Culture Bytes: Fantasy in Video Games

The eyes turn to me at Writers Anonymous.
"My name's Sam," I say. "And I write fantasy."
The look of scorn is something I've come to expect, so much so that the encouraging smile from the 'speculative fiction' author across the circle somewhat unnerves me. But it's nothing compared to what's to come after my next bold admission.
"And..." The lump in my throat asserts itself. "I'm heavily influenced by video games."
Looks of disgust all around. I think I hear someone throw up. Even the speculative fiction author distances herself from me. The torment overwhelms me and I break down in tears. End scene. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but hopefully you get the point. I suppose the main thing to take away from this part of the article is that I write fantasy novels and fantasy video games have been pretty inspirational to me. Sometimes in good ways, sometimes in showing me what to avoid. By why has this affected me so much? Are fantasy video games inherently more imaginative than worlds created in other mediums?

For many, the seminal work of fantasy is J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings; Middle Earth capturing the imaginations of millions of readers and movie-goers worldwide. However, Middle Earth is little more than a Medieval setting with the fantasy staples of magic and lore thrown in. In truth, there is nothing in Tolkien's world particularly new - it is a world based in history after all - but its themes of friendship and morality cement its literary worth. Middle Earth is different enough to European history to capture the imagination thanks to the richly textured ring-wraiths and other creatures Tolkien wrote in. Interestingly, Game of Thrones, probably the most successful fantasy series of recent times, has a world of similar origins. And perhaps this is the real strength of Game of Thrones - in creating a world the audience is mostly familiar with, George R.R Martin can focus on what he really excels at - plot. To call these worlds 'staid' I feel would be unfair; they are still works of huge imagination and epic proportions, though their settings are based in familiarity, even if of a bygone era. Conversely, we have worlds that are entirely their own. N.K Jemisin's The Inheritance Trilogy is primarily set in the World Tree that houses one city on many different branches and levels - all of them a strange mixture of familiarity and futurism. In a turn of post-modernity Ben Galley's Scarlet Star books have created a Weird West world; combining traditional fantasy with the Wild West - a knowing nod to the fact that the west of the movies, of bounty hunters and dead-eye shots, is a fantasy in itself. Even in anime and manga we have Attack on Titan, blending high concept dystopian sci-fi with a European Medieval setting. This is groundbreaking in its alchemy of styles, if not the styles themselves. As we can see, there are a wealth of differing fantasy worlds outside of video games, some based in what we already know, others a hive of imagination.

It would be impossible to ignore the huge success that is Dragon Age. The series' main innovation is the ability to change your character's path, with the smallest actions having profound consequences in the world of Thedas. Yet, the world itself is, again, very much based in European Medieval history. The castles and dress could have been taken directly from a story of Camelot. There's even an element of the Crusades with the inclusion of the Templar Knights. Is this surprising? I suppose not - most art is derivative in some form or another, though it has to be said that the plot for Dragon Age: Origins is pretty much lifted from Aragorn's story arch in The Lord of the Rings. Does this make it a bad game? Not at all. Although Thedas and the plot are nothing groundbreaking, the mechanics of the medium allow for a huge amount of exploration and any created world will have an element of something new, even its more the environments themselves than what they contain. In short, Dragon Age shows a wealth of imagination in elements of its gameplay that, sadly, do not work their way into Thedas, leaving a world of untapped potential.

Although set almost entirely in one place, Ico has almost unparalleled world-building. Light on dialogue and with a plot based in the very experience of the castle, Ico is told and created sparsely through its mise-en-scene; there is no backstory. The castle is one of light and shade, left rotting by its previous inhabitants as nature begins to take hold once more. It's a melancholy affair - the fragility of human-made things and the destructive powers of time are constantly on show. It's difficult to fault the imagination of telling a story in such a quiet way and the world is beautifully realised. In many ways Ico reminds me of the eponymous castle from Mervyn Peake's Gormengast Trilogy - a curious mixture of gothic architecture, eccentricity and phantasmagoria. Like Ico, Peake takes us through his world one room at a time - the titles of the chapters in the early stages of Titus Groan are the names of the rooms - the story told through the atmosphere that surrounds the characters. In fact, in both works, the castle is a character. As I said before, most art is in some way derivative, and Ico is certainly treading ground that has been ventured through before, but it makes this imagination its own through its story telling techniques, making the audience experience profound and all-encompassing. We are not watching something unfold, we are a living, breathing entity within the life of the castle.

The Final Fantasy series has created countless worlds since it came into being, each one different from the last. We have the Steampunk grittiness of Final Fantasy VII, the crystalline beauty of Final Fantasy X, the almost Tudor-like majesty of Final Fantasy IX and so many more. It could be argued that the styles of the worlds are similar to things we have seen before, but the meshing of old and new, reality and fantasy, east and west, creates something completely its own. Pulling the worlds even further from the sum of their parts is the telling of them. The series has an art style somewhere being manga and hyper-reality, especially in later installments, and an architectural style that meshes Roman stonework with impossible jewel structures. As vague as it might sound, there's just something about the style of the worlds in Final Fantasy (no matter how much they change) that is completely its own - the imagination, the rendering, the realisation. And, for me, this was the enduring disappointment of Final Fantasy XIII. Cocoon and Pulse were such rich worlds, but the linear gameplay didn't allow for any exploration of them. The audience were confronted with a world of staggering depth and beauty, but could only explore its surface; caught in a corridor when it was clear there was so much more on offer. The MMO Final Fantasy XIV (since its reboot) seems to have put the series back on track and the sneak peaks of Final Fantasy XV look very promising. Hopefully we'l once again have worlds as deep as Gaia and Spira to adventure in soon.

There are many reasons I could fawn over Ni No Kuni (the soundtrack alone is a masterpiece) but it's a titan in terms of world-building. A high fantasy of epic proportions, there is a city of almost every description; from the quaint Ding Dong Dell to the steampunk Hamelin, from the desert city of Al Mamoon to the pirate bay of Castaway Cove - the game encompasses every type of fantasy imaginable. Add to this the stunningly versatile world map and the nostalgic realism of Motortown and we have a game that has taken its world-building extremely seriously, with an effort of thought that would make even the most talented author jealous. The 'whole 'nother world', as Mr Drippy calls it, is a world of eccentrics and magic, of animalistic humans and humanistic animals. In literature the only world I can compare it to with any reliability is Wonderland from the works of Lewis Carroll, though Ni No Kuni  is so vast, with a wealth more scale, it seems an unfair comparison. Yet, what really sets this world apart is its imbued charm, but what else would you expect from a game created in part by Studio Ghibli?  Ni No Kuni houses a world in which every second is a joy. There aren't too many fantasies I can say that for.

In conclusion, to say that one medium creates better fantasy worlds than another is unfair - all have their merits. While films tell the most concise story, books allow the reader to interpret the world their own way, and video games allow for the greatest exploration (or do at their best). Perhaps more to the point, while there are some very imaginative worlds in video games, there are a host more derivative ones that rely on the exploration aspect to save them - World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age to name but a few. I'd argue this doesn't make them bad games, but there's definitely unrealised potential. More worrying is the reliance on the tropes of straight, white, male protagonists - something fantasy, in all mediums, is struggling to let go of. As a radical new medium with the ability to re-write how we think about art and fiction, I hope, one day, we can see video games pull our oldest genre ever further into the 21st century and beyond, where works of great imagination surely belong.  

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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