Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fantasy in video games

A friend posed the question today about fantasy, and its relevance to a modern audience in its 1950s, semi-archaic form.  Being primarily a novelist, she wondered : does fantasy have any place in the world of video games?  How do the distinctly modern-day demographic relate to worlds that are usually more slow-paced, vast and so black-and-white?

My first answer is, "Yes, fantasy has a place in video games."  My next answer is, "Really well, actually!"  So tonight I'm going to showcase a brief history of fantasy in the games I've played, the permutations and the assimilations that have made the genre what it is today - primarily something that's seen along the same lines as 40-year-olds playing D&D in their mum's basement.  Oh my.

Gaming goes through trends, as everything does.  One year you're seeing a lot of generic heroes-in-hoodies, and the next it's Art Deco retro-futures.  Like Pixar and Dreamworks films, or velociraptors, they seem to run in packs.  But fantasy is a humble beast, with origins in many of the finest minds, including those of the video game persuasion.  Some of these wander into the domain of historic fantasy, but I would argue that every game these days has some element of what would traditionally be called 'fantasy', be it the overly romantic representation of the New World in Colonization or the treasure- and ghost-hunting of The Sims 3.

But onto some history.  Where's the sword and sorcery, you ask?  Nowhere more clearly than in the Legend of Zelda series.  Here is a story, repeated tenfold, of a simple farmboy destined to save the Princess from the Darkness (a.k.a. Ganondorf).  Through countless iterations, and several platform changes, the story has remained mostly similar, even if the locale has changed.  Take another step, and we're closer to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two games hailed as the most beautifully moving experiences of the PlayStation 2 generation.  They are fantasy, pure and simple, with fantasy's underlying question : what does it mean to be human?

In the interim are games like Gauntlet and its later cousin, Gauntlet: Legends.  Altered Beast certainly warrants a mention, as does Bubble Bobble (though when you're dinosaurs, but from space, what genre is that, exactly?).  I was, of course, raised on games such as King's Quest and Quest For Glory, which each had their own unique, 8-colour worlds.  In the days of booting from black and white DOS prompt, those worlds were magic, when you had to be able to read to win the game, and I barely walking.  I managed enough through mimicry.  King's Quest 4 was the first game I ever finished all on my own.  I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt, but I remember equally the story, when the princess kisses the frog, you escape from the harpies, and the unicorn finally shows up.  I remember King's Quest 6 and its Dangling Participle.  They were worlds of whimsy, fun little places that, nevertheless, could have serious consequences.  Miss picking up an item, or select the wrong item for one of the gnomes, or even take too long in choosing, and you were a goner.  I've waxed a little more philosophical about what these games taught me in my article in The Escapist, so I won't go into further detail here.  But what these games lacked in graphics, they more than made up for in spirit.  Then everything changed.

Eventually, when the affordable home PC was more than a twinkle in Bill Gates' eye, the fantasy genre took on new meaning for me in the form of Myst.  I'd never seen anything like it.  It was so realistic, yet so alien; so intriguing, yet so unwelcoming, and more than a little chilling.  My strongest memory is looking through the telescope to see a skeleton sitting in the crow's nest of the ship.  As a tender child, you don't expect to see those kinds of things.  Myst didn't pull any punches when it came to epic choices, either, with the ending being one of the few moments that gave me a serious crisis of conscience in the years when I was too young to fully comprehend what a moral choice actually was.  All I knew was that it was wrong, wrong, wrong - I had to be able to save everyone!  Right?

Years later, when Myst III: Exile came out, I stumbled upon The Book of Atrus, and the world of Myst took on new meaning.  Here was an entire society, chronicled in a form that my higher thought processes said must be fake, but that my Dinotopia-loving soul cried out had to be real.  The idea, for a young writer, that someone with enough talent could literally write a world into existence, and visit it via a Linking Book?  Could there be anything more compelling?  Gladly, for a writer who had begun to venture further into games, the answer was another, "Yes!"  Two years earlier I'd discovered Baldur's Gate.  I'd journeyed throughout the Sword Coast, seen my foster father cut down in front of me, and fled from North to South to escape the evil tyranny of my half-brother by blood, son of the murdered God Bhaal, who had decreed himself to be our father's replacement in heaven.  It was a long and treacherous path, full of terror, exploration, moments of sweetness and, inexorably, the crushing weight of destiny.  I came out of that world a changed girl.

