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012: Alternate History and Science Fiction

By sneaking past the giant peacock, our heroes are able to take a moment to consider their place in history, and ponder what could have been different.

Games talked about in this episode:

  • 1:38 Bioshock
  • 7:41 Rocket Ranger
  • 15:57 Metal Gear
  • 16:33 Metal Gear Solid
  • 19:50 Wolfenstein 3D
  • 21:39 Savage Frontier

Tim Broadwater

Alternate history, historic fiction, kind of the what-if scenario, a branch off of history; I know this has become a very popular genre in gaming. And I know that we’ve talked about things like mortal engines or savage frontier, Man in the high castle or hunters. And so want to kind of pick your brain about what are your thoughts about that genre. And I don’t even know if the name is correct. I think it’s also referred to as alt-history, like alternate history, alternative history, Alt hist. Ah, but it’s also sometimes called speculative fiction. I think steam like not steam works. But um, steampunk is generally kind of this in general. So anything that steampunk is, it’s kind of in this genre, or sub-genre, per se. But taking it back to games, the ones that stand out to me the most, the ones that are the most memorable to me, are Bioshock. This is the 1920s. And people are dancing, the Charleston, and then there are flappers, and there’s bathtub gin. You’ve got the Moxie. What I love about Bioshock is that it’s like okay, in that time period, when you think of like, the money in the United States, so to speak, if you think of like the Fords and the Carnegie’s in the people, like you, are kind of, like molding it or like Atlas Shrugged to even some degree is this right? That there’s this person who kind of separates himself from contemporary society and builds an underwater city in Bioshock. And you’re exploring it as someone who’s like, whose plane has crashed or boat has crashed or whatever, and you happened upon it in the ocean. And you see that there’s, oh, wow, this is literally like, you know, the roaring 20s but in an underwater city, and then the offshoot there is how it impacts history. And then how science fiction kind of plays into where it offshoots in different ways to where they figured out ways to make people into these kinds of big daddies, which are the mind slave robots. They take killers to turn them into the Little Sisters. They collect, I think it’s called, “atom.” And that gives people powers. And then people have powers where they can levitate objects and shoot fire from their hands and whatever. And then, of course, it leads to crazy destruction incarnate, and the city kind of collapses. But what I like about, and that’s not a spoiler for anyone, but I like about the Bioshock games, and one, two, and three, three being kind of the same thing, but it happens. It’s a floating city, you know, that’s kind of but at the same time-period. To me, I think those are phenomenal games that capture that period or piece of time, you know, kind of historically, but then propose this different outcome than what you would think historically, you know?

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, so Bioshock is a really good example because it’s not only like set in this time, right, but it is specifically Randian. Right, in terms of mine, Ayn Randian, that’s to your point. And it gives you an opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of an Ayn Rand-like character. The chief antagonist of Bioshock is Andrew Ryan, I believe, and the notion is that the world is full of moochers. I don’t know that they would say the world is full of socialists, but those who are listening now certainly can appreciate that line of thinking whether or not they agree with it, or hear it in everyday discourse anyway, so it’s something that we are still debating to this day. But at this point, Andrew Ryan’s idea is like, hey, the way that society in the United States at this time or is trending is at odds with personal freedom. And so he with his great wealth, and with the combined efforts of like, a select class of people go and create Rapture, that is, you know, like in international waters under the ocean, etc. And so it’s both, you know, it takes the place of this kind of like, I think it’s supposed to be like the 40s era. And you can kind of really enjoy the pop culture and novelty of that timeframe. But it also really grounds you in this mode of thinking, this philosophy, which you know, is part and parcel of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, you know, Ayn Rand who wrote like Atlas Shrugged. And it lets you explore a kind of philosophy that is put to practice. And that’s, I think, kind of like the appeal. There are two sides.

You get to question that what-if scenario. When I’m thinking about novels, I think of the Man in the High Castle. What happens if the Nazis won World War Two, this kind of situation is interesting to explore because it reveals something about yourself or your society. In this case, you know, Bioshock, you know, for good or ill, is telling a story of unchecked capitalism and selfishness.

Tim Broadwater  

100% I agree. And I think most people, yeah, I think most alt hist is like — I’m just saying “alt hist” because it seems a lot shorter than like, “spec fic,” or like speculative fiction or whatever — it does seem to be very much around the Industrial Revolution. It seems to be like, when you think of other things, like, apart from Bioshock, you think of like, let’s say the Rocketeer, Rocket Ranger being, you know, the kind of the game, but the Rocketeer. Still, it’s kind of the same thing to where that time period where it’s like if one Man had a jetpack, and he’s a superhero, but it is, you know, kind of, you know, how would it change things, you know, when you are talking about? I’m not sure of the time period if it was the 20s, 30s, or 40s.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, I think it was post World War One, right?

