I posted the following paragraph in a list discussion this evening, and I see that between this and my last galactic empire post, I have a recurring theme going on about the Other, or the “alien other.” In any case, that which ain’t us. So here are some thoughts about developing complex aliens in games and fiction.
The Alien Other
To quote myself:
I’d say we’ve fallen collectively into the simplistic trap of painting aliens as the “alien other” in obvious and symbolic ways (often literally, in terms of ‘not human’ skin colors or textures). The richer exploration to me is to try to extrapolate what it is to be not-human (a difficult task, granted), and then grow those aliens organically and see where they end up. The former approach gives us a plot device, a foil for our collective angst and fears. The latter approach might let us actually get inside an outsider’s perspective, and see “us” (humankind or our world) through a truly different lens. That’s rarely explored territory in fiction, and pretty much completely unexplored territory in games.
Humans in Rubber Suits
Granted, it is hard – well, ok, probably impossible – to really cease thinking like the humans we are. Brain hard-wiring and all that. But that is the magic of a work of the imagination: we can at least step back, take as our starting point profoundly different assumptions about motivations, needs, expectations, etc, and then logically and artfully follow where the new set of assumptions may lead.
For instance, too often writers or game designers create an alien who is essentially a human in a rubber suit: by default they behave out of motivations understandable – even natural and reflexive - for a human, and the only thing alien about them is the cosmetic dressing of appearance or some cultural details. No, no, no, no. This way lies derivative and shallow work.
Let us instead take as our starting point the earliest stages of a sapient’s growth. First, to get there this assumes we’ve already considered the environment the alien lives in, and whatever effect this is going to have on physical development. (That’s the subject of another post, so I’ll leave it at that right now). With that as a baseline, then, we look first very closely at the young/infant/beginning organism’s basic primal needs.
In humans, as infants we’re driven by hunger and need for touch. This basic level of animalistic drive translates into need for security/safety and love as we develop into th e thinking creatures that we are. And we all know what kind of a psychological and cultural imprint that has left on humans, who justify all kinds of shenanigans out of insecurity or fear of loss of these basic things.
But what if these basic psychological building blocks are not in play for a species? What if our aliens who call themselves The People, dubbed “Bolgers” by our explorers – what if for them, security and safety are non-issues? These things are a given, they are present from birth, and are never something an infant or growing bolger need strive for or feel the lack of. The safety exists because in early hatching days these squid-like younglings live in a compact mass in tepid water burrows: neither hot nor cold, always touching their fellows, feeding without striving or ever really feeling hunger because they live immersed in rich biosoup shallows, taking in nutrients through the autonomous mechanism of their full-body osmotic membranes.
Suddenly we have a species that is accustomed to a great deal of touch (and never disappointed in receiving it); that effectively does not know hunger (baring an ecological disaster), and is naturally safely nurtured in a place with no superior predators to threaten their well-being.
The result of this exercise bears no resemblance to a human in a rubber alien suit, neither physically nor psychologically. In fact, it presents us with many intriguing questions for this race: how they interact with each other, what culture evolves from these beginnings, and what this bodes when they eventually interact with humans.
Starting Conditions and End Points
Where might this culture grow? Well, that’s more exercise than I’m going to get into in a post, though since the bolgers already inhabit the world of Merith in the CAS Sector of my Sa’adani Empire setting, I already know in broad strokes where these starting conditions lead them. But when you grow your aliens, do you? Do you give them logical and unique starting conditions, and then follow where that might likely take them in their personal development, and development as a culture?
1. Also acknowledging that aliens may not even be ‘sapient’ as we usually think of that word. But let’s just broadly assume that’s the case for practical purposes.
2. In my Sa’adani Empire science fiction universe, the squid-like race of bolgers were discovered by accident on the planet Merith. This occurred when a young Imperial Frontier Corp scout with the last name of Bolger mis-stepped on a boggy path and plunged out of sight into the soupy water that is home to the sentient natives. The tale of this first contact encounter is something I’ll eventually post as a freely downloadable story.