Then I fell in love.  For all that Myst III captivated me with its stunning visuals and rich lore, there was someone else on my horizon than Atrus and his lovely wife.  I had met a half-breed tiefling bard by the name of Haer'Dalis in Baldur's Gate 2.  We were inseparable, but this being the days when it was uncool to be a girl who played games, I had chosen a male character.  My anguish knew no bounds when Haer'Dalis chose, instead, to flirt not only with a female party member of mine, but the girl who was supposed to be in love with me!  That made for some confusing teenage angst, let me tell you.  In Baldur's Gate 2, I was following the man who had stolen my soul to replace his own, as his connection with the World Tree was severed after he tried to bring his dead sister back to life and inadvertently made her a vampire.  If he could only gather two half-immortal souls, he could return to Elven society to be with the woman he loved.  Luckily for him, I and my half-sister were on hand.  Unluckily for me, that meant that I would occasionally lose control and find myself as a demon-beast known only as The Slayer, without any ability to impede or halt my own rampage in any way.  I killed Haer'Dalis, and my entire party, and when I was myself again, I was alone.  I think you can guess how that ended.  A quick bout of tears, an even quicker load of my saved game, and renewed determination.

From there, I stepped to Planescape: Torment.  As another world set in the AD&D universe, it was similar in mechanics, but brand new in every other sense.  Here was a new world to explore, where thought had real power to create or shape the very ground on which you walked, and in which you were a walking corpse who awoke in the morgue with a bad hangover and no idea of how you had wound up dead.  The main character is even called The Nameless One.  If I had to choose a single game that defined my love of not only the fantasy genre, but games in totality, Planescape: Torment is it.  I had read many Pern and Discworld novels, I had written what I now realise was quite poor fanfiction, and I dreamed of one day writing my own novels, but my journey through Planescape was the first time a world had truly come alive for me.  The world of Myst was beautiful, fragile, like a crystal butterfly inside a filigree cage, but Planescape was the beating heart I held in my hand, covering me in blood and filling me with dread.  When I could bring myself to finish the game, I cried for two weeks.  I couldn't stop.  Even with all the anguish of Heavy Rain, Planescape left a stronger mark - not only had I been betrayed, I was the betrayer.  I felt sick, weak, powerless, and irredeemable.  I felt like I would never be clean.  And I knew then that I wanted to write games.

Fantasy, in these worlds, gave me something to believe in.  I was willing to lose myself in the exploration, and though many of the NPCs would as soon kill me as look at me, I always knew where I stood.  People would betray me, but I could see it coming.  Bandits would attack me, but I knew I was stronger.  I wasn't anyone special - heck, I wasn't even anyone, really.  But I was working hard, I was improving, and I was taking mastery of my world.  For a child, then a teenager, those are powerful feelings.  To hold a life in your hands is a precious thing, and nothing has taught me that more clearly than video games.

The other aspect of fantasy that I know attracted me, and still does, though it's somehow a shameful conceit in an adult, is that sense of control.  When you help someone, you're really helping them.  You're making a difference, a difference you can see and feel.  The quest reward is only a part of it.  I would like to think that, in the real world, if I saw someone in danger, or being attacked, I would rush to help.  In actuality, I'd call the police.  Quite often, when you do so, you never find out what happened.  There are few endings in life, and fewer things as simple as rescuing a Damsel in Distress.  There are rarely any situations that are so clearly black and white.  I say that Myst is shades of grey, and that, in itself, is true.  But what is also true is that your decision is, ideally, informed; you have power, you make a choice, and you improve the world.  How could that not appeal?

The thing that has drawn me most to fantasy in recent years is the simplicity of life, and the danger of it.  As I grow older, I crave experiences that make me feel alive.  A lot of the romance has gone out of romance, since there are no world wars, and most diseases have a cure.  I would argue that a big part of passionate love is the fear of loss, which we simply don't see in our everyday lives, bar accidents or illness.  The world is nowhere near as dangerous as it once was for those of us in First World countries, and our passions have suffered for it.  In fantasy, and especially in games, you have no idea what awaits you in a new town.  You never know if there's an assassin around the bend.  You keep in touch only in person, and get news only in major towns.  It's a striking comparison to my internet-enabled iPhone.  Without technology, people have to actually communicate.  The urgency, the immediacy and the intimacy of these conversations is something that's sorely lacking from many people's lives.  To live in fear that you may never see someone again is hell, but in a video game, it provides impetus.  You work to save the people or places you love.  Nothing in the real world is so clear, so finite.  Fantasy lets us believe we can make a difference, and shows us that we can.  And, ideally, good wins out.  You fight the ultimate evil, or perhaps discover yourself to be the ultimate evil, but rarely does the story end badly.  The world is a safer place, and you were responsible.  But this has been changing, slowly, in games and elsewhere.  Suddenly things aren't so simple anymore.

