Page to Pixel: Starship Troopers

Posted: September 19, 2011 in Page to Pixel, PC
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Robert Heinlen is one of the best-known names in science fiction; up there with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov as some of the truly monolithic giants of the genre. Heinlein’s writing covered a vast array of ideas- ranging from Libertarian revolution on the moon (The Moon is A Harsh Mistress) to free love (Stranger in a Strange Land) to the subject of today’s post, infantry in powered armor.

The story follows Juan Rico on his journey from high school grad to member of the elite Mobile Infantry – marking the first appearance of powered armor in fiction. The Mobile Infantry are, therefore, pretty much the archetypal space marines. The Mobile Infantry go through training from hell like any good special forces unit, and go on a hunt for massive spacefaring bugs that have ravaged human colonies. Now, don’t think you’re getting off easy, reader, because Heinlein has a penchant for dealing out chunks of philopsophy.  And in this case, his philosophical bent is, depending on your particular interpretation; either in favor of serving the government in order to attain full voting rights, or in favor of a militaristic system where only soldiers can vote. Naturally, your interpretation may vary. But hey, even if the politics bug you (pun intended), there’s still plenty of exciting, large-scale arthropod extermination.

Starship Troopers was first turned into a videogame with the obscure 1982 computer game Klendathu, named for one of the planets the bugs operate from. In addition, there were a few games based on the (enjoyable if you know what you’re getting into) 1997 Paul Verhoeven adaptation, but to be honest – I’m going to go in a different direction from my usual Page To Pixel articles and have a look at the influence Starship Troopers has had on games in general.

You may have noticed powered armor is a popular choice for videogame protagonists.

Now, as I mentioned before, Starship Troopers is pretty much the source for the concept of powered armor. Suits of powered armor, of course, have been seen in everything from the Brotherhood of Steel’s bulky, Imperial Dark Trooper-esque suits to the sleek nanosuits in Crysis, to Earthworm Jim‘s Super-Suit. Powered armor of course serves the function of any armor, to protect the soft fleshy person inside, as well as fortifying and increasing the strength of that person. The suits may also have additional functions such as targeting systems (the Silencers in Crusader), means of travel such as jetpacks (the Jump Jet Troopers in Command & Conquer), or even Predator-style stealth as seen in Crysis and (naturally) Alien vs. Predator.

In addition, the concept of the space marine began in Starship Troopers, although the Mobile Infantry aren’t marines per se; the idea of spaceborne troops that operate from dropships began here. There were perhaps two non-videogame franchises that helped to evolve our modern concept of the space marine in the 1980s. The film Aliens featured a squad of Colonial Marines sent to dispatch alien “bugs”, and Warhammer 40,000‘s Space Marines are the 8-foot tall, ornately armored, two-hearted heroes of the Imperium. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are getting videogame installments concentrated on in-your-face space marinery.

Considering Blizzard’s typical originality, it’s entirely possible they came up with the idea for space marines on…sorry, can’t type that with a straight face.

The space marine is practically a videogame archetype. The Doom guy, the Terran Marines in Starcraft, Master Chief, Commander Shepard and the assorted meatheads of Gears of War all fit the space marine style to a T, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Halo is probably the best example of Starship Troopers’ enduring legacy on videogames. It ticks all the major features that Troopers contributed – you play a space marine in powered armor, operating from the Foe Hammer dropship…I don’t want to call Halo unoriginal (for my own benefit, as I know the internet will bite my head off for not considering it to be a completely original work), but the impact of Heinlein’s themes are quite clearly shown in the game.

Finally, the entire military science fiction sub-genre, one which encompasses numerous novels and games, was essentially launched with Starship Troopers. Even Star Wars franchise games like TIE Fighter and Republic Commando fall into the military SF genre, presenting a look at the rank-and-file front-line fighters as opposed to the more glamorous heroes the movies present.  So the next time you’re playing a game set in the distant (or not too distant, for that matter) future, and you’re dropping from a ship or flipping your ride over with the help of your armor-strength, remember where it all started.

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