Elves and Dwarves Don't Define Fantasy

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This is a horrendous piece from Yahtzee. He is absolutely right that elves and dwarves don't define fantasy, but has he ever given the non-elf and-dwarf fantasy games a second look? No. A critique of Machinarium perhaps? OK, so he did Age of Conan, but that's sorta down the same street, medieval stuff. Thing is, there are plenty of games out there that do fantasy in a different way.

I think for credibility's sake, Yahtzee should man up and look at these games. I propose he starts with The Secret World, coming out in june. A fantasy where all the myths and conspiracy theories of modern earth are all true. A fantasy where the real forces controlling the world are the Illuminati, Templars and Dragon, all of which are secret societies.

Have at it.

Yahtzee will just not let this on go will he. I mean I think he has a great point and all that, we could do a lot more to explore fantasy then we have. The whole elves and Tolkien stuff should be put into its on sub-genre or even genre.

steampunk in space... .. Firefly?

Yahtzee's opinion on Dungeons and Dungeons blinded him from the marvel that is Spelljammer.

Rise of Legends. Shame on any RTS gamer who hasn't played it.

The way I see it, there are some very good reasons to stick with elves and dwarves in fantasy, just as there are some very good reasons to keep electricity working in much the same way in science fiction. If you keep batteries and generators from the real world, and just say they work on a new physical principle that lets them be essentially improved versions of what we already have, then you don't have to spend your whole game explaining an alternative electonic theory (which would be very tedious unless that's what your book is about). You can focus instead on the awesome new ideas that started you writing in the first place.

Similarly, if you replace elves, dwarves, goblins and humans with Flish'nir, Garblees, Undermen and De'unies then you have to establish those four cultures for yourself. Nobody has any idea what you're talking about to start with, and therefore it's going to take your players several hours to figure out what is normal.

Now, all this is well and good if your new races are somehow better than the old ones, if the new stuff you're bringing in is actually integral to the story, but if what you really want to talk about is a great civil war and an intriguing magical artifact then there's no real reason to change the rest of it.

At some point, it becomes an issue of language. If you can say what you need to with the concepts your audience already understands, why would you go out of your way to exchange them for a new set you have to explain?

Ah, yes, Earthbound syndrome. When you're tired of the standard array, build a new array. One that uses baseball bats and fry pans instead of swords, hamburgers and cake instead of health and mana potions, and Mr. Saturns instead of elves. Because, really, if you want to get far away from any elves, what's further away than a Mr. Saturn?

Yahtzee has a very good point with this article. The standard "high fantasy" setting has been something I've thought about a fair bit over the years. Even when one looks at fantasy settings outside of video games they'll find the Tolkien archetypes in both books and in movies ad nauseum. Because of that, I was actually quite shocked and pleasantly suprised to see a movie adaptation of "princess of mars" a la "John Carter". Although that is more sci-fi and not a lot of fantasy at all.

Personally I believe that the reason why fantasy almost invariably involves elves and dwarves is comfort level. Meaning, the writers don't have to expend that much creative effort on certain aspects be it backstory, general history or lore because if they stay with the standard fare, it's a built in thing. All they have to do is just make up the names and the larger narrative for how their "dwarves" and "elves" fit into their world.

I generally go out of my way to try to find books (at least) that don't conform to the standard high fantasy setting(s). For e.g. last year I ran across a book called "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson. It's quite a fresh look into what a fantasy setting can be. The added bonus is he also the author that is finishing "The Wheel of Time" series due to the death of Robert Jordan. I can also remember reading "The Adept" series by Piers Anthony which blends both high fantasy and sci-fi in a unique way that forms the heart of one of the best fantasy series I've ever come across.

Over the many years I've been gaming I've rarely ran into fantasy games that did not have the tolkien archetypes etc, in them. Imo, that makes many games interchangeable and ultimately, stale and boring. I'd personally like to see a lot more creativity from developers creating high fantasy games both in terms of the races and the general stories,instead of shoveling out interchangeable fantasy settings and stories that have been done to death. With gaming being an interactive medium the ability of game developers to deliver interesting and unique stories that are highly immersive is almost unprecesedented. Sadly though, large portions of the industry just keep pushing the ssdd routine.

This guy never played Sacrifice in his life. I am not surpriced though, since its the last game in 2000 that was fully original in everyway. So of course, people didnt like it and SHINY Entertaiment went bankrupt after that.

Good bye Sacrifice, MDK, Earthworm Jim and Messiah. The world may never know again

It's easier for people to get into books with elements they're familiar with, and that's the main reason you see so much of the same things. They can visualise dwarves and elves or whatever better than they can a completely fictional race that might be completely new.