In recent years there have been games such as Morrowind and Oblivion of the Elder Scrolls series, worlds that are open for exploration and wild beyond imagining.  I spent hours playing multiplayer Age of Empires and Civilisation, which taught me valuable lessons about logistics and strange phrases to use in Chinese class.  I laughed at bacon in the world of Nox, and dropped 50 diamonds at a time just to watch the physics.  I hunted the slayer of Aribeth's fiance in Neverwinter Nights and cringed at the sequel.  I spent hours with my brother in Dungeon Siege, getting to the giant chicken level.  I entered the world of Armoured Princess with delight, and hack-and-slashed my way through Torchlight and Trine.  Most recently, I've fallen into Dragon Age, but it seems a pale wisp of a thing compared to the flames of my past experiences.  And that's my main complaint, which I know is being echoed in other media :

Fantasy is getting watered down.  I don't believe it's just because the games of the past were based on Dungeons and Dragons.  Myst wasn't, and it had its own mythos, including a trilogy of real-world books.  The Elder Scrolls games have always had a rich history, with in-game books to pique your interest.  Trine had a bedtime-story quality that endeared it to me, and Torchlight, while lacking the dramatic turnaround that made Diablo such a heart-wrencher originally, was pretty and fun and had a cute enough story to match the visuals.  'Serious' games of the past few years, those that have tried to do fantasy, haven't had the majority of these things.  From what I've played of Fable 2 and my impressions of it, the console gamers aren't faring much better, either.

So what is it?  Have we finally run out of ideas?  No, I don't think so.  Is fantasy no longer relevant?  I'd like to think that question is so absurd as to not need answering, but the harsh truth must be faced.  When Joe Abercrombie can write amazing, terrible, soul-destroying epics, and still have me love him for them, perhaps the face of fantasy is changing.  It's no longer the person I once knew.  If that were simply it, it might be bearable, but fantasy writers in games seem to be taking themselves too seriously.  The religious connotations of the Chantry in Dragon Age give the world a sense of realism that I don't care to embrace.  The idea of persuasion in Oblivion, while fun and a nice change from the previous mechanics, becomes a little creepy when you're coercing someone and they're smiling to show you they'll respond 'well' to it, despite saying things along the lines of, "Please! No! You're scaring me!"

It's also becoming more generic, not less.  The worlds of yore, though seen with rose-tinted glasses, had more to offer in terms of escapism than simply swords and dragons.  They had a living world that invited you to play.  I haven't spent as long in any recent game as I have in Morrowind or the Baldur's Gate series.  I'm willing to accept that's part of growing up, but it isn't only that.  When a genre is something so near and dear to your heart that you can't bear to see it done badly, it becomes very difficult to get excited about new releases.  It's been years since I yearned to play.  Does that mean the magic's gone?

I'm hoping it's a cycle.  Planescape and Baldur's Gate had serious stories, but there were also many opportunities for lightness and humour.  Dragon Age can be funny, but only when I convince it I'm not taking it seriously first, only with my permission.  Shouldn't the default be to entertain?  Inappropriate levity can ruin an important moment, but there's a time and a place for everything.  Humour has many places, and can be applied at many times.  Those old games were fun.  There was only one outcome, but you couldn't wait to take the journey.  With our branching paths and multiple endings, it feels a bit like we've lost the plot or, worse, the soul of what we set out to achieve.  Fantasy is more than pretty armour and dashing knights.  It tells us something vitally important :

This is what it's like to be human.

Pain is a part of that, but so are joy, happiness, love, excitement and colour.  Brighten your world in more ways than one.  Blue skies never did anyone harm.  Even if the world is ending, even if I and everyone I love are about to die, the sun can still shine.  Make me feel those last moments as keenly as if I were really there.  Show me the beauty of the world I'm trying to save, though dialogue, through interactions, through scenery, and through my own reactions.  Build a living world, rather than tacking more material on something dead to begin with.  Start from the ground up, and give yourself permission to breathe life into your creation.  There have been so many advances in technology that I refuse to believe this is the best we can do.  Remember the wonder you felt as a child, and translate it into the world you create.  The result will be something that lends itself infinitely better to sequels and spinoffs than a hollow shell.

The most important aspect, for me, as a gamer?  Tell me who I am again.  In Baldur's Gate and Planescape and Morrowind, even Myst, I was someone.  I had a purpose.  Let me choose my face, but give me a past.  Give me a purpose.  And give me a world to explore.  I'll be on your side, I promise.  I'll delight in your delight,  share your enthusiasm and your anguish, and spend my hours exploring the world you created for me.  You'll never know, but you just have to trust me.  After all, isn't that why we got into games?

Is fantasy dead, as a genre in games?  No.  But it's a bit too much of the grieving widow to dance a merry jig. The Scandinavian countries, to generalise, are doing a fantastic job.  We're merely hanging on.  It's time to do more, and for those of you who play games, it's time to demand more.  Fantasy isn't dead.  It's only sleeping. And it's my fervent hope that Prince Charming is just over the horizon.

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