– J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”
“Standard fantasy setting”: Has there ever been a sadder oxymoron? Has there ever been a better demonstration of the myopic nature of unbridled commercialism than the contradiction between the bureaucratic-sounding term “standard” and the ancient word “fantasy,” with its connotations of imagination and vision? Can it truly be that we have allowed our wildest and most unique gift – the gift of poetry (in its original sense), of making – to become controlled, and dedicated to the industrial-style production of routine, of unimaginative repetition?
Consider the elves, the saddest example of them all. They are present everywhere in our digital worlds, and it is hard to argue they are ever different from each other. Anyone who has travelled through such a world, whether it was called Erathia, Denerim, or Faerûn, has encountered them and can enumerate their typical traits. Their ears are pointed, their bodies slender; they are talented with the bow, and know more of the secrets of the world (whether they are secrets of magic or of history) than any other people. They are wise and powerful, and closer to the divine than humans, yet despite their inherent greatness, there is a darkness and a sorrow in their past, a great fall often only vaguely alluded to, and the distinct possibility of their fading from history as it progresses. They are a sad people.
They have every reason to be sad; they are a long way from home. Handed down from writer to writer, from designer to designer, they are the victims of a long and terrible process, a forced march through the literary lands between Middle-earth and the Forgotten Realms. Driven away from their homeland and its sharp, bittersweet beauty by the forces of plagiarism and imitation, they have become shadows of their former selves. They have forgotten Cuiviénen, where they awoke long before the Darkening of Valinor, and Gondolin, and Doriath, and the many places of their history. Little do they remember bright and terrible Fëanor, or Eärendil the Mariner, or Elu Thingol. Even of Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and of the wars against Melkor, only vague echoes remain.
Stripped of their history and heritage, the Elves have become flattened out, recognizable only from certain angles. Their names are now used for branding purposes. Would you like a Wood Elf or a High Elf, a Dark Elf or a Light Elf? We’ve got some excellent Blood Elves over here, and a new shipment of myElves and iElves has just arrived. Or if that’s too expensive, I’ve got a second-hand Noldor looking for a new home. Sometimes he starts ranting about the Silmarils, but you just need to press this button and he stops. Everything else works fine, and the price is fantastic.
It is not wrong to be inspired by the realm of Faerie; that has always been one of its main effects on humanity. But we are not speaking of inspiration. We are speaking of theft. Creatures are ripped from the worlds they belong to – not gently seduced with a song, or led with bold vision, but captured and sold on the market like wares. Neither has this process happened only to the Elves. When the long and tragic tale of the War of the Ring was brought to the cinema screen by Peter Jackson, many viewers believed they saw in its depiction of Gimli a typical dwarf: a drunken buffoon making a fool out of himself and never showing the slightest hint of culture or grace. Few remembered the Gimli Elf-friend told of in the Red Book of Westmarch, with his deep seriousness, his dignity, and his humor.
It is not only the creatures of Middle-earth that have suffered this fate. What of Conan the Cimmerian, with his “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth”? He, too, has been enslaved and turned into a caricature of himself for the masses, fighting under a variety of assumed names, rescuing buxom princesses, posing for the audience in a loincloth, and speaking with a comedic Austrian accent. You have seen him. You have, perhaps, even played his part in one story or another.
It is not only in the world of digital storytelling that this process of degradation has occurred. In literature, where there is now a huge fantasy market, much the same can be observed. The only difference, perhaps, is that now new lands have been discovered for the pillage: Stories and creatures may now be stolen from mythological or mythopoetic works that previously were left untouched. Vowing to leave behind “standard fantasy settings,” writers now produce cheap and inferior copies of Irish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and other stories; they enslave the daoine sídhe instead of the elves and claim novelty.
How could such a thing have happened to our ancient tradition of myth-making? The blame lies with many. We, the audiences, the readers and viewers and players, have allowed this travesty to occur because our longing is too great. We read of Middle-earth and are heartbroken at how much of it is out of reach, so when someone offers us more, we take it without thinking. We turn ourselves into the willing victims of the greedy and the stupid, who will always produce the worst until they are forced to do otherwise. The critics, whose profession is meant to prevent this from happening, are equally at fault. They have rejected not what is bad, but the entire form; where are the voices to praise the living masters and help show us the way?
Perhaps, as is so often the case, a large part of the problem is a lack of historical knowledge. How can we travel to the Lands of Dream if we think that Lovecraft only wrote about monsters, and do not know of Celephaïs? If we do not know of Chu-Bu and Sheemish, of the worm Ouroboros, or of the long journey of Odysseus, it is not unlikely that we will become lost and end up in a land of insubstantial shadows.
But there is hope for us yet, even in the realm of digital storytelling – perhaps especially so. Have you ever wandered from Caldera to Gnisis and seen a Netch float overhead? Have you seen Ald’ruhn? Have you travelled from city to city by silt strider? When the Elder Scrolls series began, the Dunmer were just Dark Elves, slaves to cliché as so many of their kind. But someone made the decision to change that, to give us a world that functioned on its own terms, to give the Dunmer the dignity that will make them a real people. The result is flawed in many ways, perhaps too many to be considered truly great, but there must be some reason that so many years after its release, I still gaze longingly at the map of Vvardenfell and remember my journeys through that land.
In another world, there is a mining colony in a valley near the city of Khorinis. I remember walking down into that valley, seeing the castle that stood by a river. I remember fighting strange bird-like creatures called Scavengers, and their distinctive call. I remember the miners and working people, their dry humor, their gruff friendship, their triumphs and tragedies. And I remember the streets of Khorinis itself, from the houses of the nobles to the gutters of the poor. I’ve been there.
I also remember – and too few people do – the history of the Soulbringer and his struggle for the freedom of Rathenna. I remember him as a young, innocent man arriving in the town of Madrigal to find his uncle Andrus, and as a wise, powerful being fighting the Revenants themselves. I remember his friend and ally, Chant. I remember because he was my friend.
Never before in the history of the humanity have storytellers had a medium like videogames. Never has there been a medium so uniquely fit for the making of worlds. Books, films, poems, all these are linear forms, and in them our exploration of the world must serve the story. But in games, the world is the story – and we are right there. Every detail of the world can be a part of our experience, and that experience is a direct one: hence I have walked through Khorinis myself, and fought alongside Chant, and seen the Netch float.
Let us leave the Elves in Middle-earth; we will not improve upon Tolkien’s masterpiece. We have a new medium, an interactive medium. We do not need these pale imitations, these second-hand elves and used dwarves. The gift of digital subcreation allows us to dream of new lands, and make those lands real – every inch of them. If we do not recognize how truly, deeply, awe-inspiringly amazing this is, we will never find out what adventures we might have had there. And what is the world without adventures?
Jonas Kyratzes is a writer, director and independent game designer. When he’s not working, he plots with a small black feline and rides the solar wind. He also has a website (http://www.jonas-kyratzes.net), but it smells of mushrooms.