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About fantasy: Please let there be a dragon extinction

1:00 PM on 06.27.2012 // Ryan Perez

One of the hardest things for me to understand is whenever someone belittles a "casual" game (whatever that may be to them) by claiming it's either unoriginal or lacks any sort of cutting-edge quality. I find this funny, because "hardcore" games can often be just as repetitive, stagnant and banal. One genre in games that has forever been a constant sea of familiarity to me is fantasy, typically regarded to be as "hardcore" as it gets. Other mediums clearly understand the flexibility and potential of this genre, but videogames seem to be stuck in Middle Earth.

The last straw for me was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I know, I'm basically signing my own death warrant by pissing on one of the most popular games of 2011, but I don't really care. I feel that such a phenomenal gametype was wasted on shit we've seen since the birth of this medium ... fantasy based on old European mythologies. TES (as well as Fallout 3 and New Vegas) are very one-of-a-kind experiences. You're thrown into open and believable worlds, and the potential to be truly lost in these settings is more viable than in practically any other game. But where Fallout shines by providing both a dismal and quirky portrayal of a post-apocalyptic future America, locked in time with 1950s nuclear-family aesthetics (sweet, mint-condition Christ, I love this series), The Elder Scrolls is nothing more than cheap, bargain-bin fantasy.

Unfortunately, TES isn't the only game of its kind that suffers from this all-too-common problem: If it ain't European lineage, piss off. I 100% challenge this ass-backwards trend that fantasy -- arguably the genre with the most creative potential -- has to be locked down into this banal world of dragons, wizards, elves, trolls, etc. This industry is wasting an entire genre on but a few old-world cultures, when so many more exist to take from.

Sending all elves to the back of the class wouldn't be a bad idea.

The thing about fantasy that lends itself best to creativity is that no rules exist ... literally. At no point does anyone see a mage fire a bolt of lightning from his finger and say, "Wait a minute, that doesn't make any sense!" The genre, at its core, only requires one thing from the person experiencing it: to leave their disbelief at the door. More often than not, people forget to bring it with them from the start. Fantasy is simply make-believe; the unreal and illogical fabrication of things that likely cannot and often do not exist in this thing we call "real life."

Essentially, it's a creative mind's wet dream. The very nature of fantasy should beckon the most insane ideas ever concocted for aesthetic and narrative pleasure.  If Japanese entertainment retains one quality that I do admire, it's that they completely understand this flexibility. Fantasy is a subgenre that is so widespread and standard throughout Japanese games, manga and anime that few people even bother identifying its elements at all. Some of the country's most memorable entertainment franchises have tossed bits of illogical fabrication into its sci-fi, historical fiction, and even American-inspired Westerns! Our Eastern brothers know more than anyone that this genre welcomes with open arms whatever crazy shit our minds can come up with.

So then my annoyance should be at the endless amount of fantasy that's impossible to distinguish and keep track of, yes? Unfortunately, that's not the case with our side of the industry. The reality is that, if you've experienced one American or European fantasy title, you've pretty much experienced them all. The key reason for this, as I hope most of you are aware of at this point, is the genre's emphasis on Western mythologies -- Scandinavian, to be precise. Most others will gladly point out that this is, duh, the Western world, and that such a natural interest in European shit should be a no-brainer. To which I reply: We play Japanese games on a regular basis (some of us even prefer them), so such an excuse is simply stupid. One would think it's common sense to encourage the stretching of this young industry's already atrophic legs.

Samanosuke Akechi: Part samurai, part demon slayer, all Japanese.

While we do get a few decent exceptions and mold-breaking titles from time to time, the fact remains that the majority of these mystical worlds we experience often feature a lot of the same things over, and over, and over again. But why do we as an industry perpetually gravitate towards the now mundane world of Scandinavian mythology, when we've been provided so many examples of how great settings can be when they've been inspired by Eastern cultures?

A core fundamental in fantasy is world building based on reference. The genre is all about taking bits and pieces from specific cultures and blending them together with supernatural elements, unique customs, fabricated life forms, and funny words that readers never manage to pronounce correctly. The potential for unique and intriguing settings should be endless, considering how history provides us with a considerably large variety of foundations to choose from. Hence my frustration with Skyrim; I had the chance to be thrust into a foreign world, and be completely engrossed in it, both by the boundlessness of the game and the unknown setting around me. Unfortunately, you couldn't have put me in more familiar surroundings if you based the game in downtown San Francisco.

I remember a moment in Skyrim when I was conversing with a Redguard, and thinking to myself, "Wait a minute, I want to go wherever the fuck you're from!" With his dark skin and his baggy, desert-conscious attire, I couldn't help but assume that his home of Hammerfell was based on Islamic culture (though I could be wrong, as I've never seen it). How much do I know about Middle-Eastern society? Jack shit. Considering how little I've been exposed to that part of the world, it should go without saying that wandering about an arid world and conversing with cultural beliefs, mannerisms and aesthetics completely unlike those of European societies would intrigue the hell out of me. This was the reason I preferred the second acts in both Diablo II and III. and the reason I'm looking forward to ... um, you know, all those other impending games with Middle-Eastern stuff in them. So many come to mind, you know.

