Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Gem in the Confines of Computer Game Packaging: Stories of Life on the Frontier

Frontier II: EliteI recently moved to Berkeley from abroad, and my father, in his desire to free up some space in the cellar, sent me over 20 boxes of childhood gadgets and memories. While sorting through such goodies as my radio-controlled windsurfer/car and my Tolkien encyclopedia, I stumbled upon a diamond in the rough: Stories of Life on the Frontier, a companion book to the 1993 Gametek/Konami computer game Frontier: Elite II.

Frontier, the fourth and last computer game I ever purchased, was a milestone in space-adventure games, thanks in large part to the vast and diverse universe which the player is allowed to explore. The game's author, David Braben, did an incredible job of worldbuilding. The almost 100 trillion celestial bodies are complemented by a rich backstory which is woven into the fabric of the game. I spent many an hour smuggling narcotics to the Sol system, carrying out missions for the Federation, and fighting space pirates. Like many other games of the time, Frontier supplements the in-game story with additional media: a map of the galaxy, a gazetteer, and the aforementioned collection of short stories.

Cloud AtlasWhile best enjoyed together with the game, Stories of Life proves a very interesting read all on its own. This collection of 8 short stories (6 by David Massey, 1 by Kathy Dickinson, and 1 by Moira Sheehan) tells the tales of a wide variety of characters living in the Frontier universe around the year 3200. We encounter cyborgs, warring galactic empires, slavery, space explorers, big game hunters, religious fanatics, and ordinary people. Together, these stories paint a compelling picture of a time where a distance of 6 light-years is considered to be just around the corner. Probably my favorite aspect of the book is the manner in which the seemingly independent plots come together in a manner similar to that of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Leo Perutz's By Night under the Stone Bridge (Nachts unter der steinernen Brücke).

If I've piqued your interest, you have several options at your disposal. Original versions of the game, complete with supplementary materials, can occasionally be found on Ebay, although usually at fairly steep prices. For those with more limited pecuniary resources, there are scanned and text versions of the stories available on the web. At the moment, these can be found here and here. Of course, if you live in the Bay Area and ask me nicely, I might loan you my copy.