By Nelson Schneider - 01/15/12 at 09:12 PM CT
Fantasy is one of the primary thematic settings that has always driven videogames. It has been with us for decades, primarily pushed by PC game developers in America, with a stylized version creeping across the Pacific to bring life to popular RPG franchises like “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Quest.” This generation, as more and more Fantasy-themed PC games find their way onto consoles, one thing is becoming painfully apparent: A stunning lack of creativity.
Fantasy is my favorite genre primarily because anything can happen. It is not bound by realism, nor by scientifically-feasible concepts (which are frequently proven wrong or impossible, thus ruining a variety of popular Science Fiction as progress marches on). As long as a Fantasy setting is internally consistent, providing a framework of rules for how the world works, it is actually the most flexible genre for storytelling. Yet what do we get in our Fantasy videogames? A choking glut of so-called “Dark Fantasy,” in which anything that makes the archetypal “High Fantasy” light-hearted or fantastical is excised to create a drab, bleak world filled with death and despair. Really, what all these Dark Fantasies are is J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth with the Hobbits removed and a few name changes. Looking at the two most popular multi-platform Fantasy franchises from this generation, “Dragon Age” and “The Elder Scrolls,” this trend is difficult to ignore.
But what really perplexes me is the fact that all these modern Fantasy games feel compelled to stamp-out cookie-cutter copies of the same setting under the guise of being unique. These settings are not, in fact, unique, but derivative and boring. At least “The Elder Scrolls” series has been going for five games in the same setting, so things have developed a little bit there. Add-in the fact that each “Elder Scrolls” game contains numerous in-game ‘books’ that detail the lore of the world, and one would expect to find at least some creativity… except that in doing this “The Elder Scrolls” just further entrenches itself in derivativity by building walls of useless trivia.
Anyone who has been reading Fantasy and playing Fantasy for any decent length of time is likely fed-up with learning more useless trivia about poorly-supported Fantasy worlds that may-or-may-not receive any further support from writers, developers, or publishers. So when Fantasy PC games began focusing on Dungeons & Dragons settings during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, it made a lot of sense. Gamers would be presented with fully-realized digital re-creations of Fantasy worlds with decades of writing and pencil & paper gaming materials behind them. This was the time period in which BioWare and the late Black Isle Studios rose to prominence.
So where are the D&D videogames now? It seems that Atari, the destroyer of the American videogame industry in 1983 (Atari delenda est) inherited the license to make these games from Black Isle, yet the only D&D videogame we’ve received this generation is a tiresome Hack ‘n Slash called “Daggerdale,” a game that doesn’t even clearly belong to an established D&D setting. The answer lies in D&D 4th Edition and the fact that the maker of the game, Wizards of the Coast themselves, have lost focus on supporting settings in favor of selling rulebooks and subscriptions to online character generators. Indeed, the most recent D&D setting is Eberron, which was created by a third-party in 2004 (and has also received little support, despite being a shining example of the in-vogue Dark Fantasy). Of course, this lack of setting that came to a head in 4th Edition began in 3rd Edition, in which utterly generic Fantasy is presented in the core rulebooks, with a handful of materials for The Forgotten Realms (and a few other settings by poverty-stricken third-parties) published as add-ons. Now that the completely-unnecessary 5th Edition has been announced, I fully expect the same tired setting from 3E and 4E. It seems that the generic and dull Fantasy setting in “Daggerdale” isn’t evidence of a poor videogame, but of a problem endemic to the very core of the D&D experience.
Of course the whole problem with the underutilization of classic D&D setting stems from the idiotically-complex and overbearing copyright system we have in the United States. Nobody at Wizards of the Coast actually wrote those settings; they were written by freelancers and staff writers at TSR, which was purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. Besides, why would a company that has made its vast mountain of riches by selling trading card games care about the settings in a pencil & paper RPG they only seem to be supporting in order to humor and patronize its fans? Wizards of the Coast isn’t invested in these Fantasy settings, and the original writers in many cases can’t afford to license-back their works from Wizards of the Coast, or sell enough books to pay themselves. TSR collapsed under the weight of these Fantasy settings because they didn’t have an immensely successful framework of supplementary income to prop themselves up during lean times. Wizards of the Coast has that, both in the form of their trading cards and in the form of their parent company, Hasbro.
However, as evidenced by the popularity of even generic Fantasy videogames like “Dragon Age” and “The Elder Scrolls,” Fantasy is back in a big way. It might be time for Wizards of the Coast to delve into its deepest vaults and resurrect some of its classic settings, licensing issues be damned. Simply updating the old rule supplements to the current edition and releasing a trilogy of professionally written pencil & paper adventures for each one would be a good start. Even better would be to send complementary copies of these materials to Atari and demand some D&D videogames. Even, EVEN better would be to revoke Atari’s exclusive D&D videogame license and allow any game developer to pay a small licensing fee to use these settings. The end result couldn’t possibly be worse than what’s happening now.
Why are these D&D settings so much better than the generic counterparts we’re seeing in modern videogames? Here are a few examples:
Yes, this setting is very generic. But it’s also FRAKKIN’ HUGE! There are a variety of time periods, including the ‘current’ period, the Time of Troubles, and Netheril: Empire of Magic, as well as a massive overworld and massive-er underworld in the form of the Underdark. Pretty much any current Fantasy videogame could be cut-and-paste into the Forgotten Realms, with a few changes, and would be better-off for the transplant.
My favorite setting, like the Forgotten Realms, has multiple time periods (some better off ignored), but also has a strong central story and cast of characters backed-up by dozens of novels. Why has nobody yet made videogame versions of the core novels? The plot is already written for you!
It’s Fantasy! It’s Horror! Two great tastes that taste great together?! While I’m not much of a Horror fan, it IS a very popular genre in videogames. And Ravenloft is filled with all manner of horrifying undead besides the chronically over-exposed zombies. It’s a living nightmare that traps souls forever!
Council of Wyrms
You’re a dragon. You can fly, hoard treasure, and breathe terrible things on people you don’t like. How is this not awesome?
It’s Dark Fantasy, but takes place in a desert world where metal is rare while psychic powers are common. It also gives me a bit of an Edgar Rice Burroughs vibe.
A Fantasy setting based loosely on the “Arabian Nights” would be a refreshing change from Fantasy based on Medieval Europe. Genies! Flying carpets! Scimitars! Not generic!
How do you reconcile Fantasy and Science Fiction? Simply connect every Fantasy setting (a la “Final Fantasy 4: The After Years”) through space travel. But this setting doesn’t just feature any old space ships, but old-timey sailing vessels, suped-up with magic that lets them travel through Wild Space and crewed by a variety of classic Fantasy monsters (like Beholders). Spelljammer was the first attempt at connecting the entirety of the D&D universe. This setting would readily lend itself to a massive-scale MMORPG.
The second take at connecting the D&D universe together… by changing it to a multi-verse and using metaphysics instead of regular physics to explain how everything is connected. Planescape is filled to bursting with things that are utterly weird and as far from generic as possible. It’s even entirely possible to get swept into a literal Living Hell by stumbling into the Blood War between demons and devils. How is “Torment” the only game in this setting?!