The Digital Continuum: Evolving past fantasy Pt.1

Over the past couple of weeks the MMO blogosphere has once again been discussing the ever-pertinent question of "Why fantasy?" in regards to the MMO and its heritage; MUDs and tabletop gaming. The subject has been covered quite well from many different points of view and opinions, none of which are inherently wrong and all of which are worth a read if the subject interests you in any way.

The reasons are especially well covered in a round-table that Damion Schubert posted to Zen of Design earlier this year. Many of these reasons that materialized from the round table appear quite valid, yet I don't see eye-to-eye with these concepts. In my opinion, several of them seem arbitrary and some could be applied in opposition of fantasy. In fact, the more I read on the subject of "Why fantasy?" the more I think, "All the more reason to evolve beyond fantasy."

I'm going to address the well summed-up list posted by Damion Schubert piece by piece, as it lays out the most compelling evidence for why fantasy continues to reign supreme. So if you find yourself lost on what I'm talking about, feel free to refer to the original article in question. Now, we'll take a look into this list and see just how much of it really holds up against an argument for something other than fantasy.

Fantasy is indeed double-coded and while that means everyone is incredibly familiar with fantasy, it also means that everybody has been there and done that a hundred times over. The market is ripe for a well-executed modern or sci-fi MMO to burst onto the scene. It's very apparent that while publishers are all working on their various "safe" fantasy games, there is a void to be filled by some good non-fantasy titles as well. Also, while being double-coded is a great boon for any MMO, I don't see it as being quintessential for a game to see widespread success. Even if you wanted to argue a case for something needing to be double-coded, Star Wars is probably a viable IP again at this point and I really can't think of anyone who isn't at least a little familiar with that world.

It's no secret at this point that I'm something of a fan for any kind of sci-fi or modern MMO. So it goes without saying that while I may be looking forward to Warhammer Online, I would still do a quadruple back-flip for a brand new sci-fi or modern MMO with even a hint of extraordinary quality.

Subject number two is the heroic arc, in where a player starts their fantasy career killing wolves or rats and works his or her way up to massively powerful beings of whatever type your mind can conjure. While fantasy gives us plenty of fodder for this arc, it must be said that I've heard plenty of people say they're honestly tired of this played-out "arc" of ours. I myself have climbed many a mountain of uncountable meager creatures just to get to a level where I start to fight the cool stuff. A better idea would be to find other ways to give players that feeling of heroism bit by bit.

Here's an example: Lets take a post-apocalyptic MMO and spawn the player's newly created avatar on the outskirts of their chosen faction's area. This area is a small closed-off neighborhood where the player is led down and a smaller street that leads into the safe haven of a metropolis. As the player begins to move down this street towards their destination, they come along a group of thugs in the middle of mugging someone, maybe an older lady. She yells the player's name, calling for help and the player gets their first chance to feel as though they're on their way to greater deeds. It's basic yet heroic while at the same time serves as a good jumping point for a series of quests that could involve dealing with this gang for your first few levels. As you move up in the world more opportunities could open up to you, eventually allowing you to take part in bringing down massive corrupt corporations. Who wouldn't want to slam some money-laundering, blackmailing, corrupt CEO heads into the ground after taking down throngs of hired mercenaries or worse? If that isn't enough, there are threats such as mutants or neo-extremists looking to destroy your home and haven. These are just a few raw ideas off the top of my head, so I'm sure designers with more time and skill could produce something much more enthralling.

Another claim is related to the post-apocalyptic setting itself. It states that fantasy is more inviting. Essentially, you start in a safe idyllic village and even while traveling to the most terrifying places all over the world, you can always come back to your peaceful home. It plays on the idea that the hope of the safety of your home is worth fighting for; that it's compelling. The claim is that fantasy allows this while something like a post-apocalyptic world cannot. Well, why exactly can't a post-apocalyptic world have a lush oasis-city that managed to harbor life? A city in which its people have spent several years cultivating and nurturing it into a small, yet evocative shadow of its former glory? Who says you can't start out in a quaint semi-beautiful valley within the safeness of your city walls, only to travel out into the wastes and defeat foes that would threaten the last bastion of mankind? This one seems fairly cut and dry to me; there's nothing saying you can't do this.

One thing that seems a little odd to me was the concept that fantasy is character driven and sci-fi or modern stories aren't. This is an interesting claim, since many of my favorite sci-fi stories are very character driven. Star Wars? Check. Firefly/Serenity? Check. Mad Max? Check! In truth, the fact that we've just got far more fantasy movies, books and games than sci-fi makes it seems as though sci-fi has less content or characters to pull from. In reality sci-fi has just been mined less and therefore still holds many hidden treasures to be unearthed by some great stories. These stories don't have to be books or movies, an MMO is just as likely a candidate. To date there's been one Star Wars game. That's just one game set within a space opera universe full of myths, heroes and great prophecies of coming evils. Hopefully, the second one will fare better. Even if that doesn't happen though, there are other candidates for the first sci-fi hit.

A point I cannot deny is that the tank-healer-mage roles are archetypically fantasy; those roles originated there. Yet that didn't stop Cryptic Studios from adopting them into the first superhero MMO on the market. Blasters, Defenders, Controllers, Scrappers and Tankers were perfectly designed from classic classes into a non-fantasy setting. Cryptic even added more classic fantasy classes with the inclusion of the archetypes from City of Villains. The lesson here is that some sci-fi or modern MMOs can adapt the classic classes easier than others. In those cases where the developer is presented with a challenging IP that demands something more than your standard fantasy class, we can only hope they're able to evolve or create something new and exciting to play.

Resonance is a tricky subject, because it is true that people are far more familiar with fantasy. They find it much more familiar than, say, Ringworld. What I personally believe, however, is that something like Ringworld is going to be more fresh or compelling to people than, "Heroic Guy Fantasy Journey XII". So where fantasy has resonance, sci-fi is modern. It's fresh. Not only is it fresh, but it has the opportunity to be far more compelling than the same old fantasy shtick. Sooner or later, one day or another, the time will come when somebody figures out that magical recipe for sci-fi success. The next question is, "how?" Well, next week I'll be exploring the how.
This article was originally published on Massively.