It's both good and bad... I do like knowing what I'm getting into if I read a book myself, and it's nice to read "elf" and know immediately what an author is talking about, but on the other hand, all that desire for familiarity people have really makes it difficult for fantasy authors that do go beyond the land of high fantasy in middle-ish ages "Generoupe" to get readers.

It's the old conflict of familiarity vs new.

I agree wholeheartedly with Yahtzee's suggestions. I've also long since wondered why every fantasy setting on strange, magical worlds behave the same as ours. Days are always 24 hours long, horses are the mode of transport (not some strange alien creature), there's one yellow sun that rises in the east. Mead, ale and wine are served by all innkeepers in the known universe, bread and cheese are the staples of all adventurers on the road and there's an obsession with wolves I can't quite work out (Eddings, Jordan, Hobb to name just three).

But I like my dwarves, elves and goblins...
That reminds me that we need more dwarves...
I mean seriously, in the Elder Scrolls they deisappeared ages ago...
And those dwarves were elves.

The archetypes used in LotR type fantasy arent new and werent invented there. Dragons and elves have been around much much longer than that and to some degree even cross cultural borders. Of course there are other themes to explore but this specific setting is one that is deeply rooted in our collective subconscious and is not about to go away.

I think this may be a case of an unfortunate homonym. Fantasy as the genre and fantasy as the capacity to "imagine".

If you want puddings on legs and robots and magic, look no further than star wars.

I think the problem is a combination of very few companies doing western RPGs (really just Bioware and Bethesda) and gamers are not willing to embrace any other fantasy settings.

Howling Din:
Rise of Legends. Shame on any RTS gamer who hasn't played it.

Perfect example. Gameplay-wise, it was a very competent and well made RTS (edit: Whoops) with some awesome designs, but because it didn't fit with the traditional tropes people avoided it. Also, as others have said, whether or not you like the gameplay and/or player characters you can't deny that JRPG settings are a damn sight more varied then what western developers come up with. I think a problem could be that in JRPGs they generally just go "This is the world, this is how things work, deal with it" where as in WRPGs there's always a desire to try and explain how everything operate with "It just does" not being good enough.

Now that "space steampunk" is mentioned, I'm reminded of Treasure Planet, a sadly underrated disney movie which I totally loved.

I love this film as well and was the first thing I thought of when I read the article. Stunning to look at (only film I'll be buying again on Blu-ray because of HD alone) and some very neat ideas.

This is why I've never really got into most fantasy media. The first I read was LOTR and everything else seemed a watered down copy. We can use any conceivable thought in someone's head yet we get short, bearded dwarves, & sinewy, fey, pointy eared elves.

I understand the appeal of the genre and why as people we like the familiar but come on, the market is flooded. I sometimes wonder if Twilight was so damn popular simply because it broke some of the tired old tropes and conventions about vampires. Can't see any other reason except for it's popularity except as a literary validation for lonely girls to afraid to have sex.

I appreciate what Terry Pratchett attempts (although I find his stuff just a bit too silly, so not to my tastes). Conversely, Douglas Adams took a brilliant hammer to the stuffy seriousness of Sci-Fi and Norse Gods.

One of the best fantasy series I've read is Joe Abercrombie's The Blade itself. It has elements of magic, demons, and medieval warfare but it doesn't labour backstory exposition. Much of the nature of the world remains unexplained and the focus is on the characters, not some primer for selling a new fantasy universe.

Also science fiction doesn't have to be space pirates. Every zombie flick is technically Sci-Fi. Let's work on the fiction part.

Totally agree. Although I have no problem with "traditional" fantasy settings, the fact they are all very strictly defined kind of defeats the whole "fantasy" part. It's an inappropriate way to label these games, at least in a time where it's the standard practice. By definition fantasy should be something completely unlike what we are used to, and there certainly needs to be more games that embrace that.

That 1800s outer space steampunk idea sounds fucking awesome too. I would so buy an RPG in that setting.

Yahtzee definitely has a point. I don't think a development team would necessarily need to rewrite or do away with all the popular plot devices of the fantasy genre, but they could if they wanted to. Even if they didn't, they could at least introduce some new things as well. I realize this is a little bit fan-ish of me, but it is true that from everything I've seen and read, Guild Wars 2 is taking quite a few departures from standard fantasy. The only playable race in it that's standard to typical fantasy is humans, for starters. The extinction of the dwarven race is actually a significant plot point. While one of the races, the sylvari, seems on the surface like your standard nature-lovers to fill in the elf role, there's really no mention of them criticizing any other races for not being more "in tune with nature." In fact they're more like the antithesis to elves; their race isn't ancient (only 25 years old, in fact) they don't go around looking down on other races and actually show interest in learning about them.

