Systemizing the Supernatural: Why Are Fantasy Games So Stagnant?

Fantasy Water

You, the brave adventurer, walk carefully through the thick woods, with your 12 points in the “Awareness” Skill keeping you alert to any possible danger. Your Worn +3 Axe is slung across your back. Your hands work calmly at notching an Arrow of Lightning Bolt to your +1 Bow of Poison. Your Boots of Striding both hasten your pace and silence your footsteps; the only monsters who can detect your presence are above level 15, and they are not known to gather here.

The old miller sent you off vaguely in this direction. You’re not exactly sure what the trouble is as you ran off while he was talking to you. Ah well. Just kill whatever it is that lives (or unlives) here.

Can you feel the magic yet? How about the wonder?! The mystery?!! The dreamlike experience of the fantastic?!!! (Picture lightning shooting from my eyes to emphasize my point, if you please.)

“But what’s the first thing you think of when you think of magic in video games?”

fantasysorcerorMagic is, by definition, supernatural. It cannot be understood scientifically, or at all, except perhaps by people who are magical. Seven years of school in England cannot teach you magic. When magic can be taught, learned, and repeated, it becomes science. But in video games, magic is indistinguishable from other forms of combat (and it is always used for combat). Also, it’s limited by blue drink (consult your game’s user interface and look next to the red drink, it should be nearby).

In any case, thanks to a few extremely successful, more adult fantasy stories (Game of Thrones is a standout), fantasy has recently been rehabilitated in the public eye. No longer should you feel all that embarrassed when reading a fantasy novel on the bus or train. But what about fantasy video games? What is even remotely interesting or different about them? What justifies them as non-schlock?

Nothing. Seriously, nothing. Nearly every fantasy video game, and especially those that claim fantasyhood on the box, is a chaos of off-brand Tolkienisms wrapped in numbers and loot and DPS. Even supposedly more adult games like Dragon Age and The Witcher are still adolescent power fantasies of violence and loot, for the most part. Video game fantasy worlds aren’t aping the austere Tolkien so much as the hacky tabletop RPG tie-in novels which line the shelves in every book store. Tolkien told a story about two fat members of the bourgeoisie accomplishing the impossible through their surprising courage and guile. And they didn’t receive as much help as you’d assume from Gandalf spamming his 3D6 Lightning Bolt spell. Actually, magic is quite beyond their comprehension.

The Magic Numbers

Fantasy games, bastard children of Tolkien, Conan and a boxy graphing calculator, are essentially about increasing your important numbers while being careful not to run out of your red goop or blue goop. More than Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons is to blame for making fantasy games the domain of uninterrupted violence, numbers, special effects, inventory management, and utterly repetitive lack of imagination.

What is the first thing you think of when you think of magic? Is it a rabbit being pulled from a top hat, or perhaps a unicorn or a fairy? All of those are pretty magical. But what’s the first thing you think of when you think of magic in video games? The answer is, more than likely, systems. You think of all the RPGs you’ve played, and how easy or difficult or overpowered their magic systems are. You think of crowd control, DPS, and status effects. In video games, fantasy cannot be understood without knowing the technical jargon of RPGs first. There is a reason why unit abilities in Starcraft, a science fiction RTS, are referred to as “spells” by the players. There is no difference, functionally, between a Starcraft spell and a spell in any fantasy game. Spells are DPS, crowd control, buffs, debuffs, and status effects. Spells have a game meaning that is separate from their original meaning.


This is a problem. At least, if you consider yourself a fan of fantasy. If you’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Susannah Clarke, or any of the other acclaimed fantasy authors of the past decade, then you know that fantasy has long since moved on from Tolkien and his rather inferior clones. Fantasy aims to achieve a mental effect in the reader. It’s something close to horror, a bit Lovecraftian, but not so much bleak as it is surreal. The fantastic is the strange, weird, and inexplicable presented coherently, but not necessarily clearly. It may have a type of dream logic. Whether we experience wonder or horror while we are presented with the fantastic is pretty much up to the author. Written fantasy has, to a large extent, escaped men killing skeletons with their legendary swords, and replaced it with content like the infamous scene from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which a goddess swallows a man whole into her vagina. Or take the gruesome birth of a shadow-assassin-baby from that one episode of Game of Thrones. I apologize if my examples are weirdly focused on the female anatomy, although perhaps it’s a good thing because hacky genre fantasy is noted for its lack of genuinely useful information on this topic (believe me, I’ve looked).

“Roguelikes are games that I feel do fantasy both very badly and very well. They’re totally guilty of systemizing almost everything magical, but somehow the unpredictability and difficulty of most roguelikes makes up for it.”

I don’t want to sound pretentious, so I won’t say that the aesthetic of the fantastic proper is superior to whatever it is that most fantasy games aim for. I love a good dungeon crawl. But there is a void in game development where more strangeness can be brought in, and where mechanics aren’t immediately clear. There’s room in fantasy for eroticism, darkness, and the totally fucked up. There’s room for games that aren’t so damn game-y.

No, really! It’s all right. After all, it’s been done before. The Binding of Isaac did it. I’m not sure that a single reviewer mentioned that Isaac is a fantasy game. But Edmund McMillen’s cellar full of flesh, flies, and feces plays like a dark-as-congealed-blood fairy tale. What happens when you accept a gift from the goat-headed Satan fellow? What’s this mysterious room with only a spike trap? How do I get this weird thing to cooperate with me? What the fuck do these tarot cards even do?


