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A Gem in the Confines of Computer Game Packaging: Stories of Life on the Frontier

Frontier II: EliteI recently moved to Berkeley from abroad, and my father, in his desire to free up some space in the cellar, sent me over 20 boxes of childhood gadgets and memories. While sorting through such goodies as my radio-controlled windsurfer/car and my Tolkien encyclopedia, I stumbled upon a diamond in the rough: Stories of Life on the Frontier, a companion book to the 1993 Gametek/Konami computer game Frontier: Elite II.

Frontier, the fourth and last computer game I ever purchased, was a milestone in space-adventure games, thanks in large part to the vast and diverse universe which the player is allowed to explore. The game's author, David Braben, did an incredible job of worldbuilding. The almost 100 trillion celestial bodies are complemented by a rich backstory which is woven into the fabric of the game. I spent many an hour smuggling narcotics to the Sol system, carrying out missions for the Federation, and fighting space pirates. Like many other games of the time, Frontier supplements the in-game story with additional media: a map of the galaxy, a gazetteer, and the aforementioned collection of short stories.

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Mad Science: Portal and the Fulfillment of Technological Fantasies

We all want to play with the toys we read about. All sci-fi universes (and many fantasy ones) include technologies like lightsabers or tricorders. We imagine or watch our favorite characters like Geordi La Forge or Luke Skywalker use them to explore alien worlds or vanquish evil foes. These devices create expectation, or "affordance," of what we expect would be possible within a game set in their respective universes. What exactly can’t a lightsaber cut through, anyways? The fictional world has its answer, of course, and many plot sequences rely on it.

MechWarrior 2Many single player games like first person shooters happily allow you to devastate the terrain with any number of weapons of varying precision. A number of versions of the BattleTech Franchise allow you to pilot a 40-100 ton BattleMech (a robotic tank). But when it comes to non-conventional uses of technology, you are often limited to the imagination of the programmer who implements them.

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A Mutating Transmedium

Today, we have another new author joining our ranks at Fantasy Matters--John Murray, a computer science PhD student who is interested in video games and digital narrative.  His essay today talks about Henry Jenkin's concept of "transmedia"--that is, blending multiple platforms or media types to tell a story or convey an idea.  He looks at several video games that employ this concept in creative and exciting ways, as well as several that fall short in their attempt.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneIn 2007, the video game industry surpassed the movie industry in gross revenue. Another recent trend is that almost every successful fantasy or science fiction movie worth its salt has released an accompanying game, usually one that follows closely the storyline of the original movie. Such forgettable games as Enter the Matrix, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone point to one result of this trend: mediocre tie-ins and adaptations.

The reviews and feel of these games reveal how closely tied they are to the movies themselves and how the effort put into them is completely abstracted compared to the original material.  They often feature voice talent from the original movies and use key scenes, detailed props, or settings. Unfortunately, in many of these games the aspiration toward "transmedia," a concept that Henry Jenkins observes and named, falls short of its promise. But they are participating in the same process, the same blending of contexts that makes a “transmedia property.” How do these games contribute to this emerging genre, marketing strategy, and approach to media creation?

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Of Jedi and Gamers

I’m not sure I can really consider myself a ‘gamer’.  I play video games a lot, that’s not in question.  In fact, I probably play them too much.  The part that makes me question my gamer-ness is my unwillingness to try new games.  I get stuck.  I played Total Annihilation (Gamespot’s Game of the year 1997) as my game of choice until I started playing World of Warcraft in 2005.  I got stuck on WoW for much longer than I’d like to admit and then Supreme Commander came along and I’ve been playing that ever since I found it.  I play other games, sure (Company of Heroes Online and C&C Red Alert 2 etc etc), but not for long, and I even when I do, my heart is always soon back on one of my old standbys.  Because of this, I’m not often tempted by new releases.  A game generally needs to be out for a while before I’ll hear about it and try it. That’s why it seems so strange that I’m excited about the new Star Wars themed MMO from BioWare. 

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The Witchiest Witcher Around

The WitcherThe video game The Witcher, released in 2007, is based on a short story and subsequent series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. This is fortunate for two reasons. First, the lore is well-developed and doesn’t have consistency problems, and second, the game had a following before it was released, giving it a leg up on the vast majority of other videogame RPG’s. Unfortunately, these benefits are not unmitigated. I suspect that the story is faithful to the story(I can’t say for sure without reading the books) but I got the impression that they tried to fit the entire series into the game, since it felt fairly tedious after the second chapter (there are 5 chapters plus an “epilogue” in the game).

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