I think one of the defensible points of sticking with a standard fantasy setting is its one that's easy for people to understand. There's a sense of familiarity that avoids alienating people to something that seems too much of a departure from what they know they're comfortable with. But chances need to be taken if new ground is going to be explored. Maybe not every game that tries something new will be a guaranteed hit, but at least it will shake things up a bit.

finally I know I'm not alone
For the longest time I've been complaining that fantasy now a days has been enclosed in an aura of realism
I've been working on developing a comic book, sort of like Battle Chasers or Skye Runners, and everytime I have to go back and change concept because nerds in general agree that dragons can't breahte candy bubbles that burst into acid turds or that a Harpy isn't what its been in every fantasy story or game.
I wanted to make Harpy and Medusa actual characters that don't turn people into stone or are made of different animal parts, for example in my comic Medusa was to be an ancient lustful evil witch that could turn any part of her body into stone and use it either as a weapon or as armor and her peeve would be to collect hunky men, but NO every fantasy "expert" out there says that she just couldn't do that, and going back to the dragon again I can't do that because dragons have set rules that I can't step out of if I want to keep it "fantasy" so for whatever reason people decide to set rules that define fantasy, so if ever we try to bring originality into fantasy its considered to be breaking the base of fantasy... and don't even get me started on the samurai from feudal Japan and the pirate from Spain that traveled through time to a fantasy world 20 million years in the future, and all matter of fantasy creatures and aliens are out to kill them with their future weaponry and they have to fight for their lives in a world that not only is 100% alien to them but everyone speaks English and they're stuck with their respective languages (Spanish and Japanese), but see because its the future its not fantasy its Sci-fi, I hate humanity

I'm with you on the idea of contemporary fantasy. One game that I wish had been made with better mechanics is Arcanum, because it's one of the few games I've wanted to play that put fantasy in a non-medieval setting (due in no small part to its involving the fascinating premise of magic during the industrial revolution).

I'm not with you on steampunk in space, however. My head hurts from how many responses my rudimentary knowledge of physics and chemistry has to the idea of steam-powered wooden ships in space. Honestly, when you go into space, you cross from fantasy into sci-fi, or combine the two into cyberpunk. But no matter which of the two it is, wooden ships just don't hold up (literally, the force required to push one out of the earth's gravitational pull would tear a wooden ship apart).

Wooden ships in space is the kind of thing I'd expect out of a genre that has no regard for the laws of physics or sense-making on any level. JRPGs spring to mind. Maybe you'll have that space broadsiding in a twenty-minute cutscene in Final Fantasy XV-4.

"Imagine if you played out the plot of The Lord of the Rings in a modern-day city, like Frodo has to journey to the top of Skyscraper Doom to see if he can get better cellphone reception."

I would so watch/play this! For real.

I think part of this is because they think explaining a world with cheery men with pointy ears and midgets with über technology is easier than a world of four-legged ostriches and hairless samurai dogs. Now how does that makes sense? Beats me.

All creators will draw on inspirations to create something that is new and unique, but there will always be a pedigree of ideas. The idea that there's got to be short mountain people and tall tree people and angry feral beast people to make it fantasy is what's getting so tiresome, since many times there's no real thematic reason why they've got them there, whereas there are some exhaustively good reasons why things are the way they are in Middle-earth.

It's even more bizarre because science fiction setting based on technology should be inherently more limited in scope than a fantasy setting based on magic, yet it feels very much the other way around. Even sci-fi settings that just include humans feel more original, and I suppose a fantasy setting like Westeros does as well, since it dispenses with tired tropes in favor of historical inspiration.


Wooden ships in space is the kind of thing I'd expect out of a genre that has no regard for the laws of physics or sense-making on any level. JRPGs spring to mind. Maybe you'll have that space broadsiding in a twenty-minute cutscene in Final Fantasy XV-4.

This is why you throw physics to the wind, as you do in fantasy generally, and the easiest way to do this is to assume space functions the way people mistakenly thought it did during the 19th century, or even further back. Like Yahtzee says in the article, if you're bothering to put wooden ships in space, there's no reason to assume that the planets need to be so far away, or that combat would be realistic.

I highly recommend the PnP RPG he mentions in the article, Space 1889, for seeing how this was done to great effect (if not so much in the computer game port). http://space1889.blogspot.com/

Fantasy, problem being is that everything and anything these days will get compared to SOMETHING that was vaguely similar, and so creating new fantasy is like throwing another penny into the wishing well in the hope that your penny; being however different in the slightest way; will blow all the other pennies out of the water in some mystical way, and wish be granted.

