The medium of video games is one that is almost always in flux. Thanks to the increased speed of technological advances, video games are advancing more quickly than any other media before it. While we had much longer periods of time where certain styles were popular in literature and film, it almost feels like the game industry is changing from year to year, constantly searching for that next new mechanic or story to work with.
In terms of stories, there are a few types of settings that I see come up over and over again. You can’t throw a rock at a group of games without hitting something that’s dystopian and oppressive, or an apocalypse of some sort. It may be that we’ve just ramped the stakes up so high over the years that apocalypse and total destruction seems like the only thing worth fighting for. Saving a single person? That’s so ’80s. Saving a single land? That’s so ’90s.
Now we’re onto saving the entire world over and over again lest it be taken over by aliens, zombies, or some other kind of dark element. Again, I’m sure you can think of a ton of examples for this, but today I want to take a look at the fantasy genre. Fantasy has always been my favorite and it’s interesting to see different fantasy types that would have been restricted to literature becoming more prevalent in video games. In a lot of ways, these genres are symptomatic of video games growing up, but let’s start with the basics and break it down.
When you look at a fantasy game, do you ever try to figure out what kind of fantasy it is? Or do you just assume that it’s fantasy and that’s enough to be said? There are a lot of people who wouldn’t think to break down fantasy into something like categories, but I’m a big fan of things like this, so let’s give it a go.
This genre always refers to something that’s either a full fantasy world or a world with epic characters, themes, and plots. The crossover between the world we live in and this new world is minimal. For books, you would look to high fantasy and think of The Lord of the Rings (by the father of our standard fantasy setting, Professor Tolkien) with its epic battles of good versus evil, its rich mythology and history within the world, and its variety of creatures (if not variety of representation outside of straight, white men). Within video games, it would be best to turn your eye toward Dark Souls and Skyrim. They both have rich, expansive worlds that beg for exploration and allow for you to discover the world by peeling away each layer.
If you want to go a bit further back, then high fantasy also encompasses games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Shadow of the Colossus, and Fable. The important thing about high fantasy is that the world is just as important, if not more important than the characters. The world is immensely crucial when it comes to determining the course of action for your characters, which is why you’ll be running around trying to save sages in Ocarina or fighting huge, lumbering creatures in Colossus because while it wouldn’t make sense in the real world, the logic of these worlds dictate the actions within quests. High fantasy usually has fantastical objectives that must be completed to save the world—like throw a ring into a volcano or go and save seven sages to help you create a bridge.
A very common genre for video games, urban fantasy includes stories that are set in our own world, but with a magical/fictional element. If you think about it in this way, vampires or werewolves would fall into this category as well. Just keep in mind that urban fantasy does not necessarily mean paranormal romance, so Twilight doesn’t count. I would love to break down the differences for you, but Jeannie Holmes said it way better than I could ever hope to:
“The two share 90% of their genre DNA. However, the main differences are this: Urban fantasy focuses on an issue outside of a romantic relationship between two characters. Paranormal romance focuses on a romantic relationship between two characters and how outside forces affect that relationship. The best litmus test to determine if a story is urban fantasy or paranormal romance is to ask the following question: ‘If the romance between Character A and Character B were removed, would the plot still stand as a viable storyline?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ chances are good it’s urban fantasy. If the answer is ‘no,’ it’s most likely paranormal romance.”
What does this mean for games? The first urban fantasy game that pops into my head would be Wolf Among Us, but there are tons of urban fantasy games. Think about The Darkness or games like Vampire: The Masquerade or The Secret World. All of these games keep the urban settings, but play with the rules of the world, thus allowing for magic and/or mystical creatures to come into being.
This is a common genre and there’s a lot of crossover between it and other genres. Science fiction is something that is more firmly rooted in reality while science fantasy overthrows rules and brings in elements that could never be in our world. For example, science fiction would give you space travel and finding other planets, while science fantasy has ghosts that live in an underground city. While space travel is possible and finding other planets will be possible one day, the existence of human ghosts that come back from the dead and take on vaguely corporeal forms isn’t. If it was, we’d probably be overwhelmed by ghosts already.
In literature, the first example of science fantasy that I can think of is Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern or Frank Herbert’s Dune, but video games also have a strong history of games that play on the science fantasy genre. Don’t believe me? You don’t need to look further than Final Fantasy VII, VIII, X, and 12. All of them are fantasy settings of a sort, bringing in machinery and tropes from the science fiction genres, but are also firmly rooted in fantasy.