Why Storytelling in Fantasy Role-Playing Games Sucks

Bioware's Dragon Age Origins

Stories in fantasy games leave little to the imagination. The tropes loom large, a game of drones, all but a dusting of political subtext and insight eschewed. Instead of spiraling inward, your journey's externalized, swirled in a storm of words, platitudes, and props. After absorbing your marching orders, you're loosed (but mostly led) on a sociopathic clang-and-smash, a thunderous belt-notching escapade cleaving throngs of nondescript opponents for blood and treasure.

The good guys tend to be "good" because their avatar's glow or their armor glitters. The bad guys are often "bad" because they snarl and drool or have black-slits for pupils. Even the occasional "humanized" enemy deploys multitudes of Dionysian creatures (horns, tails, feral snarls) before showing up for the obligatory "boss battle." Grandstanding ensues, then "save-die-reload" ad nauseam.

Some call that operatic. Sturm und drang. Extravagant theater, sentiment, or melodrama.

I call it dead. As dead as cable news. Or games journalism. Or quips about Elvis.

Tolkien haunts fantasy game stories like a ghost in fetters, just as H. Rider Haggard, Alfred the Great, and Anglo-Saxon mythology haunted his. Bosky geography twinkles under storm-wracked skies. Nimble-fingered thieves live in cottages and countryside that smacks of England. Short, squat humanoids with chest-length beards grumble about leggy, slender, point-eared rivals. Men in robes embroidered with oblique runes, wearing crook-tipped hats pluck forest herbs for potions or draw fire from the air. Giant winged reptiles slither over golden troves, menacing the surrounding populace for inexplicable reasons. Attempts to channel Shakespearean speech morph into highfalutin bombast.

At least Tolkien was writing about "death and the desire for deathlessness" with a whiff of existential import.

The lesson video game storytellers gleaned from Tolkien wasn't to question fate and free will or meditate on loss and letting go, but the utilitarian trellis he was hanging his metaphors on: The workaday "perilous quest" shtick. The journey for journey's sake, an amalgam of violent battles distilled to rote mathematics and allocated by way of ability amplifying matrices. Joseph Campbell's monomyth shorn of allegory or insight and left with the stultifying incidentals.

Bioware's Dragon Age Origins
Stylish attire or shameless titillation in Bioware's Dragon Age?

I'm not telling you anything you don't know.

Neither is writer Michael Moorcock, when he describes genre writing as "a public taste…put through [the] usual mill and standardised, pasteurised and blanded out for public consumption much as the blues somehow had to turn into commercial soul to get a mass audience."

As I’ve said many times, if people didn’t like repetition, they wouldn’t like music. An animal feels easy if it can take the same route to the waterhole every day and not risk being eaten. To the mass audience, repetition is exactly what comforts them and what they will pay most for. What makes Tolkien the mass market success that Peake is not is that Tolkien can be smoothly assimilated into the culture. His stereotypes slide easily into the world of popular fiction. Peake’s grotesques are the opposite of Tolkien’s fairy tale regulars. Peake’s characters and plot are brilliantly idiosyncratic. Tolkien’s entire ensemble of greybeards, evil forces and humanoids is instantly recognised It’s the familiar, with a little gloss, that sells in millions, not the awkwardly unfamiliar. Tolkien’s stated aim was to tell fairy stories, Peake’s stated aim was to break windows. Tolkien has mass sales, Peake has more likelihood of longevity. For Peake was an original visionary where Tolkien was manipulating existing images.

Tolkien was manipulating existing images. Video game scribes manipulate Tolkien by way of his commercial imitators. The fantasy games we've played to date are basically attempts to extend that experience, to trick us into believing we're inhabiting derivative world-spaces absent whatever trivial political or social nuance they contained in the first place.

In Platonic terms, that's something like a snapshot of a facsimile of a grave rubbing.

A game's "gameplay" may be forward-looking or even visionary--I'm reflecting on storytelling, not game mechanics--but the narrative profundity you'd expect from a literate novel like Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon or a film like Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth evaporates, subordinate to rules (or what I've called "rule-playing") designed to iterate your character's development rather than illustrate it.

Games shouldn't depend on narrative? Sure. Maybe. In some other unimaginable universe where basic human psychology--and the inability to conceive of what you're doing in a game without connective reflection--doesn't apply.

I'm not a game designer. I realize designers face tough choices because of the medium's interactive nature. So they compromise, in part because no one's figured out how to build a game with the poignance of a No Man's Land or La vita è bella, in part because innovation's overrated when you've got a multi-millions business on the line.

But it's also in part because designers shy from challenging players weaned on mechanics that operate in a purely algebraic dimension, with reflexive indices and "moral" scales enumerating "progress." Progress in terms of fuzzy maths applied to behavioral clichés like "strength" and "charisma," or abilities like "sneaking" or "weapon handedness." That we trot out the choice to be "good" or "evil" courtesy binary dialogue choices as "advanced" character development should give anyone who's tried to interact in real life the way they do in games like Oblivion or Mass Effect pause.

Bioware's Dragon Age Origins
City of more than merely saints and madmen?

Don't worry. I don't want to take anyone's D&D away. I have copies of the fourth edition ruleset on my bookshelf. I pull them down on occasion to admire the art, the thick glossy paper stock, the play tips, or just their peculiar glue-bound smell. I own The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and an unread copy of The Children of Hurin. (Someone stamp my geek card.) Next to Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen and Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves I've got copies of Stephen King's Duma Key and Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air. I've been spotted reading stuff like Batman and X-Men alongside Joe Sacco's The Fixer, Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole, and pretty much anything by Chris Ware.

It's just that I've been wanting more from fantasy gaming for decades. Since I first played The Hobbit on a Commodore 64 in the 1980s and it let me change up interactions by fiddling adverbs. Since I tripped over inSCAPE's The Dark Eye in 1995, with its haunting experimental narration (thank you William S. Burroughs). Since I caught a glimpse of things to come in Bethesda's Fallout 3 (PCW Score: 90%), 2K Games' BioShock, and Lionhead's Fable 2 (PCW Score: 100%). Since I realized I'm in this hobby to have my lid flipped, not just master rocket leaps and climb leader-boards or crack level eighty-something.

Which brings me to the question that inspired this column: What about BioWare's upcoming Dragon Age Origins? The "HBO of role-playing games"? (Bioware's analogy.) The so-called "return to form" for the company so highly thought of for its "storytelling-first" approach?

Stay tuned. I'm just back from chatting with the game's lead designer Mike Laidlaw in an interview that abandons the usual poring over stats and tactical combat--stuff you can read about anywhere--and drills instead on some of the questions raised above.

Follow me on Twitter @game_on

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