Some things make it, some things dont, but the orcs and goblins and such, a bit dull i'll grant, but if you come up with something too out there, you end up with indie, and you get dumped in the bin.

However, in reference to Yahtzee's article, the steampunk pirate adventuring through space milark. It sounds oddly familiar, oh yes. The Disney animated picture "Treasure Planet" loosely based upon treasure island, and frankly a masterpiece in my eyes. What we need is more like that; or wierder; or on a massive scale, the fact that Treasure Planet came from Disney seems a miracle of itself, and shows their ingenuity they had once.

The ideas are out there. The masses just need to find 'em.

Isn't it just the name fantasy thats beeing misused, and not really gamesettings beeing narrow?
Fantasy has just come to stand for a specific genre with a sort-of defined tolkien inspired setting, it doesn't mean games doesn't come out with otehr settings, they're just not publicly labeled fantasy.

Partly because they often fall under other labels.
If you add stuff common in the fantasy genre to a future setting, it'll often fall under sci-fi instead
If you add some of the stuff to a modern setting, it'll easily fall under super-hero ish labels, think infamous, prototype etc.

But there's still tons of games out there, who got whats usually found in fantasy but without the tolkien-canonish races/settings.

A few examples of games set in a medivalish/past level of technology settings could be Zelda, god of war, Dantes inferno, Diablo.
The later three borrows and gets ijnspiration from relegious lore, instead of tolkien inspired lore.

In a more present day-ish/undefined setting you'll find games such as ninja gaiden and bayonetta, both featuring magic and monsters, but no elves or dwarves etc.
Ninja gaiden even hits some of the steampunk inspired stuff yatzee was talking about, with the airship and all.
Infamous and prototype sits nicely here as well, featuring "magical" powers and monsters
Resident evil has zombies and mutants and cultists and stuff, but would probably be tagged more in the lines of horror.

I guess Darksiders technically takes place in the future, in a post apocalyptic armageddon
Whether stuff like fallout falls under fantasy or sci-fi i won't bother trying to determine.

And these are just games off the top of my head

In conclusion, just because it's games in a tolkien-ish setting that usually falls under the label of fantasy doesn't mean games with different lore/settings doesn't exist, they just don't get labeled with the fantasy label as often.

Outside of gameing, you'll also find very varied stuff, as yatzhee mantions himself, Niel Gaimann has some wonderfull modern-day fantasy settings, mixing all sorts of mythology, fantasy etc up in the most marvelous way.
magic the gathering, while chock full of elves and goblins also visit quite non-typical settings in it's multiverse.
Fill out the rest for yourselves, theres so much stuff out there, complaining that it's non existing, simply because a lot of people tag it with different labels than fantasy seems ignorant.

To be fair, i find it silly, to complain about the word fantasy beeing used about a genre with a somewhat limited amount of original ideas when it comes to settings/races, just because the word fantasy implies something else in the original meaning.
You don't hear people complaining that rock music doesn't live up to it's name, because it doesn't sound like a rock beeing thrown, or an avalance or whatever sound you'd choose to connect with rock's original meaning as in "stone"
And i find it a bit weird to rant about the likeness of settings in the fantasy genre, while making it sound like different settings doesn't exist, simply because you think the word fantasy should encompass all settings.
Heck, some people imagine modern day or WW2 or future gun-fights, so by the logic of fantasy = anything in our imagination, every single game should be a fantasy game, and dating/sex sims would probably be those most accurate to the name fantasy.

I always felt that (although not the greatest game in history) Star Ocean 3 Til the End of Time managed this really well:

You start off all technologically advanced, but crash and move between various undeveloped planets in which you have a mix of fantasy and sci-fi that isn't jarring. The locals use magic that you try to harness with science and then you bring them (ie. the random characters from another world that you then relate to) through into the technical sciencey stuff.

So you get that aformentioned 'oustider' effect through the sciencey people exploring the magical world, and then the same through the magical people going to the science world: win, win... and no dwarves (some elvey kinda things, but not really).

That bit about Space Pirates makes me really want to make a game about them.
Did anyone ever see Treasure Planet? That Disney film with the proper wooden classic-style ships, except in space and such, with aliens.
It was awesome, but underrated.

A game like that, please, developers of the world.

While it doesn't entirely surprise me that Yahtzee overlooked this (considering he hates the entire genre), fantasy JRPGs usually manage to completely sidestep the "standard fantasy setting" that is blanding-out every other "fantasy" videogame.

