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Aliens Among Us


Aliens Among Us

By James Maliszewski

Another month has past and your favorite science fiction columnist has been very busy. In addition to my usual chores, I've been rustling up some rather enjoyable freelance work for myself. Chief among them is Final Frontiers: The Star Trek Movie Era Sourcebook from Last Unicorn Games, coming to a game store near you in February 2000. It'll be a nice hardcover volume filled with stuff from Star Trek: The Motion Picture through the first half-hour of Generations. I've got quite a few other cool projects under way as well, but can't reveal them yet, bound as I am by non-disclosure agreements. As always, I'll keep you posted when I can reveal more.

Extra-terrestrial aliens are as much a staple of science fiction as fast-than-light travel and blaster pistols. They've been around from the very beginning of the genre. Over a hundred years ago, H.G. Wells included heatray-wielding, tripod-using, tentacled Martians bent on conquering Earth in his classic, The War of the Worlds. The pulps of the 1920's and 1930's relied heavily on tales of alien menaces -- often libidinous fiends hell-bent on stealing our women. Movies and TV have added to further nuances to this picture of aliens, as have novels and comic books. Each medium has added something to our collective consciousness of visitors from the stars, creating a huge storehouse of lore from which to draw upon. Whether one instinctively views aliens as potential friends or enemies depends, I suspect, on one's earliest SF influences. (Mine was Star Trek -- Spock being a hero of mine from an early age)

While I'll be the first to admit that we've come a long way from the days of bug-eyed monsters, science fiction still hasn't gone far enough in presenting well-conceived alien beings. As a derivative genre, roleplaying games have an even poorer record. So, this month I'd like to take a brief look at some of the better known games and how they portray aliens and follow it up with three small suggestions I'd like to see more widely implemented to counter my criticisms. As always, I hope this will engender some fruitful discussions (and more postings than that recent review of Hunter: The Reckoning).

As I've mentioned already, I love Star Trek and have from an early age. I used to watch it in reruns with my aunt, who enjoyed the show as a child and introduced me to the Final Frontier (she also took me to see Star Wars the first weekend it came out, how much cooler can you get?). And while the various Trek series and movies have gone a long way toward creating some very well detailed and interesting aliens, I'm not so sure that I'd call most of them well-conceived. Look at the Vulcans. Nifty as they are from a storytelling perspective, they're not too credible biologically. Copper-based blood? In a humanoid? Sorry, Tuvok. Unless the Vulcans are actually cleverly disguised mollusks, this doesn't seem likely. I could say similar things about most Trek aliens, but I think you get the gist.

In fact, the same is true of the aliens in Star Wars, Babylon 5, and a host of other popular shows and movies. The aliens are really just guys in suits. They sort of have to be. Until the advent of reasonable CGI, it just wasn't possible to create realistic non-humanoid aliens. Aliens had to be humanoid, because human actors were playing them. Fair enough. Run with that. Why doesn't more SF make something of why humanoid-shaped beings are so common? Star Trek has a feeble answer to this, but few others do. I, for one, would love to see a show or movie make hay of this special effects limitation. If you're stuck with humanoid aliens, explain it. Heck, explaining could be the basis for a really cool setting or plot. Why not utilize its full potential?

Which brings us to RPGs. Almost every game that has aliens falls into the same trap as movies and TV, but they have even less excuse for doing so. I mean, what's the limitation on a game's "special effects?" Lazy imaginations, it seems. Why do RPG aliens have to be humanoid? Why not something really funky, really unusual? Take a look around and almost every major science fiction game and you'll find plenty of humanoid aliens. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single significant alien species in a game that isn't humanoid in appearance. This is really inexcusable.

Some people (game designers among them) have told me that gamers just can't relate to non-humanoid aliens. They want SF substitutes for elves and dwarves, not weird blobby things or beings of pure energy. I hope that such sentiments are incorrect. If true, it says something really sad about the lack of imagination in today's gamers. Aren't roleplaying games supposed to be about imagination and creativity? I certainly thought so, but then I've been known to be wrong before.

