Fantasy is a healthy part of life. Delving into the imagination, pursuing creative experiences, embracing strange new worlds, and all that jazz, it's all a good part of growing up and experiencing life. Fantasy also proves to be a huge draw for the world of video games, as games embrace creativity and imagination, and push those pursuits as far as they can go. Fantasy worlds also play a huge part in video games, from Bethesda's sprawling land of Tamriel, and the countries contained within it, to Lionhead's fabled Albion.
Why does fantasy play such a huge part in video games? I think it partially has something to do with the fact that video games are escapism. Pressing a button and watching a character hurl a fireball at an enemy is quite an enjoyable experience, in much the same way as sighting an enemy down a scope and pulling the trigger is in a military shooter. Video games are escapist entertainment, and they are fantasy.
In the world of books, we tend to set fantasy into a niche market, mixing it with science fiction. While the two genres don't necessarily mix in set piece areas, they do mesh with ideas, archetypes, and ideas. Usually there is a single person who gathers people around them to set out and fight the one true foe of the world. This is as basic as storytelling gets, but it is in world building that fantasy stories elevate themselves.
Bethesda's Tamriel is the setting for five games in The Elder Scrolls series now, and it has simply grown larger and larger, befitting the idea of a game that does not ever truly end. The story might conclude, but the player character's journey has just begun. Lionhead has shown Albion growing from a quaint little backwoods type land in the first Fable game to a progressive country of industry and early technology in its most recent offering, Fable 3. These two game series rely on fantasy worlds to establish and maintain their stories, while relying on the combat mechanics of swords, ranged weapons, and magic to bring the true fantasy edge to the table.
In the spirit of fantasy, three of the new games coming our way are diving deep into the mines of other worlds, embracing magic, folklore, mighty creatures, and the fantasy of the lone hero against all odds. While it's not a new format for video games, there are three games in particular that are standing out in the first few months of 2012.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - February 7, 2012
The first release from 38 Studios finds an epic world called Amalur, where the threads of fate are important to all beings, to determine where a person's journey in life might take them. As the hero of the story, the player finds that her or his fate is no longer bound to one set path, and that freedom of choice allows for a grand adventure across the world.
Amalur features an original world created by R.A. Salvatore, with designs by Todd McFarlane, which sounds like the perfect combination of fantasy lore and fantastical art. From playing the demo alone, I suspect that this could be one of the strongest offerings in the fantasy action-RPG genre of games. The narrative is strong, and the game play is fluid, fast, and encourages experimentation with swords, daggers, magic, staves, and an assortment of other weapons. With a World of Warcraft-esque design of colors and creatures, Amalur appears to be offering a strong epic fantasy to video games.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - April 17, 2012
I've mentioned before that this game is one that I have been looking forward to ever since it was announced for release on the Xbox 360. From what little I've seen of its presentation on the console, nothing has been lost, and the transfer is smooth, brightly colored, and establishing a new fantastical world to explore. The fantastical elements that come into play for the game are the use of magic by the main character, Geralt, and the presence of various monsters and creatures throughout.
With a mixture of magic and swordplay, The Witcher stands out from the field with a dark fantasy angle that encourages players to immerse themselves in lore and exploration. What I've seen of the combat suggests that it is another game that encourages experimentation, but allows for players to choose how they wish to play the game, whether through brawling swordplay or deft, clever trap laying, or uses of magic.
The fantasy world of The Witcher is based on a series of short stories by the Polish writer Adrzej Sapkowski, and they appear to have been heavily influenced by Eastern European folklore. The game is released in April for the Xbox, and my understanding is that the PC version is considered one of the best games available for that particular gaming system. I think I might hunt down the first collection of stories and check it out before the game is released. I promise to share my impressions.
Dragon's Dogma - May 22, 2012
This is the game that appealed to me for its straightforward fantasy story: a dragon ambushes a person, and it steals his heart. What should have been a fatal wound is not, and the hero rises from the dead to seek revenge.
Personally, if I saw a book that presented that kind of a plotline, I'd be intrigued. From what little has been shown of the game, I'm still intrigued, by the presence of a fantasy world with dragons (as if Skyrim didn't give us enough), some political intrigue (shades of Dragon Age: Origins), and group-based combat. It's a Japanese game with heavy western influences, but I think it might prove to be a strong offering in the fantasy realm of games.
Fantasy games are not new. The Legend of Zelda is fantasy, one that has been reinvented and remade countless times. It relies upon familiar fantasy ideas - the lone hero, the horrible villain, the princess - and sends that lone hero on a journey to save the day from the horrible villain, while saving the princess at some point along the way. The familiar ideas continue to be felt in the current vein of video games, even if sometimes the lone hero is the princess, and maybe the horrible villain isn't as horrible as he (it's almost always a man, isn't it?) seems.
Video games with fantasy settings set the stage for a new and exciting entertainment, a true escape from the real world. Military shooters are escapism, but there is the constant reminder that this could be a real situation. Fantasy, while it may contain situations that could take place in the real world, remain firmly fantastical, and they remain solidly within the lines of escapism, allowing players to settle back, pick up a controller, and immerse themselves in a story where they are truly the hero.
Fantasy has had a strong presence in video games for decades now, and its influence does not appear to be waning in the slightest. It's fitting that it should continue on into the next generation of games.