Why aren’t aliens in video games more… alien?

by Louis Calvert

Why aren’t aliens in video games more… alien?
January 17, 2020 sfbook

Aliens are a staple of sci-fi and seem like they’ve always been a cornerstone of our fiction. Chances are, if you were asked to make a list of all the aliens from popular media that you can think of right now, your list is going to feature quite a few that look or act pretty much like a human.

There are a lot of good reasons why this is the case, especially because most of our well-known aliens come from TV and film. But what about video games?

Video games are our newest vehicle of fiction. Developers now have the tools to create near-real environments and allow players to interactively experience anything imaginable. Consumers have the purchasing power to bring video games into their homes and experience them whenever they like, for as long as they like, and virtual reality has the potential to drive immersion even further. Today, the gaming industry is worth more than either the film or music industries worldwide and games are more accessible now than ever before. We’re in an unprecedented era of choice and creativity. 

Over the years, important topics like violence, representation, and gambling in games have been discussed extensively. Depictions of aliens in games is a trivial consideration by comparison, but thinking about why we depict humanoid aliens in games, and how they’re used, is a small part of a larger ongoing discussion of how any media reflects and reinforces our thinking.

“In the deepest sense the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves.”

– Carl Sagan, American astronomer

On the origin of extraterrestrial species

Of the many millions of separate species on Earth, only humans look and behave like humans. Our closest relatives, apes, are more dissimilar to us than many of the humanoid aliens in popular sci-fi, yet they evolved right alongside us from common ancestors. Most scientists, biologists, and thinkers on the subject of extraterrestrials agree that aliens — if they exist — are very unlikely to be something you’d feel comfortable inviting to meet your parents. 

Imagine you’ve placed all the aliens ever created in a line, with the most exotic at one end, and the most human-like on the other. If you’re charting Star Trek aliens, you might put the ‘dikironium cloud creature’ (TOS S2 Ep13) at one end: it’s a sentient gas cloud that can travel faster than light, sucks iron from blood, and exists in a state between matter and energy. You might put the Betazoids (like Lwaxana Troi, TNG) at the other end, as they’re essentially telepathic humans with dark eyes. 

We’re interested in the more humanoid end of the spectrum for this article. Fortunately, the majority of our pop culture aliens can be found here, so there’s no lack of choice. Star Wars’ beloved meme-fodder Admiral Ackbar is a great example: a squid-fish-man who is not only humanoid, but is an Admiral — which implies that he’s able to communicate and share ideas and tactics with humans, manage people, and lead effectively. In short, Ackbar is an aspirational human character who just happens to be an alien.

Shazbot

There are several good reasons why human-like aliens appear on screen so commonly. Filmmakers’ imaginations tend to be constrained by the practicalities of budget and actor comfort, as much as by storytelling. Part of the ‘magic of cinema’ is how much we, as the audience, buy into the fact that Spock isn’t Leonard Nimoy in rubber ears and eyeshadow. But even in printed works it’s easier to find humanoid aliens than not, so it’s clear that human-like aliens aren’t simply a practical convenience — they serve other purposes.

 

“We meet aliens every day who have something to give us. They come in the form of people with different opinions. “

– William Shatner

 

In fiction, human-like aliens are often used to allegorically represent topics that exist in the real world. Fiction allows us to abstract big, sensitive, or urgent issues (be they social, economic, or environmental) into something more digestible. Stories can help to get some perspective, explore possibilities, encourage people to consider consequences, and prompt discussion.

Often human-like aliens are used as a vehicle to explore the ‘human condition’ more directly. Having an alien point out or misunderstand idiosyncrasies in human society is a staple of sci-fi, and can be played for laughs just as easily as for dramatic effect. 

Video games occupy a space where, in theory, practical limitations such as prosthetics, costumes and actor comfort are as irrelevant as being limited only to text descriptions, page-counts, or a certain run-time to tell your story. They are uniquely interactive stories that take whatever form is necessary. So why do aliens in video games always need to be so human?

The (More) Modern Prometheus

Early video games, limited in graphics and processing power, mostly relied on using artwork to convey what clusters of mono colour blocks were meant to be. Often these were heavily influenced by other media, even more so than today. For example, Space Invaders (1978) was promoted with posters and cabinet artwork showing humanoid figures alongside ranks of flying saucer spaceships. Clearly the promotional artists, at least, thought the eponymous invaders looked something like us, even if the game graphics at the time showed something more like an emoji as imagined by David Cronenberg.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) is often considered to be a milestone in the games industry, and even now, almost twenty years on, it’s still a benchmark. The developers could have made the alien enemies, the Covenant, look like anything they wanted: a giant insectoid hive-mind like Heinlein’s Arachnids, sentient plants like Wyndam’s Triffids, or even alien Von Neumann machines like the Replicators from Stargate: SG-1. The developers didn’t. Instead they made aliens that look, to varying degrees, like human-lizard hybrids. Several even have ‘comic book’ proportions: broad shoulders, narrow waist, and prominent muscles. We can’t know what internal decisions led to the final design, but we can consider what making the Covenant humanoid does for the game, and ask what might have been different if the aliens looked less like ourselves.