Tim Broadwater  

Well, it may be pre, but to that point, it’s the industrial revolution, like a lot of these, all his games seem to center around either the Industrial Revolution, or they seem, in my opinion, or from what I’ve seen, they seem to center around wars, like WW2. WW1, you know, things of that nature. And so when you look at things like Freedom Fighters or Bioshock, you know, I don’t know if you find that to be true, but a lot of it seems to be around wars, but I say so. 

Michael Schofield  

I have a theory like a possible explanation for So, so no, cut all this out if you want. But no,

Tim Broadwater  

No, what do you think? I’m curious because I do not gravitate to that genre because I don’t like warfighting. I’ll shoot a gun and run around to some degree, but I am not a call of duty person. I’m not an assassin’s creed kind of person. Yeah, I’m, you know, and I know that those are phenomenal games that people play.

Michael Schofield  

Well, look at looking at something like I’m like, whoa, hold on. Let me rewind for a minute. The there. There’s an alternate timeline where I end up as an English professor right at some University; this was my track originally. Before I went into grad school to pursue Information Studies, I was looking hard at getting a master’s in literature or pursuing a Ph.D. So, as part of the honors program that I was in, in my undergrad as an English major, I focused on the commonalities between Victorian literature and far-future science fiction. And I have a point here, so one of the reasons is that.

Tim Broadwater  

Those two intersect or like ….

Michael Schofield  

right, so, so so one of the thinking here is that, if we take sort of like the Victorian period, let’s call it 1860s, through like, maybe up to like the modernist part, so which would be like 1912 1913, something like that, from, you know, Queen Victoria, up until World War One and World War One plays a role in here. But like, if we take that period, just out of context, there are a few things that we can say are true. One is that we have a really good grasp of the history of that time. It was a period of high literacy, right. And while there was a high degree of complexity and the growth and fall of empire wars, etc., much of it was written down in a way that we have never had prior. So we can look back at this time with a good degree of clarity, appreciate and even identify moments that are catalysts, right, like the assassination of Franz Duke Ferdinand, right, that arguably started World War One? Would the war have started without that assassination, probably? But it started a little earlier because of that. So we can identify these kinds of moments. Because of the industrial revolution, this was a time where your relationship to God or the cosmos was really in question. No longer Did you need to have, you know, a whole bunch of Tim’s on a factory line when you had a machine that can do what many people could, like had to before, right? You know we have this idea of like Man’s place in the world, and machines place in the world and Man’s relationship to the machine. These are all things Man’s relationship to God, there’s a huge like, like, there’s a strong like, atheist movement in the Victorian period. But again, it’s just unparalleled before that you have this world where some degree of supernatural was just a given, never questioned. So the Victorian period is this huge time of well-chronicled complex events, exacerbated by all-new technologies that just totally changed the world left and right all the time and the struggles individuals had, especially individual, like, the individuals who happen to write like that the artists and, and the novelists and the poets and stuff like that are struggling with their sense of self. When we look at something like science fiction, we are addressing a lot of the same issues. So like, now, when we’re talking about artificial intelligence, we’re still having these questions about like, like our place and our machine world, whether we become like, artificial intelligence, something that augments us, where does humanity end? You know, like things of this sort, right? We were in the far future, you know, content that we create, exploring the same kinds of things, as you know, this sort of Victorian period. There’s a reason that Jules Verne appears at this time. Let’s say you’re going back to World War One or something like that pre or just after; it’s a situation that you really can understand because it’s so chronicled, you can put a character or put a player in a pivotal moment because you can identify those pivotal moments. And then if you sprinkle in little changes like that, you know, there’s a world where steam power does dominate and change the course of history, and then we can explore what those kinds of things are. Something like Bioshock or shit, even like Assassin’s Creed or the Rocketeer, they’re questioning the role of humanity in this super-changing thing.

Tim Broadwater  

 No, I agree. I think what you see in Rocketeer is like, okay, does science ever go too far? Does capitalism ever go too far because robotics ever go too far in one point?

The one that occurs to me here, even though it’s soft, I would say, all pissed or, you know, kind of speculative fiction is, in the end, this is probably as military as I go, or like war game as I go, is, I love Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid. And metal. Yeah, and Metal Gear is completely based on an alternate history where the Cold War doesn’t end, you know, after the 1970s 1980s but continues right into the 90s. And so the first one, which is the Nintendo one where it’s all kind of above, you know, kind of view your Solid Snake or this rookie member of this group called Fox Hound, and then you are sent into where they find this weapon of mass destruction, you know, kind of in this place in South Africa, you know. Then with Metal Gear Solid, I think it becomes a little bit more pronounced because it’s the same premise to where it’s alternate history, Cold War, it keeps going, like it’s never ended, like Nazis or not, I don’t know, I can’t think of a name for it. But it’s like, there’s one piece of like, there’s a movie where like Nazis live on the moon or nazi zombies in Switzerland still, and, or whatever. But I mean, along that line, you’re sent into these kinds of scenarios, or these kinds of remote locations to do as a special-forces or SpecOps kind of person.

