Slaying Dragons: Fantasy and Video Games
I have a confession to make. Lately, I’ve been killing dragons. A lot of them.
Well, not really me, but the character that I play in Skyrim, the latest in the Elder Scrolls series. It’s quickly become one of my favorite games, and I’ve spent far too much time playing when I should be writing. It’s just too damned fun. But beyond that, games like Skyrim rival books and movies when it comes to the quality of the storytelling, sometimes even surpassing them. And they also give you the opportunity to participate in the storytelling process.
Fantasy has long been a source of inspiration for video games. Even when games were only things you could play in arcades, we had Joust and Gauntlet. Computers brought us Zork, and other text-based games which drew heavily from fantasy. And those were just the beginning. Later games continued to mine this field – Ultima, King’s Quest, and Myst, all the way up through World of Warcraft.
Console games continued the trend, with games like The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and even Super Mario Brothers. Exciting game worlds, worlds with their own rules and backstories, began a move from games where the goal was to score as high as possible to games that had a story, where you could start to immerse yourself in the setting.
Fantasy has the scale, the sheer breadth of imagination to build great games. And with games moving more to interactive storytelling, rich secondary worlds allow ample opportunities for special effects magic without need for special budgets. As much as I’ve loved games like Paperboy, there’s something about the scope of a Zelda or Final Fantasy, where you are saving the whole world, that makes the experience epic.
Of course the type of game has something to do with the experience as well. Fantastical settings have been used for games of every kind, from platformers to puzzle games to first-person action games. But I think that fantasy worlds shine best when used in roleplaying games.
Clearly, when it comes to western RPGs like Dragon Age and the Elder Scrolls series, Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games are in their DNA. Before these kinds of video games were possible, table-top RPGs allowed players to imagine themselves as characters in worlds resembling those of their favorite fantasy settings. D&D’s origins clearly take influence from Lieber’s Lankhmar, Vance’s Dying Earth, and Tolkien and Moorcock. Later licensed tabletop games allowed you to actually play in Middle Earth, in Lankhmar, and in the world of the Eternal Champion (modern tabtletop games continue this trend by licensing George R. R. Martin’s Westeros and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time world). In tabletop RPGs you could take on the role of the hero (or the antihero), delving through dungeons or even slaying dragons. It put the players (at least to a certain extent) in control of the story. They could determine their actions or reactions and a form of interactive storytelling was born.
Video games have really just automated the process. Earlier games included the stats that would represent your character, and allowed a limited freedom of action. Modern RPGs have pushed the stats to the background and allow for even more freedom. Instead of a Dungeon Master controlling the world and creating it with imagination, the world is coded, designed and created on a scale that, to me at least, is mindboggling. There are limits, of course – areas of the map that you can’t go beyond, limitations to the controls – but as far as immersive experiences go, you can now create characters with their own personalities, who can interact with the world however you choose. Even creatures like dragons almost have minds of their own, little AIs working in the computer world.
Story vs. Freedom
Modern RPGs generally fall into two camps. On the one hand, you have games that attempt to mimic the experience and narrative structure of a movie with epic plots. I’m thinking of Mass Effect, here, or the fantasy equivalent, Dragon Age. In these games you can still create a unique character, you can still make choices as to how your character interacts with the world – taking a noble, moral path, for example, or playing an evil, amoral bastard (or something in-between). In these games, though, you can’t just roam through the countryside. There are generally optional adventures you can take, but the main quest tends to progress on a pretty rigid track, though with various elements determined by your decisions. The upside to these games is that the narrative retains most of its power and the story, while mutable, sticks to a certain shape.
On the other side you have games like the aforementioned Skyrim, designed to give you almost unlimited freedom. Skyrim has a main game plot, but you don’t really need to play it. You could spend all of your game time pursuing other quests, both major or minor, and never really commit to the main quest. Sure, you won’t be able to truly complete the game otherwise, but you can (and I have) spend most of your time exploring, poking around in ruins and caves to see what’s in there. You can decide to spend much of your time brewing potions or making armor. These games are designed to allow you to create your own narrative for much of the time. A game like Skyrim gives the player ultimate control, though this sometimes scatters the narrative and blunts the overall story.
Several elements are shared, however, between the two camps. Relationships tend to be pretty standard inclusions, allowing you to pair up with other characters in the game, the newest crop even allowing same-sex relationships. You can customize your own characters in more and more ways, too, specializing your skills and powers until you create the character you want to play. Most modern RPGs even give you the ability to fine tune your character’s appearance, making changes to things such as the width of your nose or the space between your eyes.
