A Portable Hole in the heart

I miss when fantasy could be just that: fantasy. I miss optimistic worlds, where things might get rough but the player characters could pull through in the end. I miss the sense of wonder at what’s different, and the appreciation of what’s the same. I miss the light, and I’m sick of the darkness.

I blame Game of Thrones, and I blame Dragon Age: they made everything dark. Cruel worlds no better than our own became the key concept purveyed by fantasy. I blame Call of Duty and the new need for every game to be accessible to everyone, even people who hate fantasy. The bright, brilliant worlds of Arcanum and early Final Fantasy’s have been replaced by overwhelming, omnipresent darkness. Sure, things got bad in the old days (Arcanum had racism, Final Fantasy VII had a world ending meteor and a character who was a different character) but the world was never oppressive. Things were complex and difficult within the world of fantasy, but they were never dire. We were never doomed just for being born; we were doomed because something bad was going to happen, and we were going to deal with it because we were big damn heroes.

Look at Mass Effect. The original game featured an immense galactic threat and a no good government, but it also had the positive: there was a whole wonderful galaxy for you to explore. Things were pretty good, then got bad because of a threat, then you kicked the threat square in the testicles and made it run home to mommy. Follow it to its sequel, where the galaxy has suddenly been explored, you’re working for a terrorist organization because the ends justify the means, and you’re going on a suicide mission because that’s the only way to save the galaxy. The world sucked. Everything was awful, and things only got more awful.

Sequels have made games pessimistic just as much as our world has. In a world quickly rushing downhill, it’s harder and harder to imagine worlds where people are happy, where things are good. Further, it’s harder to set franchises in a world where nothing is wrong; adversity breeds conflict, and if you’re planning to make trilogies (as every franchise is nowadays) you need scads of adversity. So, for any number of reasons, you create a fantasy world with a failing economy, epically oppressed minorities, and endless war instead of one with the simple, fairy tale like conflicts of yore.

It’s the same trope we’ve been seeing in comics. These characters have been around for decades. They’ve dealt with major, world-destroying threats and escaped absolutely unscathed. There are no stakes that can be achieved by putting them in danger because if they won’t die (because if they do they stop making money). So you put them in a grimdark gritty world and you make everything “mature”. No one ever dies, but they live out fates worse than death. The creators manufacture drama out of making everything terrible.

That’s where video games are. Everything must be horrible and overwhelmingly oppressive because it’s a lot easier to tell a decent story in a world where there’s suspense and drama around every turn. Load the world up with racism, sexism, horrible people, and suddenly you’ve got bad guys and antiheroes aplenty. These things produce drama just by being put next to each other. You’ll tell good stories that way.

And I appreciate that, as someone who cares about narrative in his games, but I have to wonder: where’s the lighter stuff? Where’s the whimsey gone in RPGs? Not the wonderful, happy go lucky real world whimsey, but the dragons and the tricksters and the happiness instead of permanent doom and gloom? We live in a world where Final Fantasy is about characters fighting their government as doomed avatars of weird pseudo godlike entities and Dragon Age 2 has a main character whose loved ones pretty much die off one by one for the sake of drama. I once lamented the lack of the death in games, and now we’ve gone full circle: games feature so many characters dying, but never the main ones. Never the important ones. And if you don’t want endless arrays of death? Cheerful games like the Tales series and Valkyria Chronicle don’t come to America, nor do Level-5’s work like Ni no Kuni (the DS one, at least) or Inazuma Eleven; only their generic, grim at first blush White Knight Chronicles has.

Happy doesn’t sell, but this doesn’t stop me from missing happy worlds where everything isn’t going permanently to shit. There are days like today where all I want to do is sit down with something like the first Final Fantasy and experience a world untouched by cynicism. I want to play a Dungeons and Dragons game not about politics or high crime but instead about some truly evil megalomaniac trying to destroy the world and me plundering through dungeons. I don’t want all games to be like this but I want there to be more of them, for us to have more opportunities to be happy. More games should be able to fill that hole in my heart.


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  3. Jakerbeef

    [quote]Final Fantasy VII had a world ending meteor and a character who was a different character) but the world was never oppressive.[/quote]

    Weeeell, technically he was a character who only thought he was a different character. But the point of hope stands as we soon leave Midgar and there’s bright elegiac horizons to explore.

    I agree though that Dytsopia seems to be the new black…but this inherently deprives worlds of diversity and character and indeed whimsy.

    I remember enjoying Baldur’s Gate 2 for the simple reason there seemed to be good and bad in every place you explored.

  4. Ikkin

    Part of the problem, I think, is that games have just gotten so overly-streamlined that the dark elements, rather than being a part of a spectrum, take over the entire story at the expense of everything else.

    You referenced Final Fantasy VII as the sort of game you miss. But Final Fantasy VII’s setting is no less cynical than Final Fantasy XIII’s — your heroes start out as eco-terrorists fighting against a mega-corporation that’s ruining the world for profit. Midgar is a terrible place to live, filled with poverty, crime, prostitution, and ruled by ruthless businessmen who are more than willing to murder huge portions of their populace to deal with a few rebels. It’s strongly suggested that the planet itself might see humanity as a disease, and it’s left ambiguous as to whether the planet rid itself of them when Holy was summoned.

    Of course, as a player, there’s far more to it than that. The darkness is balanced out by absurd and lighthearted sidequests, Chocobo breeding, the Gold Saucer, silly conversations, crossdressing, airsickness, and all manner of odd distractions from that main story thread. Final Fantasy VII’s cynicism is never oppressive because you can always just ignore the main plot and race giant chickens. Compare that to Final Fantasy XIII’s far more focused storytelling, and it’s easy to see why XIII would look like the darker game.

    Unfortunately, I think this might be an artifact of the increasing cost of production that games face on HD consoles. The more a game’s assets cost to make, the less profitable it is to create random diversions that not everyone is going to experience… and the more difficult it is to create such diversions without breaking suspension of disbelief. It’s not necessarily that games made that way wouldn’t sell, though, just that it’s so much more expensive to make them that they probably wouldn’t see an acceptable return on that investment. =/

    • Tom Auxier

      You’re a smart one! That’s probably the most convincing explanation I’ve ever heard for it, and it makes an awful lot of sense. It’s hard to dramatic pacing when you’ve cut out all the bits that take the foot off the gas because of budgetary concerns.

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