Well two topics seem to be pulsing around the blogosphere lately: 

Wherefore art thou Sci-Fi MMO? 

 And Joseph Campbell bashing.:

Topic 1:  Why so much fantasy and so little Sci-Fi

One thing I disagree with on some of the comments folks have made regarding the lack of Sci-Fi is the misconception that Sci-Fi is more difficult to pull off.  I don’t think that’s true at all.  I think the biggest reason that Sci-Fi is in such limited supply is that it’s an extreme niche genre – especially when contrasted against fantasy.  It just doesn’t have the universal appeal that fantasy does. Fantasy also has the huge advantage of being a major part of classical literature.  You can ask people of all ages if they’ve ever heard of: King Arthur, Merlin, Zeus, or Snow White and they’re almost all going to say “yes.”  Now ask those same people if they know the following set of characters: Ripley, Arthur Dent, The Mule, or Captain Sheridan and you’ll probably get blank stares from most of them.  I know my folks would know all of the fantasy characters, heck even my grandparents would’ve known them, and they would be clueless about the second list of characters. 

Part of the issue is that there just isn’t a classic/literary Sci-Fi repertoire universally used as reading material in schools. Whereas Shakespeare, which incorporates a lot of fantasy elements,  is pretty much required reading in High-Schools and Universities. Greek and Roman mythology is taught in grade-school.  And a plethora of children’s stories and fairy tales that are used to teach “moral lessons” even at the pre-school level.  Somehow I just don’t think “The Pokey Little Processor,” or “Where the Wild Nerds Are” would end up popular children’s stories… So the fantasy context starts building at a very young age and the archetype is very well understood by pretty much the entire Western World. The same cannot be said for Sci-Fi, and it probably never will be.

All that being said, even though Sci-Fi is niche, it’s a pretty big niche. Much bigger than say Cowboys and Indians, although probably not as big as daytime drama (soap opera). One day in the not-so-distant future some “Young & The Restless” MMO is going to hit the market and out-subscribe WoW. But again, this will take writers, not quest developers, to create – a lot of the existing MMO game mechanics would fit right into the daytime drama schema. I mean really, I’ve seen more dynamic characterization in some MMO’s than I’ve seen in some popular soaps.  

Two good Sci-Fi MMO’s that I’ve played were Anarchy Online and EVE Online.  AO would’ve been even better without some of the sword carrying and pet-summoning characters.  I mean really, who believes there will be melee combat in the future? Unreal Tournament has a better model for futuristic combat. It’s all about ranged combat – but swords have an immense romantic pull to them – everyone wants to be a swordsman.  As for the “metaphysicist” in AO, why can’t they just have been tamed or cybernetically controlled animals instead of some mystic summon from the psyche of the character, bleh. The Engineer and Bureaucrat were better models for a Sci-Fi pet-class – robots as pets. All of the seemingly “magic” effects were attributed to nano-bots, which is at least semi-plausible.

And then there’s EVE.  Here you don’t have an avatar per-se, you control various space-ships. This is a pretty good mechanic, and is has been used successfully in the past – I know I’ve played single player games like this, but can’t remember them off the top of my head – it was a Long, Long, Time Ago… Anyways, EVE is one of the better Sci-Fi offerings out there because it doesn’t try to incorporate the fantasy element in any way (no swords, no magic effects to explain away, etc.)  And it’s open ended enough, players can somewhat imagine that they’re in whatever futuristic universe they want, whether it’s Aliens, Star Trek, Foundation, B5, whatever.  Of course they’re not going to see any evidence or relics from those universes, but it’s outer space without a border so it’s easy to imagine you’re in whatever universe you want.

The future of Sci-Fi MMO’s, in my opinion, is probably going to fall into three genres; Outer Space/Ship Centric (Like EVE), People Centric (like AO and other “typical” MMO’s), and a derivative of that, Mech-Centric (Like a BattleTech/MechWarrior/Terminator style MMO).   I haven’t seen a good implementation of the Mech Centric genre, but I’m sure it will hit the shelves soon (crossing my fingers).  The biggest hurdle would be trying to combine these models, which for some of the most popular IP’s would be essential.  Many popular Sci-Fi universes have two main mechanics: Flying Spaceships, and Character development.  Battlestar Galactica has a very “easy-to-implement” dual model here.  When onboard one of the “rag-tag fleet” ships, you’re in “person centric” mode.  When Cylons or what-have-you attack, you move into Viper “Ship centric” mode. Of course some folks are going to want to pilot the fleet ships, but too bad.  Unfortunately Star Trek doesn’t have large “carrier” style spaceships, so that particular universe would probably have to use the EVE mechanic, with an added “away team” style mechanic to implement the character development.  Basically, you’d have to level-up two avatars: your ship, and your character.  Mechs could be handled in a similar fashion to how characters are managed.

Topic 2: Does the hero’s journey suck?

The short answer is “no.”  And after reading some of the … stuff … written about why “it sucks,” it’s clearly a case of not understanding, or refusing the call if you will, to understand what Campbell’s work was all about.  Campbell never said that “good” stories, or just certain narratives contained similar elements.  What he showed through his work is that ALL stories contain these elements, so to think that you’re going to somehow write some “new and improved” or “original” story without any of the narrative elements that Campbell describes would be impossible.  Not to say it isn’t possible to write material without any of those elements, but that kind of writing is what constitutes dictioneries, math books, almanacs, etc – that kind of writting is not a narrative story.

The reason these elements are “universal” to all stories, is that they refer to life events – and every story describes at least one event in some character’s life. It’s not a “formula,” it’s reality – the way things work in stories. Something as simple as “he ran.”  Contains several possible elements of Campbell’s work. 

The biggest misconception of his work from the above links is that they keep referring to his work as if they were some kind of “rules.”  They’re not rules at all, they’re observations.  There’s a huge difference there.  Rules are something that must exist, observations are things that may exist.  The interesting thing about Campbell’s observations are that all stories, universally, contain some of his observations.  That’s what his whole life’s work was about, describing how stories work, not how to build stories.  Again, there’s a huge difference between those two poles.    The authors of the above blogs have both committed the same logical fallacy as: Jim is a man; Jim is black; All men are black.

Now I can see some of where this “it sucks” attitude is coming from, and that is where writers have misused Campbell’s work and started treating his observations as “rules.”  And they keep doing it, because it does seem to work in creating somewhat appealing stories if they follow a those “rules.”  What (bad) writers have done is instead of just writing a story for the sake of telling their own story, they’ve started analyzing their story to see how many elements of JC’s observation’s they’ve included and if they’re in a logical order.  Campbell never said a story had to be told in a particular order, but he did use a logical/chronological order to present his observations in a more accessible format for the lay-person. And he never said that a story had to include ALL of his observations. What he did say, is that all stories contain some subset of his observations.

Anyways, the main point here is that you cannot have a story that doesn’t contain elements of the hero’s journey.  Subsets of that mechanic are present within all stories – that was the whole idea behind Campbell’s work, to find what ideas are universal to stories – not what stories are universal.  I challenge anyone to find a story that doesn’t have ANY of Campbell’s observations. And I do mean stories, random words and letters do not tell a narrative story.

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