Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why Fantasy?

The question about why the MMO genre has been gravitating towards (inundated by?) fantasy has been a featured question on a number of blogs. I hadn’t really touched on the subject before. Richard Bartle over at Terranova posed the question and got a number of interesting posts in response.

A number of posters point to Tolkien and tales kids grew up with. They also mention how risk-averse most companies are towards anything new – fantasy works, why change it? While a lot of their observations are right on the money, imho, I think there’s more going on than just a cynical corporate thing.

One of the big draws about fantasy is the use of magic verses technology. Magic (fantasy) works just because it works. Technology (sci-fi) works because the Morlocks make it work and everyone hates Morlocks. With fantasy, you can believe that magic is possible because of the universe or a trinket or just because it’s a somewhat natural gift. Sci fi’s technology is different in that someone had to build it. If it can be built it can be destroyed. Technology can be taken away. Technology is also hard to figure out – something with which most people have real-life experience. If you can’t figure out how to stop the clock on your DVD player from flashing, how can you expect to figure out how to operate the P-Flux Space Discombobulator to keep the Argonian Empire from vaporizing the Duckoplatian fleet?

Technology is less special. Shea in the Sword of Shannara is the only one that can wield the sword. Frodo in the Lord of the Rings is the only one that can be trusted to bring the Ring to the mountain. Ripley in Aliens, however, can grab any weapon from any space marine and, after the brief training montage, can blast alien scum with it.

The difference between fantasy and sci-fi may also have to do with the past. The past is often viewed as a time of simplicity and innocence whereas the future (as viewed from the present) is often dark and uncertain. To paraphrase Jose Chung at the end of Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense: the new centuries will be like the old – thousands of years of the same old crap. Wars and empires and deaths and more wars.

The question about ‘why fantasy’ is a good one and I think beyond just the coding of swords verses laser guns or corporate cowardice, the preference for fantasy may well be cultural or psychological. The Terranova comments are interesting food for thought.


mbp said...

I think magic is an important aspect of a virtual world. It frees the storyline from the constraints of physical reality.

Sci Fi is the second most successful MMO genre but if you take the view that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (A.C. Clarke) then the line between SciFi and Fantasy gets blurred.

Openedge1 said...

Good article...I also wrote about this on my GAX game blog site
With the news of Tabula Rasa being "less" than an adequate hit...more like almost a fail...I also tend to think that something about the magical aspects of the fantasy genre is key..
It may be why Stargate maybe could WoW the players more, instead of Star Trek as an MMO (snore)

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