"This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, but never in videogames." -T.E. Lawrence

The 2005 Xbox title, Jade Empire, was interesting to me for this very reason -- fantasy based on an unfamiliar cultural foundation. After viewing the game's "making of" feature, I was overwhelmingly excited about how much time and effort BioWare put into researching Chinese history, religion, and mythology. And it really showed, so much that the game has burned more long-lasting imagery into my brain than almost any other title in the past 10 years. The moment I entered heaven and spoke to the elephant demon, Shining Tusk, I was already preparing to throw my money at a sequel. Alas, not enough people bought it -- due to the lack of green-skinned meatheads with underbites and tusks, I'm assuming -- so BioWare will probably never touch the franchise again. And yes, I know JE also had dragons in it, but it doesn't take a genius to see the difference between the Chinese type and the reptilian fire-breathers that we're used to. The one in Jade was literally a goddess.

It's a damned shame that games like these are often overlooked, though, and lost in an ever-deepening sea of clichéd concepts, generic routine and ball-numbing repetition. Again, if you really broaden your perspective of this industry, you'll learn that this "hardcore" market we so proudly consider ourselves a part of suffers from a lot of the same issues we snicker at Hollywood for. People were really excited for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and my first reaction was, "You have got to be kidding me."

"No, no," their reply often was. "It's like Fable, but better. It's what Fable should have been." If Amalur was influenced by something like, say, Indian culture/mythology, then they would have had a point. I would have agreed that Fable should have been that very thing, and Amalur is worthy of anyone's financial support. As far as I could see, though, they were suckered into buying the same make and model of automobile, simply because the newer one had a different antenna ball.

Jade Empire's demons were nothing like those of my culture, which interested me all the more.

Of course, most people are going to chime in with the expected, "Well, if that's what we the market want, then that's what you're gonna get." Yes, that's entirely true, but that doesn't make it good ... or even acceptable. I don't usually try to be openly antagonistic, but if you're a proud member of this particular, "I'll eat whatever is in front of me," demographic, then you're one of the contributors to this problem. For us individuals who aspire to experience the endless creative potential that this medium holds, you types are one of the reasons we're sometimes prevented that pleasure.  Honestly, how many goddamned McNugget Happy Meals do you need to eat before you'll try some other restaurant on the block? It's a big freakin' neighborhood, in case you haven't bothered to look yet. I apologize for being so crass, but this actually does kind of piss me off. It's like visiting a gym that only ever plays Katie fucking Perry ... yeah, you bet it's going to drive me crazy after a while.

And I'm very aware of the vast number of you who share my sentiment, considering that I'm practically repeating concerns of yours word-for-word. The problem with you guys is one that actually bums me out more than the aforementioned folk: You too perpetuate this banal market. Really, you guys have no problem buying every little piece of generic Western fantasy crap that comes out, even though you're openly bored with it all. In reality, all you have to do is stop buying the shit. I know, it's an odd concept, this "not buying something because I want it different or better," but it does work. Has nobody yet told you that a free market acts much like a democratic system? Yeah, your dollar is basically a vote. Not enough votes means Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak doesn't get elected again. This is why we'll never see Jade Empire 2 in office; dunderhead conservatives keep voting Scandinavian.

Despise DRM? Don't buy games that have it. Want Nintendo to branch out of their usual first-party franchises? Stop paying for every mother-sexing Mario game they fart out. If you don't spend money on it, companies tend to change their product or try something new ... sometimes for the better. Of course, the potential for them to discontinue it altogether does exist, but that's a risk we're willing to take, right? Right.

I find it hard to distinguish Twihards from lovers of generic Western fantasy.

I'll admit, I did buy Skyrim, but it was the only fantasy game I bought of this entire generation (besides Diablo 3), and mainly due to the overwhelming mainstream success it achieved. Really, if you're like me and you are fairly burnt out on Dragonworld #5,143,234 ... simply don't buy the next one. It truly is as easy as that. Trust me, you're not missing a whole lot. Perhaps with enough of us refusing to throw our votes at every AAA scrap that's thrown our way, we can enjoy some real variety, not only in the one-trick pony that is fantasy, but in the medium as a whole.

So now I'm stuck at a crossroads. I have this game, Skyrim, that I do want to play, because it really is fun doing the things I get to do in it. Creeping in the shadows and assassinating baddies with my ridiculously lavish bow is an absolute blast. Also, ever since playing Fallout 3, I've fallen madly in love with Bethesda's open-world style; it's like an MMO, but all the assholes are NPCs. The problem is that I find myself dozing off whenever someone starts yammering on about this Dovacrap, though I suppose it's a credit to the game that its talking dragons aren't Scottish misogynists.

Oh well, perhaps I need to take the good with the bad for now. Or at least hold out until Bethesda sets an Elder Scrolls game in Hammerfell.

Ryan Perez,
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