Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why (most) Fantasy Sucks

As my return to this whole internet thing (I am back from real life, rejoice), I was writing about New Vegas. Unfortunately it was some questionably-interesting wanking, and really what we're trying to do here is be interesting while wanking. So I'm shelving that in favor of a simple proclamation: fantasy games are largely shit.

Now let me clarify. I like fantasy. A number of my favorite RPGs (which I was quantifying as part of my New Vegas wank) are fantasy. I do not hate fantasy. However, fantasy as a game genre is being shit upon every day by designers who have no imagination, publishers who won't give money to people with an original thought in their heads, and research/assumptions about the audience which are completely fucking wrong and anyone can prove them wrong with half an hour's investigation.


Let me tell you a story. Long ago in the dark days of the early 90s, some game designers played D&D. They enjoyed the setting they'd come up with for their campaign and thought it would make a great computer RPG. So they stripped out the D&D and made a game out of it. It was a good game, people enjoyed their world, and it spawned a sequel. Then another sequel.

This third game took place in a particular part of their world that was different. Very different—this sort of setting had never been seen before. It was still fantasy, but didn't rest on cliche. The wildlife consisted of giant insects. The land was dominated by blasted volcanic moonscapes, with patches of plains and grassland, swamps and forests of giant mushrooms. The locals were xenophobic assholes who never really accepted you, even if you were of their race. It was a great game.

This land was part of a big empire, and the capitol province had always been a looming presence in the lore. It was based on Rome, but only sort of; it was a jungle, full of ziggurats. The capitol city was like this, pyramids in a jungle with rope bridges strung about, combined with a Roman imperial culture. It seemed pretty interesting and everybody wanted to see it. The fourth game in the series would be set there.

And they retconned it into a whitebread bog-standard medieval fantasyland, stripped to the bone with every bit of imagination forcibly extracted, probably with pliers and a rusty steak knife. It was still well done, but it made me wonder how they'd gone from such an interesting setting to something so mundane.

Those of you versed in RPG lore know I'm talking about the Elder Scrolls here, and the bizarre transition from the alien landscape of Vvardenfell in Morrowind to the remarkably unremarkable Cyrodiil of Oblivion. Somewhere between the two, Bethesda decided that an interesting setting was somehow a bad idea and they would be better served by going back to the well-trodden land of elves and knights and thatched roofs. What the fuck? It's not that Bethesda can't do interesting. Morrowind proved it, then Fallout 3 proved it. Admittedly they were building on Black Isle's work when they did Fallout 3, but it still takes talent to pull that off—they could have very easily lost sight of what made Fallout interesting and shat all over the property. But they didn't. Fallout 3 isn't perfect by any means. However, as far as understanding the setting, treating it with care, and producing the proper atmosphere and feeling in the player, they did it perfectly. They know how to avoid boring.

It's not a Bethesda problem. Bioware promised us a George RR Martin inspired dark fantasy, a different kind of world, which at first looked like it owed more to the Arabian Nights than Tolkien. Then Dragon Age actually came out and proved they were full of shit. Again, it was well done (and it portrayed a medieval England-esque setting better than most do), but it was the same old shit. There are hints of more interesting places in the setting; only hints, we never see them. The cavalcade of Forgotten Realms games have the same problem. Yet again, the Realms have interesting locales, but mostly we stay to the more traditional, approachable areas of the Sword Coast. The most interesting of this field, Mask of the Betrayer, takes us to the rarely used and exotic lands of Rashemen and Thay. World of Warcraft did the same thing as Oblivion, wrenching every bit of interesting out of the Warcraft setting. Think through the fantasy games you've played recently. How many of them had a really different, compelling setting? Ten percent?

Why is a fantasy game with a good setting such a rarity?

The answer I always hear is that it doesn't sell. People are dumb and like familiarity. Look at Planescape: Torment, they say. The best RPG ever made, it should've sold billions, but the Planescape setting was so alien that it drove everyone off. If you want to move copies, you make Tolkien.

This explains why Morrowind sold approximately a bazillion copies. The Xbox version's sales were comparable to Halo, eliminating another possibility—that console gamers aren't sophisticated enough to handle interesting. The fact is people can handle an interesting setting. Somehow it's become common sense that the opposite is true.

Laziness is a possibility. As obvious as this sounds, it takes more effort to make an interesting setting than to regurgitate another pseudo-England sorta-medieval thing. I find this explanation very unsatisfying. Mostly because of things I've already discussed; many of these companies who make shitty generic fantasy have also made better products with better settings. Bethesda did Morrowind, Bioware did Mass Effect. Does it make sense that they'd spend a lot of effort on one game and then turn lazy for another? I suppose it's possible, but eh.

The other big possibility is it's not the fault of the developers. Publishers take the "weird doesn't sell" dogma to heart and won't fund a game with giant bugs instead of horses. Again, possible, and there seem to be examples of it around, but it's also a little convenient. Publishers get a ton of shit. Many of them deserve a ton of shit, however it doesn't change that people are a little too quick to blame everything on the publisher. It's the boy who cried EA. Sometimes publishers do fuck up a good thing (see: Knights of the Old Republic 2), sometimes the developer did it (see: Oblivion).

Thus the anti-climax: I don't know why fantasy sucks. I don't know why developers feel compelled to make something interesting and then shit on it in the sequel. I don't know why you get a game like Planescape: Torment, with nearly universal acclaim and a presence on every "Best RPG" list out there, and then no one ever tries to do anything like it again. Shit's all crazy.

I do know one thing: I want all you risk-averse developers to start challenging yourselves. You're not always going to succeed, but the successes are well worth the failures.

And for christ's sake make more non-fantasy RPGs.

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