More and more in today’s gaming world, players are given the option to create their own stories. And no two stories will be exactly the same. In the end, the goal is to put the player in the center of the narrative, to make them an integral part. It’s the main strength of video games, the interactive component, and this, above all else, justifies their inclusion alongside other storytelling forms.
But do we lose something this way?
Let me explain. In the 70s, for example, if someone read The Hobbit, Smaug the dragon would entirely be a product of their imagination. Sure, they may have seen pictures of dragons, or, later, animations, but generally monsters were “rendered” by their writers, and the better the writing, the more impressive and fearsome a creature may have been. Like the best horror shows us, the human brain is often more capable of conjuring up horrific bogeymen than most special effects artists.
Which is not to discount the Harryhausens and others who create monsters. They have their place. But as we have developed to the place where we can depict monsters so easily, does that take something away from the power they have? Does that inure us against fantasy’s greatest strengths?
As I said at the beginning, I’ve been killing a lot of dragons. Fantasy stories generally tell us that dragons are powerful creatures to be feared. Generally only great heroes can defeat a dragon – Beowulf, St. George, Earendil. And when I first started playing Skyrim, and faced my first dragon, it’s fair to say I got a bit frantic. I mashed at the buttons slashing with my sword and swallowing healing potions at an alarming rate. It was a bit of a scary moment. Many hours later, however, dragons seem to pose little threat. They’ve become more of an annoyance and that fear, that frantic flush of holy-crap-what-do-I-do energy is no longer there. And since it’s me in control of the character killing these dragons, does that make dragons in general less impressive to me?
Or is it the responsibility of the writer to make their dragons work? To use language and description and plot to give them power? Does the fatigue we feel from these kinds of experiences reset with every encounter, so that picking up a new book, my mind has different expectations?
I’m not calling for games to stop incorporating dragons or other creatures, and I don’t think fantasy literature is threatened, but I do think that writers have to think very carefully about how they use elements like dragons and have to use the strengths of the medium to help make them work. What do you think? Have you experienced this at all?
Great fantasy worlds to check out
I wanted to end this by singling out a few fantasy worlds from video games that I find particularly impressive. These are just some of my favorites and I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.
Planescape from Planescape: Torment
Planescape is an older game, though now available at gog.com, which was based on the Planescape setting that TSR created for the AD&D tabletop game. Unlike other D&D-related games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, which were set in a classic medieval RPG setting, Planescape was set in a series of different dimensions and involved a number of truly weird and wacky characters and creatures including a floating, talking skull. Of all of Black Isle’s RPGS of the time, Planescape stands head and shoulders above the rest not only for the world, but for the storytelling and production values which created a truly immersive game.
Hyrule from The Legend of Zelda series
I’ll always have love for the Zelda games, from the first game on the original Nintendo system through the latest release. And while games often introduce new mechanics, there’s something comforting about knowing that you’re returning to the same world where somewhere there’s a Triforce and a Princess Zelda and Moblins, Rupees, and a familiar green-clad hero named Link. I think my favorite of the games to date is Twilight Princess, which contains a world much darker and stranger than those we’d seen before. It was the first of the Zeldas to have a truly epic feel and delivered an almost cinematic experience. A close runner-up is the Ocarina of Time.
I felt that a Bioware game needed to make the list, though I skipped the Dragon Age games since, though enjoyable, they tend to hew closely to more common fantasy worlds. Jade Empire, however, for the original Xbox, picks a different source of inspiration, creating a fantasy world based on ancient China. Elves and orcs can get old sometimes, but not so fox spirits, elephant demons, and toad demons. Bioware works its usual magic with the story and the characters, but with such a fresh world, one drawn from wuxia, it felt like something new. Plus, you know, kung fu.
The Longest Journey
A computer game, The Longest Journey incorporates science fictional elements as well as fantasy, but I’m claiming it for this list. A point-and-click adventure game, it follows a young woman, April Ryan, who lives in the future, but discovers that another world, a fantasy world, exists. As someone who can walk between the worlds, it’s up to her to restore the Balance. As with the other games on this list, the production values and voice acting are top notch and the story compelling.
To date there have been seven Elder Scrolls games with Skyrim being the latest. As such they’ve had an opportunity to develop the world of Tamriel, though each game tends to focus on a new area. One of my favorite elements to these games is the level of detail that goes into them. There are even books you can find in houses and dungeons, each elaborating on the culture and history and folktales of the peoples of the game. In Skyrim you can also, as mentioned, kill dragons. Kudos to the game designers as well for creating a world where right and wrong aren’t so easily discernible. One of the key conflicts to the game is the Empire vs. the Stormcloaks and both sides are as gray as they come.
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