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How far into the future are games willing to go?

Last night I watched Wonders Of The Universe with professor Brian Cox – no, not the Scottish actor, the slightly irritating physicist and ex-D:Ream keyboardist. He discussed many things that we don’t normally bother engaging our brains with – questions like what exactly is time, how do we perceive it, and where is it taking us? His final conclusion was rather bleak – it’s taking us further and further towards a more chaotic universe. In trillions and trillions and trillions and trillions and then trillions more of years there will be virtually nothing left in the universe. Entropy will have increased to such a degree that every last star in the universe will have burnt out and died, leaving nothing, nothing, but photons shooting around a big, empty space. Kind of puts everything in perspective, right?

As well as thinking scary existential thoughts about the nature of my own existence, this documentary also got me thinking about games. I was thinking about how videogames rarely look further forward into time than that most favourite setting for developers, the near future. Game like Mass Effect and Killzone 3 take us further still, but they’re still relatable experiences, not really all that far removed from what we know today. They just happen to be able to travel through space too.

I was wondering if we’ll ever see a game – or even a film, for that matter – that takes us millions (perhaps even billions or trillions, if your imagination can still conceive of the human race existing then) of years into the future. To a time when the universe is in a very different shape, when cosmic changes are occurring that have distorted our galaxies. Thinking this far ahead has only really been seen in literature, in books like 3001: The Final Odyssey and short stories like Isaac Asminov’s The Last Question (which is free online and you should definitely read). But we’ve never really seen these kind of far flung futures rendered in visual form. Videogames could be the perfect medium to represent some kind of different, alternate future – a universe far removed from that which we know.

I imagine a game set in a universe in which all the stars were slowly dying would be a different, original, and even artful videogame experience. It’s also probably completely unachievable. Well, we could try and imagine what that kind of a future would be like, but ultimately it’s too unknowable, too abstract, too unimaginable for us to conceive. It would be like someone in the early 16th Century guessing that in 500 years we’d all be using datapads and downloading virtual realities from an inconceivably huge global system of interconnected computer networks.

So I guess in conclusion we might get a videogame set in the year three billion, but I dout we’ll be playing as incorporeal bodies of energy floating around in a vast hyperspace. It will probably look and play like Mass Effect. Try to imagine more than that and it just gets a little bit frightening.

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  • Ian Dransfield

    The Time Machine takes the protagonist 800,000 years into the future, and the Futurama influenced by the Time Machine takes things even further – to the end of the universe.

    Though they actually employ the hypothesis that the universe is cyclical, and the end of everything actually forms conditions just like they were before the big bang, which eventually leads to another big bang and another universe is created, and so on, and so on.

    But yeah, I don’t think any games companies – outside of the indie scene – would have the balls to make something truly speculative. No bald space marine main character = nobody would buy it. At least, that would be their thinking.

  • The old Hitch Hiker game on the BBC B went to the end of the universe iirc.