to shrink in both size and cost. With the introduction of the Apple II, TRS-80 Model I and Model III, and the Commodore PET in 1977, it became apparent that the microcomputer was going to find a place in the home. Once again, programmers delved into speculative fiction to develop settings for their computer games. Games were developed based on public domain works like Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Mary Shelley, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818), the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and the Conan tales by Robert E. Howard. More modern books would be licensed for games. Dune II (Westwood Studios, 1992) would not only be a sequel to the 1984 film but also the first successful real-time strategy game. Other worlds, from Harry Potter to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld would also be made into games.
Once home computers could get online for a reasonable price, speculative fiction gaming expanded in that direction as well. While TTRPGs had been a staple of speculative fiction for over a decade, the depth of these stories simply couldn’t be told on computers of the time. Enter the Multi-User Dungeon (MUD). These were programs running on larger, more powerful computers that players could join online, playing with not only the programmed world but interacting with other players at the same time. Initially, these games were only text, then as computers got more powerful and, more importantly, bandwidth grew, still graphics were added.
In 1996, 3DO launched Merdian 59, the first fully graphical massively multiple online RPG (MMO or MMORPG). In its footsteps would follow MMOs based on movies including the Matrix (The Matrix Online, Monolith Productions, 2005), Star Wars (Star Wars Galaxies, LucasArts, 2003), and Star Trek (Star Trek Online, Cryptic Studios, 2010). Other MMOs would use books including Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (Eidos Interactive, 2008) from the works of Robert E. Howard and Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Aggramar (Daybreak Game Company, 2007) from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth novels.
New speculative fiction universes would also come into being, including Tyria (Guild Wars, NCSoft, 2005), Norrath (EverQuest, Daybreak Game Company, 1999), and Azeroth from World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004). Science fiction wouldn’t be left out either. EVE Online (Simon & Schuster Interactive, 2003) has players taking part in space battles, massive mining operations, and trade routes spanning the entirety of the Milky Way. The game has even been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Video games, in turn, would influence books. One of the first books to embrace gaming as a setting was Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson, Bantam Spectra, 1992). Much of the book takes place inside a virtual world called the Metaverse and deals with a computer virus that can also affect users. Other books using games as a setting include Only You Can Save Mankind (Terry Pratchett, Corgi, 1993), Otherland (Tad Williams, Legend, 1996), and Ready Player One (Ernest Cline, Crown Publishers, 2011).
It's fascinating that video games grew in parallel with computers, yet weren’t even speculated on inside of science fiction until after their invention. So often we get to see things in speculative fiction before they are introduced to the real world. That wasn’t the situation with computer games and video arcades. Predicting the future in a story or novel is always a race against what the author thinks will change people’s lives and what actually comes to pass. What other technologies were developed without speculative fiction mentioning them? An even bigger question is—What are writers not thinking of that will be invented and become a normal part of our future lives?