None of these elements of Isaac immediately explain themselves, but I just sort of understood what I had to do. Isaac’s universe does have a logic to it. I’ve reached the final stage of the game without fully understanding any of my items, power-ups, etc., and more importantly, without even thinking of them as items or power-ups. Isaac obscures its systems without them feeling obscure. They’re just effects of the world of Isaac. Sometimes the unexplained isn’t annoying to the gamer, but fascinating.

I can anticipate someone arguing that “non-generic fantasy games will never sell.” Even if incompatibility with AAA capitalism is a legitimate argument against making interesting fantasy games, it’s a wrong one. Isaac, Planescape Torment, and Arcanum are huge counter-examples. Very recently, Don’t Starve presented its take on the sandbox survival genre with a great big dollop of the gothic plopped on top. It’s faring rather well on Steam.

But I want to single out Isaac because some say it’s a roguelike (or a roguelikelike, if you must nitpick). Roguelikes are games that I feel do fantasy both very badly and very well. They’re totally guilty of systemizing almost everything magical, but somehow the unpredictability and difficulty of most roguelikes makes up for it. ADOM’s “corruption” hunger clock, with effects such as growing thorns, sprouting 12 eyes, poison-dripping hands, and lungs which exhale sulphur, is sort of a perfect synthesis of uncomfortable weirdness with numerical systemization. Or take my last really good run in Brogue: I was treading through shallow water with my trusty ogre and goblin mystic companions, when suddenly a kraken wrapped me up in its tentacles. If I hadn’t had a Staff of Blink I would have been a goner. There was no way to kill the monster and take its loot, I just had to deal with it. So if you prefer, the whole house of fantasy games does not have to be burned to the ground. It just needs extensive remodeling.

Weird And Wonderful

fantasyalienheartsIndies have the potential to be more imaginative than AAA fantasy games; this must be tied to what Porpentine and Merritt Kopas talk about in this amazing Super Sexagon article. Personal games, Twine games, whatever-the-fuck you want to call them, are incredibly liberating, free from AAA demands that everything fit neatly into genre check-lists that reinforce traditions of play that have existed for 20 years, in many cases. I’ve heard the argument that Twine is useful because a non-programmer can come home from work and quickly make a game about how they feel that day.

That’s vital. But just as vital is the creation of more explicitly imaginative stuff. Wanting games to be more personal does not necessarily mean you want games to be more slice-of-life. We know more about Tolkien from Middle Earth than we ever could from reading his letters, I think. He was obsessed with languages above all, an intensely moral, Christian man, and a lover of song and poetry. All of this is true, and it’s just as clear from The Lord of the Rings as it is from the biographical details of his life.

“Make the games that only you can make.”

Not to say that Twine doesn’t have imaginative games. My girlfriend and I had a blast playing Until Our Alien Hearts Beat As One, Porpentine’s two-player Twine dating sim, trying to reach out to each other with our hairy tentacles and spider legs. That game is essentially an amazing metaphor, and says something meaningful about actual dating by making it really, really strange (as if it were any stranger than real dating). If we’re to use the “Games about the developer’s day” example again, which may be an overemphasized rhetorical tool in the discourse about Twine, then we should also acknowledge that a person’s secondary world can reveal just as much about them as their struggles elsewhere in life. Beyond Twine, the games of thecatamites and John Clowder (both of whom have used RPGMaker) are fantasies that often poke fun at the ancient tropes of fantasy RPGs, while innovating the genre with totally-out-there games like Goblet Grotto and Middens. Like Isaac, which could have only been made by Edmund McMillen, these games are unique to their authors in a way that AAA games are incapable of being.


AAA fantasy is an endlessly iterative wasteland of the same clichés. Here’s a particularly egregious example: Oblivion, Divinity II, and Two Worlds II came out at roughly the same time. They are all open-world fantasy sequels involving inventory management (yay!), not-too-bad combat (woo!), loot (fun!), and questing (engaging!). They are absolutely the same game, although I’ll give Divinity credit for its relatively decent writing and voice acting. Each of these fantasy epics is chock full of content that is largely interchangeable with that of the other games. There’s so much generic fluff in nearly every fantasy RPG. And in the end, what did these games have that Morrowind did not? They’re technically refined versions of the exact same game (it probably all goes back to Ultima, or something), and the only distinguishing features are things like, “Well the quests aren’t so generic in Divinity II” and “there’s a weird conversation mini-game in Oblivion.” And also the graphics are better, obviously. So that’s good.

Well, that’s AAA for you. But where is the indie scene in all this? As far as fantasy goes, we’ve basically got roguelikes and Jeff Vogel (both great things to have). There is so much room to make good fantasy games. Games about the universes that only exist in our minds, if you’ll forgive my over-the-top language, are just as important as the smaller, more personal fantasies. Whether your internal world involves middle class people talking in sitting rooms, as in Austen, or much weirder stuff, as in, say Hope Mirrlees, the goal is the same. Make the games that only you can make. Magic doesn’t come from a bottle of blue energy drink. As corny as it sounds, it comes from you.

Indies have the potential to rescue fantasy games from irrelevance.

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