One of the gameplay elements that made Halo a success is the artificial intelligence (AI) that the game’s enemies possess. The Covenant have several tactics to counter the player: certain enemies shield or reinforce others, some might flee under fire, and others try to flank or ambush them. Aside from that, the gameplay is a well-polished iteration of the first-person shooter (FPS) archetype, dating back to Wolfenstein 3D (1992). Swapping the character designs for really exotic aliens — ambulant octopuses, perhaps — might not have altered these basic gameplay mechanics, but there might have been other consequences.

Humans are very good at knowing what humans can do. In Halo, the player begins encountering enemies within just a few minutes of starting the game. As the player encounters each new alien, size is a big part of an initial evaluation. Typically, the smaller ones are easier to fight, and the bigger ones, harder. Within that, the more lithe-looking enemies are faster or tricksier, and the chunkier ones are slower but hit harder. Players readily expect a certain size and shape of humanoid to move in a certain way, largely based on what our human brains deem appropriate. Part of the reason why many people consider Halo a great game is the extent to which the alien antagonists both play into and subvert those unconscious expectations.

If the Covenant were replaced with Heinlein’s Pseudo-Arachnids, for example, the player would need to consciously learn what to expect from each enemy encountered. Size and shape may not mean much to gigantic hive-minded insects with guns; small ones might be incredibly powerful and large ones weaker. And where do you shoot an Arachnid? Maybe Arachnids have a distributed brain and don’t have weak points? Is that an arm, or a leg?

While ‘figuring out’ the enemy can be one of the most rewarding forms of gameplay in action titles, it does change the game experience. Dark Souls (2011), and the many games like it, rely heavily on players actively learning what each enemy type they encounter can do by repetition, experimentation, and frequent deaths. Halo’s gameplay isn’t about encountering unknown aliens, specifically; it’s about tactics, positioning, and use of equipment. The aliens presented to the player are ‘tuned’ to these requirements, and as such behave in very recognisable ways. The veneer placed on top of the gameplay is the story.

While Halo gives us a good example of enemy aliens, we can also consider why ‘friendly’ aliens might appear human. A great example is 1997’s Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Abe, despite being green, is entirely human; his reactions are human, the way he moves is human, his mission is human, his name is human. It’s painted in the colours of otherworldliness because a story about a human slave escaping and freeing other slaves from an alien meat-factory might be tough to sell to the intended teen audience (or, more to the point, their parents). In this case, making Abe very human-like serves a similar purpose as human aliens in many Star Trek episodes; they’re simple surrogates. Abe’s Oddysee is essentially a 2D puzzle-platformer where Abe jumps, climbs, and pulls switches to free his fellow slaves. But if it wasn’t about aliens, it would be a very dark game indeed. 

Typically, video games that feature friendly human aliens do so in much the same way as in TV and film; they’re usually there to emphasise how exotic a setting is, to act as surrogates, or to provide quick caricatures. In these roles they’re actually fulfilling a similar psychological niche to the aliens in Halo — using our neural hardwiring to shortcut a lot of exposition. 

It’s worth looking at games like Stellaris (2016), X-COM (1994-2017), and Starcraft (1998) too, which all feature some quite human-like aliens as well as some much weirder ones. What does including recognisable aliens alongside the stranger sort do for the gameplay? What does it mean for the narrative? 

 

So, why it gotta be human?

In much the same way that a balance between form and function dictate the final appearance and behaviour of extraterrestrials in film and TV, it seems true of video game aliens too — though in different ways. Whereas in films an alien might be an actor in a costume and on a budget, in video games an alien needs to serve the mechanics of the gameplay first, player expectations second — and the sensitivities of the intended audience are a consideration, too.

For the most part, aliens in fiction are used to tap into our monkey brains and encourage us to experience the story from a certain perspective, or to get to specific points the storyteller wants to make more quickly. They are sometimes expressions of our very human fears, desires, conflicts, contradictions, and taboos. Rarely are aliens in fiction and on screen thoughtful explorations of what real ‘first contact’ might be like, though there are some examples.

By extension, video games, our newest and most interactive media, continue to use human-like aliens too — not through laziness or lack of creativity, but because they’re playing out the stories that we humans still want and need. Games can say important things through the lens of fiction, and sci-fi has always set the bar high for social commentary. If we replaced all the humanoid aliens in video games with the gamut of weird life forms that the universe could plausibly come up with, it might be more realistic – but we would probably lose some of the narrative nuance that depicting people with green skin allows. While not every depiction of aliens in video games is an allegory, perhaps more are than we realise.

As players, and people, it’s worth considering what the games we play might be trying to say — because we know from other media how powerful the concept of allegory can be.