You know what the best part of sci-fi is?
You’re probably thinking of the genre’s disturbing ‘seer’s eye’, its prescience and foresight, its glimpses into the inescapable bleak future: science fiction has an uncanny ability to make grand, moving statements about the human condition.
Well, you’re wrong. Really wrong. Science fiction is all about the cool, nonsensical gadgets and weapons that writers created because they had nothing better to do with their time.
Here are some of the weirdest ones you can find in videogames.
Mentats is a “chem” you can take in Fallout that makes you smarter, allowing a character with low intelligence and perception to increase those statistics briefly. In a way it’s like the venom formula that Batman’s Bane uses, but just for your brain. As a person with poor self-control who relies on coffee to function, it’s a good thing that such a drug does not actually exist, or my brain would have already popped from the abuse by now.
(Fun fact: the name of Mentats is actually taken Frank Herbert’s Dune, where humans that are trained to master logical computations are called Mentats. Clever, Interplay; clever.)
Sci-fi has a fixation with making swords cooler than they already are. Just think about the lightsaber. Bless whoever thought to replace a sharp blade with a controlled inferno of light that can sear a man’s limbs from his body. Bless. Them.
Anyway: Transistor follows the journey of a singer named Red in a futuristic city called Cloudbank as she seeks revenge against those who have wronged her. She carries a giant sword called Transistor that contains both her voice and the soul of the man who saved her from an assassination attempt. When the Transistor isn’t pining for Red or bemoaning the state of the city, it allows you to slow down time in order to plan out your attacks against enemies. Pretty nifty feature. Could do without the sword’s whining though. Swords should be sharp, not mopey.
There’s a surprisingly dark desperation that underlies much of Portal 2’s story. Aperture Science, trying to keep up with Black Mesa, eventually starts ‘throwing science’ at the wall in a mad attempt to come up with something that’ll save the company from financial ruin and falling into irrelevance. One of the products of this desperation are the colored gels that you find: propulsion, repulsion, and conversion. All these gels have various effects on the player that allow them to solve obstacles and progress but beyond that, there’s really no justification given for them. What use could anyone get out of a gel that sends you soaring through the sky at a fatal speed? Unless you were trying to trick someone into catapulting themselves to death, which honestly seems like a lot of work for such little payoff.
There have been several games that have given the player stations that allow them to heal themselves (Half-life); others, like Mass Effect 2, let the apply gel to fix up their wounds. And then there’s Soma, which combines the two in a straight-up icky fashion. In Soma, you can’t fight back against the enemies who hunt you while you explore a creepy station under the sea. You can only avoid them. Failing that, they’ll injure you, causing you to limp around the station with skewed vision until you find one of these nasty-looking biological pod-things you can stick your hand inside and let it munch on you while it uh heals you. Thanks, strange-creature object-thing. I think.
Have you ever hated someone? To the point that you wish you could feed them to rats from another dimension? Well, you might not be able to do that in real life—I hope you can’t, anyway—but this a thing you can do in the original Half-life. Enemy grunts around the corner giving you trouble? Just let loose some helpful little Snarks to jump and nip at that fellow until he’s nothing but a pile of femurs and kidneys. Hilarious, strange little monsters (that you just carry around in your pockets?), until they’ve turned on you, too. Good thing they exploded seconds after you used them. Well, good for you anyway.
In Mass Effect everyone carries around something called an Omni-tool that’s basically a holographic touchscreen attached to their wrists that lets every character do whatever the plot needs them to. Door locked? Press a few buttons on the tool and presto, access granted. Need to hack some AI systems? Disable weapons? Can do those things as well.
With me so far? Okay, now in Mass Effect 3 there’s a weaponized version of this that lets Commander Shepard turn their Omni-tool into a wrist blade that can be used to destroy enemies. How does this holographic tool suddenly become a deadly weapon capable of stabbing people? I don’t know, truth be told. I’m sure there’s some detailed lore reason stored deep within the game’s codex but no matter how well-written it is, there’s no persuading me that this isn’t just delightfully dumb. Actually somehow far-and-away the dumbest thing in a series that has a giant monster infant as a final boss and an omnipotent space child who broke the real-world internet back in 2012 with his awfulness.
That one part where you get to stab the dude is pretty cool though.
You have to hand it to Saints Row. It’s certainly a series that’s not shy about being an oddball whenever it wants to be. Case in point: the dubstep gun, which does exactly what its name suggests. Why does the dubstep gun exist? Where did it come from? Who cares! You can blast enemies into oblivion by dropping a terrible beat. What an endearingly simple and pure creation. The pinnacle of the genre, no doubt.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.