Without fantasy as a genre, the gaming industry would be remarkably different. Fantasy is one of the core genres of gaming and most games have at least a touch of fantasy in them. A lot of the whimsy and charm that we come to expect from games have either fantastical elements or are pure fantasy. The talking trees from Kirby are a great example of fantastical elements. Games that play with magic or mystical creatures or espouse a set kind of quest structure tend to fall under the realm of fantasy. That means Star Wars (games that are based on the original trilogy), Journey, Spyro, and even Super Mario are either under or have fallen under the fantasy umbrella at some point.
Fantasy is so pervasive that sometimes we don’t even think about what qualifies as fantasy unless it jumps out at us as one of the standard fantasy tropes we see everywhere. As much as I hate the idea of ‘standard fantasy’ since it seems like an oxymoron, I’ll often fall into the same trap of only considering a game fantasy if it has dwarves, mages, and/or dragons. Fantasy can be much more subtle or even fall into different genres that you would have never thought of as fantasy before. Other times (like with many games that will be mentioned in this article) the fantastical elements are so obvious that we know these games are fantasy without needing to understand which subcategory they belong to.
Maybe you’ve already read the first part of this Fantasy 101 lesson and thought of games that didn’t fall within the genres that I listed then. Well, take a look and see if the following genres help you flesh out how to organize your fantasy games a little bit better or, at the very least, have something to throw around in comment forums when you want to prove your fantasy cred.
It is what it sounds like. This genre is about sword-wielding heroes who fight their way through battles and conflicts. The difference is that they tend to not get themselves tangled up in the overarching fate of the world. It’s a more personalized quest and one that can have large effects on the world around the hero, but the battles are focused in on the hero rather than their world. Recently, the genre has been broadened to not just focus in on the main protagonist. Sword and sorcery novels now take on the problems of the wider world, but still focus in on the characters. Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora or Joe Abercrombie’s The Sword Itself are good examples of this type of sword and sorcery.
For video games? I would argue that there are many games that fit the mold, but the most well-presented sword and sorcery games have been from Supergiant Games. Both Bastion and Transistor have focused in on heroes who fight their way through battles and conflicts, fighting for a larger cause while keeping the feeling of their quests intensely personal. In Transistor, especially, you can argue that Red saving the city is a secondary goal while her personal desires are what truly fuels her quest. If you want to be more literal, you don’t need to look further than the Scythian in Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery as she cuts her way through swathes of baddies.
I don’t really think that I have to go into what steampunk is since it’s a pretty common genre now, but for anyone who might not know, steampunk is anachronistic machinery or machines that have futuristic capabilities while keeping the design of the 19th century. Works in this genre can either be set in a past that has futuristic technology or in a future that has maintained earlier centuries’ sensibilities. A lot of the technology presented within the steampunk genre is created through either use of steam power or clockwork-esque gears.
In books, steampunk can be hard to categorize simply because there’s a lot of crossover and steampunk is only the setting of the book rather than the elements that drive the plot. Some good examples of steampunk within books would be Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass or H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. In video games, steampunk can be easy to pick out, but hard to categorize as well. There are steampunk elements in Final Fantasy, for example, but also in Myst, Riven, World of Warcraft, and Dishonored.
One of the most popular steampunk games that isn’t often characterized as steampunk is the BioShock series. In the BioShock games, you can either be in a steam-powered, underwater city or a gear/science-powered floating city. Both BioShock and BioShock: Infinite are set in the past with all the trappings associated with that time, but their technology is decidedly futuristic.
I went back and forth on whether or not I should include grimdark in this list, if for no other reason than the fact that it could be considered a pejorative term. From what I’ve read, grimdark was coined from a tagline for Warhammer 40,000 that said: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” It is not a term that is restricted to fantasy and can encompass any fictional work that is dark, violent, gritty, edgy and, in a sense, depressing. In literary works, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series could be held up as an example of grimdark.
In video games, the first example that springs to mind is Dragon Age. While it categorized itself as dark fantasy, the truth of dark fantasy is that it often seeks to make itself more dark by infusing itself with grit and darkness. It is still your standard fantasy setting (almost Tolkien-esque aside from having many more women), but it brings in elements of rape, murder, child abuse, etc. to force more grit into the series. The violence goes without saying and is often gratuitous, leaving the heroes so splattered with blood it’s amazing that more people aren’t infected by the Darkspawn taint.
Still, since grimdark is considered to be pejorative and both Dragon Age and Game of Thrones are stellar examples of their mediums, both of them can also be filed under high fantasy as well. Dragon Age: Inquisition in particular has taken strides away from grimdark toward high fantasy (so I’ve heard), so let’s file them safely beside Tolkien and his beautifully detailed fantasy worlds that are so bereft of women that it makes procreation head-scratchingly difficult to figure out.