Ever since ET for the Atari 2600 wowed gamers worldwide, science fiction and video games have been natural bedfellows. Here are 10 great scifi tales that embrace the aesthetics, technology, and popular tropes of the gaming world.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
This cult classic was based on a short story by Ib Melchior and produced by Roger Corman. In this B-movie spectacular, David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone play dueling contestants in the Annual Transcontinental Road Race, a coast-to-coast rally across dystopian America in which drivers are awarded points for the number of pedestrians they mow down. The film plays out like a grindhouse Grand Theft Auto or a Smash TV on wheels. There's definitely a parable about our entertainment dehumanizing us tucked away somewhere amidst the carnage, but who cares? A car shaped like bull runs over a matador! And like GTA, the movie's 1976 arcade adaptation caused quite the moral panic. Witness the movie's lunacy in full here.
Starship Troopers (1959)
Robert Heinlein's Hugo Award-winning novel popularized so many ubiquitous scifi concepts it's mind-boggling. And in videogamedom, Heinlein's Mobile Infantry has commanded sales like a sonofagun. Crysis, Starcraft, Doom, Gears of War, and Halo owe their space marine motifs (and the occasional power armor) to Heinlein.
Splice director Vincenzo Natali's breakout film is the ultimate puzzle game — a group of strangers are imprisoned in a deathtrap-filled monolith (the titular Cube). The Cube's traps sync up with a mathematical code that the prisoners must crack before they starve to death...or become cubed themselves. In this geometric hell, there are no extra lives.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1967)
Those of you who love torturing the shit out of your Sims will get a kick out of Harlan Ellison's Hugo Award-winning short story. In the post-apocalyptic future, only five human beings remain — they're prisoners of AM, the supercomputer that eradicated the rest of mankind. AM hates the humans, but keeps them immortal to torment for eternity. Think SHODAN from System Shock 2 was bad? AM spends its days relentlessly screwing with its hostages — the supercomputer keeps them alive with crappy food, sends monsters after them, and transforms one unlucky character into a brainless caveman with a giant penis.
David Cronenberg's virtual reality flick presaged the reality-confused hijinks of Inception by 11 years — unfortunately, it was also released a couple weeks after The Matrix and eclipsed by its success. No matter, eXistenZ has earned its place in the cult pantheon. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars Allegra Geller, a game designer on the run from assassins. Together with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), Allegra must fix her new VR game, eXistenZ . But the game begins altering their perceptions of reality, like in this scene where Law builds a handgun out of mutant Chinese food.
Ah, the lightcycles — they were really one big fatal game of mobile phone Snake, no? Thanks to the revolutionary production design from Moebius, Syd Mead, and Peter Lloyd, Tron brought virtual worlds to the big screen and defined the popular aesthetics of computer reality.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1931)
This first half of this seminal H.P. Lovecraft novella unfolds like a great old-school RPG. A man goes to investigate the mysterious New England town of Innsmouth, a dilapidated, ugly hamlet filled with toad-like, ugly citizens. After procuring a map from a store clerk, the visitor tracks down the town drunk, who divulges Innsmouth's dark secret. The second half of the novella plays like a survival strategy game — the protagonist must escape from his hotel unarmed without alerting the horror in the darkness. Read the whole thing here.
In Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's three-issue miniseries, the US military transforms regular housepets into remote-controlled, sentient, cyborg dreadnoughts. When authority treats reality like a game, even your dog can be retrofitted with downloadable content. The freneticism puts Ninja Gaiden to shame.
Spook Country (2007)
William Gibson's political thriller takes place in a not-so-distant future where augmented reality technology has been merged with GPS to create a secondary virtual world that can be seen with the right toys. Shadowy government operatives and enigmatic European billionaires take interest in this augmented tech. Spooky Country isn't as out-there as Gibson's other works, but the novel offers a tangible take on where gaming could head in the next few decades. Rather than playing games on a screen, we could simply pop on a visor and lob virtual harpoons at a giant squid in an empty warehouse.
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Okay, so The Last Starfighter is more schmaltzy than awesome, but the flick was like Cocoon for arcade dwellers — it gives you hope that somewhere in the galaxy, a faraway planet worships your Q*Bert prowess. Somewhere, aliens are deciphering the sacred numerology of your high score. Somewhere, an otherworldly congregation shouts @!#?@! towards the heavens, praising your holy initials: FUK.
PS: We were kidding about ET.