Of course, sometimes aliens serve a different purpose than presenting a plausible alternate biology. Sometimes, aliens are dramatic stand-ins for a concept or a perspective that their creator wants to explore. I suspect that a great many aliens in roleplaying games serve this purpose as well (at least I hope they do). The Vulcans have, in my mind, always served the purpose of providing a counterpoint to humanity's emotionality -- as well as an argument in favor its necessity. Star Trek aliens exist largely for dramatic purposes. Very few of them are at all plausible, but they can serve a good purpose from a story perspective. I can respect that, even if I still yearn for aliens who are more than that.

The main problem with "dramatic" aliens is that they're usually one-trick ponies. They exist for a specific story purpose and, once that purpose is fulfilled, have nothing else to do. The Vulcans are a bit like this, I fear. Don't get me wrong, I still think they're interesting, but there are limits to how much you can do with a Vulcan character. There are a few obvious stories to tell and that's it. After that, anything you do with them doesn't really revolve around their being an alien. It's just a story using a character that happens to be an alien. When this happens, the weakness of dramatic aliens comes to the fore. They're no longer aliens; they're just characters like any other. However, a weird blobby alien or energy being could never become just another character. The oddity of their biologies precludes this.

That's why dramatic aliens are necessarily limited. It's certainly true in RPGs. After a while, your Wookiee character becomes just another character. There are, after all, only so many stories you can tell about being a big furry lug whose people have been enslaved by the Empire. Then, Chewbacca becomes "The Engineer," not "The Alien." Spock is "The Science Officer," and so on. I'm not saying is a bad thing in and of itself. I guess the question for me becomes: "Why use an alien at all, then? What purpose does he serve in the game?" If all the player wants to be is The Engineer, why does he need to be a big furry engineer? Or a pointy-eared science officer? The same question applies to people who play Elves or Dwarves or whatever. I think it's a question worth asking from time to time.

This brings up another problem: stereotyping. Aliens rarely rise above stock descriptions and simplistic cultures. I did it myself in the examples above. Chewie was an engineer, so aren't all Wookiees good at that sort of thing? It's like that description of the Rodians in an old Star Wars supplement. Greedo was a bounty hunter, so all Rodians are bounty hunters except for those who pretend to be them in plays and holo-shows. RPGs can and should go a long way toward providing broader and more detailed descriptions of aliens and their cultures. While they can't make them as detailed as humans, gaming authors should try to make them less limited than they usually are. I should be able to play a Vulcan ship's counselor and not have everyone stare at me with that "Ah, he's playing against type" look that will inevitably come from it. RPG aliens rarely have good biologies, can't they at least have cultures broad enough to accommodate more than a couple character types?

This brings me to my three short suggestions. I'd be gratified to see some of them implemented at some point. And if a gaming company can't do so on their own, give me a shout and I'd be happy to do it for them.

  1. We need weird biologies and physiologies. Even if they're so weird as to preclude their being played as character, so be it. Science fiction is supposed to expand our imaginations. Trying to communicate and interact meaningfully with an intelligent crystal or protoplasmic blob would certainly do that. Gamers are a smart lot. We're up to the challenge.
  2. Give aliens broad and deep cultures. Allow for multiple styles of play. I don't want people to keep playing the same kinds of aliens every time I run a game. Design the alien's culture with that in mind. Heck, why not be really bold and give the aliens multiple cultures? What about ethnic groups? What about religion? Humans have these things. Why not aliens?
  3. If you're still having a hard time with this whole alien thing, why not dispense with them completely? No one said SF has to include aliens. Human-only settings can be quite compelling. Look at Dune. Look at Foundation. With genetic engineering, you can turn humans into aliens. That's a cool idea too. Why doesn't someone do something with it?

I could suggest several more things, but I'll stop here. I've got to give myself material for future columns -- not to mention future products.

James Maliszewski

What do you think?

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