Final Fantasy X for example was set in a world where the main races other than humans included nomadic tech-savvy outcasts who appeared human other than their bizarre spiral eyes (the Al-Bhed), large bipedal cats with unicorn-like horns who live on a giant snowy mountain (the Ronso),strange, vaguely plant-like people (the Guado) and weird fish-man things who speak with bubbly accents (whatever the hell they were called). The technology level (called "machina" in-game) was what I tend to refer to as "crystalpunk" or what is commonly known as "magitech" (after FFVI), the world was eternally plagued by a giant immortal monster known as Sin that kept people living in constant fear and monsters were either spawned from back of Sin or from the lost souls of the dead. No dwarves, no elves, no dragons, no demons. And as Yahtzee suggested, the protagonist is a classic "fish out of water" thrown into this world at random and needing to discover everything for himself as he goes (although it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that).

I've always considered Spira to be one of the greatest achievements in world-building in video game history. The Japanese tend on average to be a lot more creative in their game design, with a much more open approach to what counts as "fantasy" and a much greater willingness to blend it with other settings- look at examples like Final Fantasy VIII, Star Ocean, Illusion of Gaia, Shin Megami Tensei and Persona, Shadow Hearts, The Legend of Zelda, Wild Arms and Jade Cocoon.

That's why I like Elder Scrolls setting
There are some really cool stuff happening... behind games :(
Sentient snails unleashing biological weapons on Tamriel? We got that
Perpetual war between monkeys, tigers, yetis and snakes? Welcome to Akavir.
Monkeys that thinks that humans stink? Yes we got that too.
Only problem is that Bethesda in games never uses other races than 10 known ones :(

P.S. I simply must emphasize- perpetual war between monkeys, tigers, yetis and snakes. JUST THINK ABOUT IT!!!

I don't really get his gripe about aesthetic choices. When you play every game that comes out everything is going to feel a bit too tired. That's what this is all about. There's nothing truly wrong with these games other than he's played one too many of them. You can't really fix repetitive elements that's a inexorable apart of our existence.
There's really nothing wrong with having a basic format for anything. It makes it easier to write and it does service the people who like that sort of thing and oh yes. You don't have to jump hoops for useless goals like intentionally being unique and different for it's own sake.

Seems to me that most fantasy just steals things from mythology and then sets the world in the era that those myths would have been big.

Instead of bringing medieval European mythology to the modern world which wouldn't work that well because it would seem really goofy (elves and such only work in fantasy worlds because they fit in to that world. Walking down the street and seeing a goblin cleaning windows would just seem too comedic).

The solution is to explore other mythologies. I don't think I have ever seen a game set in India and they have a whole bunch of crazy creatures we don't see much of. It would be awesome riding around on a tiger and having to fight some 8 armed elephant God all the while in the exotic setting of India. It would also be fantastic to see some colour in a game!

From that idea there are lots of things they could do. Some kind of fantasy game set in Africa. Instead of the standard short sword you get to play as a zulu warrior or from a series of different tribes. Or Aboriginal Australians to fight yowies. Or Aztecs. Or Native Americans. I'd love to play a fantasy game set in the South Pacific where you go from island to island fighting different creatures on every island.

You know, this article made me think about an old Westwood game (RIP) called Nox, where you literally were an average Joe, American nobody who gets (quite literally) dropped into this fantastical world and thus gets you sent on this grand adventure you know nothing about. It was criticized for being a fancily dressed Diablo clone, but for some reason that game has stuck in my mind for this many years, and perhaps that was why. by giving you a Jack Nobody, it really let you identify with the protagonist and his desire to see his girlfriend and her delicious cooking again.

Evochron Mercenary is a great game, it's complicated but well worth learning how to play. Also, it's about as indi as a game can get, part of a series that has been going on for years, developed mostly by a solo developer. Support your local old-school indi developer :).

Just to throw some ideas into this that i just bounced in. Lets take another look at random S**t of the world? throw in a slendermen race, or how about inanimate objects? as hard as that might seem to be to imagine the random crap we humans come up with is always there. How about some mushroom people specializing in poison and healing? or maybe a being made out of light? and for weapons, how about a scissor weapon? can be use as blunt but also cut off limbs? use a umbrella! or i for one would love to see STAFFS come in as a weapon. And im talking quarter staffs, not magic staffs. give me a stick of wood to thwack a enemy with while they flail to get in my range. hell bring in whips (beyond castlevania you dont really see its use)
the key to finding new and unique styles, characters, and weapons is to simply take a look at life. one of my potentially favorite saying is "truth is often stranger then fiction"

Good points, Yahtzee. I suppose a bit of variety and fantasy games would be a nice change of pace...

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