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Elves and Dwarves Don't Define Fantasy

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 6 Mar 2012 16:00
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This is probably the most unapologetically teenage thing anyone can possibly say, but there are still aspects of the world that make me wonder if everyone else was given a different instruction manual to me. Case in point is the fact that there's an entire genre of "fantasy" which for some reason feels it has to force itself to fit within rigidly-defined presets. That creators set out to create an utterly fictional world of make-believe where the whole functionality of magic literally allows for any scenario the mind can conjure, but always seem to end up ripping off The Lord of the Rings because that's what people expect. People actually have pre-determined expectations of a fantasy. Doesn't that sentence strike anyone else as completely off the trolley pipe?

It's almost as bad as when every shooter not too long ago was set in the Second World War. Or indeed how every shooter these days is set in a hypothetical Third World War started by Russian terrorists (not that we're saying Russians are more likely to be terrorists but we totally are). Kingdoms of Amalur could very easily be happening two meadows over from any given scene in World of Warcraft (or even the same meadow). Dragon Age could be going on in the next continent assuming the economy's a bit more depressed over there and the local populace all evolved in parallel with broomsticks up their arses. I remember hearing the developers of World of Warcraft talk about how they wanted their dwarves to get away from the cliché of being technological earthy sorts and make them a bit more of a spiritual people, and all I could say was, if you wanted to get away from cliché, couldn't you just not have made it about elves and dwarves? Couldn't you have made it about robots and puddings on legs?

Maybe I didn't play enough D&D as a teenager to have a constant immovable nostalgic demand for swords and sorcery, or maybe it's just that I can't take any standard fantasy setting seriously because I grew up reading Terry Pratchett books, but this really does mystify me. How about new settings? Or if that's too much to ask, old settings that haven't been explored much lately? Two spring to mind. Here they are in no particularly order.

1. Contemporary fantasy

What seems to be a recurring issue with standard fantasy games these days is that it's difficult to penetrate. There's this weird fascination with starting them in medias res, too, dumping a load of backstory on us right from the word go about how the bad elves have been waging war against the pudding on legs people or whatever so we have to piece things together on the way. And the main character's usually some empty-headed prick who's been living in this world his entire life but still needs to have situations explained to him because I guess he never paid attention in burly warrior school.

Just putting this out there, but surely a plot like that is both easier to tell and easier to get into if the main character is, say, a Dixons employee magically transported by twist of fate when he was walking down the wrong alley on his way home one night. Many works of literature that centralize the exploration of a strange other world - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, A Princess of Mars, Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy - feature as their protagonist a displaced contemporary lad or lassie of the era. Because it creates an automatic attachment for the audience if there's someone like us who needs things explained. And I can't think of many games that have done that sort of thing lately. Dark Void and Prey, I suppose, if we count sci-fi.

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