You discover something like, Oh, you know, I’m finding a boss, like Psycho Mantis, which I’m not sure if you’ve played Metal Gear Solid. Have you? (Oh, yeah. Yeah,) so Psycho Mantis is from this German or Russian kind of experimentation. I’ve learned how to weaponize psychic powers. And now I’m working with, you know, the armed forces with that. And even though it’s not alternate history, per se, I would say it kind of lends a little bit enough from it. It’s kind of like, what I would say is like what Michael Crighton does, like a lot of it is writing. You’re like, Michael Crichton is a doctor who quit being an ER doctor, and he wrote the show. But all of his fiction is grounded in a little bit of science in history. Right? And so that’s why there’s so much of that seems plausible what they do in Jurassic Park, because it’s like, well, if we could get the DNA and we can clone, you know, what I mean? So it’s like science fiction versus, I guess, what you would call speculative fiction.

Michael Schofield  

Well, yeah, I think the idea of speculative fiction is, you know, “what if.” To your point about war before, it didn’t occur to me, but like, yeah. Nazi zombie is a great example. Because in World War Two, the Nazis were exploring all sorts of things. One of the reasons that we have Indiana Jones is because the Nazis were interested in the occult. So in that kind of scenario, the question that Indiana Jones poses is, “what if the Nazis found the Ark of the Covenant?” Right, you know, I mean, it’s ridiculous but —

Tim Broadwater  

Dead Snow is that show.

Michael Schofield

Dead Snow, which is like, it’s nazi zombies.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, it’s a Norwegian horror film from, like, the mid-2000s. And, and it’s, you know, Nazis went to Norway, I think what it is, and then like, they were looking for this occult relic, right, which reanimates them after death, you know, so, that kind of, definitely, like, science fiction and speculative fiction.

Michael Schofield  

Well, in this that whole thing where, you know, I feel like we should say, the big Nazi What if you know, being Wolfenstein 3d, like back in the day when you know, one of the first first-person shooters, where you have to go like fight like Mecha Hitler.

Tim Broadwater  

You’re escaping from a prison or concentration camp.

Michael Schofield  

Castle Wolfenstein. Yeah. You’re BJ Blaskowitz.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, Iron Sky is the movie I’m thinking of. Sorry, that is the one to where the Nazis have left Earth in the future because they’ve explored space travel and rocket technology. And they’ve built like the Nazis are on the moon, and they control the moon.

Michael Schofield  

The reason that this is like lowercase a lowercase p plausible is that in World War Two, the Germans built the v2 rocket, like had they won hadn’t had the world changed a little bit, maybe they would have been the ones to ultimately like land on the moon, right there. They’re really good fodder for speculative fiction, not only because we can look back at it, but because it’s so well detailed, it’s so well documented, in both picture and film, not let alone writing that we can, you know, speculate. Yeah, it would have happened if they would have won.

Tim Broadwater

There’s this interplay between like, and maybe this is speaking to the larger like, stepping back, like, what people want in games. Or what are players wanting? What is my balance between like, how real do I want this, or how much fiction do I want? Or do I want them to mingle together, right? And so I know that we started with mentioning Savage Frontier. I’ve never played the role-playing game or the tabletop role-playing game. Still, I played the old-school computer game Savage Frontier. And to me, like it was so amazing that you know, like, these people from I would say, the latter 1800s Britain or the UK, like go into a place to where dynasty? It’s a jungle and dinosaurs still exist, but they can understand firearms, and, you know, they understand how medicine works and how to make gunpowder and things like that. So it’s like when those two things kind of meet land of the Lost, Savage frontier, like how does it play out? And that’s exciting.

Michael Schofield  

I guess the question is, what do you as a player get out of like, exploring a scenario, right? Like, like, what is your takeaway, like, so maybe you sit down to play like a game of Battlefield, and you just run in the gun because it is ultimately like a stress reliever, right. But there’s something about dipping your toes into Bioshock, which probably spawned as many like objectivists as it did otherwise because it lets you explore philosophies in the safe environment of your bedroom, or your couch or chair, like with some headphones. Safer even then maybe just like reading, like reading a book, right? Because it’s in the context of a game as opposed to, you know, the danger of actually picking up a manifesto and reading propaganda that’s truly trying to change your mind. It’s fiction in the same way as reading, reading Jurassic Park, or watching Jurassic Park or playing Jurassic Park, Lego, or whatever, you get to safely explore how you might act if you came face to face with one of those acid-spitting dinosaurs that take Newman from Seinfeld out.

Tim Broadwater

— or maybe you want to kill Mecha Hitler.

Introductory Guy  

Thank you for listening to the Design Thinking Games podcast. To connect with your hosts, Michael or Tim, please go to designthinkinggames.com where you can request topics, ask questions, or see what else is going on. Until next time, game on.

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